There is something deep within the healthy human psyche that abhors manipulation. To be emotionally coerced by another goes against the gain of all that a healthy person understands about relationships. Healthy humans know that relationships are characterized by mutual respect, reciprocity and a genuine desire to be in connection with another. Even healthy humans encounter moments of frustrations and irritation with others, but with appropriate relational effort understanding and healing occur. But to be manipulated feels dank and musty. It is the slippery feeling of wondering whether it is you the other desires or what you can offer. It is the difference between subject and object, and the difference is strikingly different.
It is, I suppose, one thing to be manipulated by a boss who is trying to get more efficient work accomplished through your position. When it's happening in your place of employment it still is uncomfortable, but at least it can be escaped, even if for the remaining thirteen or fourteen hours of the day when you are not at work.
But it is another thing to be manipulated by someone close, and when it is your son or daughter, it feels especially bad. When we experience manipulation we question ourselves. Is there something about us that is so weak that we are "taken in" time and again by a child who is adept at getting what he or she wants? How do we extend love to a child while protecting our personal boundaries from being broached time and again. Or is love something that opens oneself to such pain?
I am fortunate to be married to an emotionally healthy woman, so in that most primary relationship in life I am comforted and contented. But I am not so fortunate when it comes to our children, and because we have adopted all of them, I wonder sometimes how it might (or not?) be different in families where children have joined the family through birth. Are there some primal wounds so deep for adopted children and their parents that there is always a distance of sorts? That's a question I cannot answer, although there are times when I long for a satisfying answer.
I have learned that the only thing I can control is how I respond to a situation. I cannot change the way my child does what he or she does. I can guide, I can live by example, I can correct, I can consequence ... but I cannot choose the way my children choose to live their lives, especially as they grow into adulthood.
My thoughts are provoked by a message I received on my cell phone last night. It is my practice not to answer calls whose numbers I do not recognize, figuring a message can be left so that I can call back as I deem necessary. Last night, after I had gone to bed, there were four calls from the same number, one after the other. Finally there was a message left. I listened to it this morning.
The background noise is a combination of muffled voices and institutional sounds as I hear our son, Mike, in a voice hollowed by the large room from which he calls:
"Dad. It's me, Mike. I'm just calling to let you know that I turned myself into jail last night. I'm wondering if you could buy me a phone card for $20 so I could call you. And maybe you can visit me. I love you. Bye."
Manipulation or affection? Is Mike calling because he cares about me or because he cares about himself? That's probably an unfair question to ask of someone who is nineteen and whose organic brain issues mean that he processes things much differently than those of who are typical. Is this call an effort to gain more money from his dad, or does he sincerely seek connection because he finds himself in trouble once again?
Manipulation or affection? It is probably both, in some disjointed, strange, atypical way my son feels as much connection with me as he can feel, but for purposes of self-preservation needs to be in connection as well.
The bottom line is simply that I am Mike's dad. I made that decision years ago. And the good thing is that I can be Mike's dad, love him and care about him and still draw boundaries for myself. I will maintain connection with him, although it may be through written letters than face-to-face contact for now. I remain committed to him, but my checkbook may remain closed. I will help him navigate the confusing world of social services assistance, but the doors to my home will remain off limits.
While I cannot choose (or even discern) whether Mike is manipulating me or caring about me, I can choose how I will respond. And I will choose affection ... I will choose connection ... and I will protect myself.
I have learned that with difficult, attachment-disordered children/young adults, the two are not mutually exclusive.