Friday, March 16, 2018

Sorry not sorry. Or, the art of loving.

I am currently experiencing drama with my extended family that is both petty and inexplicable. It started with my aunt wronging me in a relatively small way, me requesting a very meager apology for that slight, my aunt resisting with a pathological aversion to apologizing, digging in her heels and then speaking to anyone who would listen about how badly she was hurt for being told she did something wrong and being asked to apologize.

To try to rectify this situation, I have reached out to many family members for help navigating this, I have apologized profusely many times (despite being the one who was originally slighted), and reached out to other family members in a sort of 'normal we have a relationship way' by sharing mundane parts of my life to try to drown out the drama of my aunt with positivity. My aunt's perceived victimization persists despite her agreeing to move on from this conflict months ago. The current result is now that many members of our family are either explicitly or implicitly not speaking to one another, and many more relationships are strained.

This whole situation has me scratching my head. I am not describing this conflict in a way that is inconsistent with the facts. Just to be sure I wasn't going crazy despite my aunt's compulsive lies, I have a record of nearly every interaction I have had with any family member since this began (also because many of my communications were electronic and recorded already). So, I have gone back to see if I was out of line for asking for an apology, or if I did anything to victimize my aunt. As far as I can tell (and I'd be happy to share this information with an outside professional to assess this), the thing that most upset her was to expect her to admit wrongdoing. It is true that she 'expressed regret' (she told me later she explicitly did not use the words apologize or sorry -- wow, good for you! successfully saying sorry not sorry!) but has since taken back even that expression of regret.

To me, this boils down to a conflict about conflict. It is about the ability to say sorry. And, I think in the particular case of my family, the idea that the older generation should never be questioned by the younger generation, and can never be asked to admit wrongdoing if it is against anyone in the younger group. Now, I am empathetic to the plight of the older generation in our society. Research demonstrates how hard it is to grow older. People stop paying attention to you, you are expected to fade into the background, especially in the case of older women. I get that struggle. Despite that, I don't think a healthy response is to expect what they might think of as 'respect' which is really just  a kind of abusive authoritarianism.

As a researcher and a sociologist, my mind often goes to the social or systemic aspects of what might seem like personal conflicts. In this case, it seems we are in a culture of not admitting guilt (the sociology of sorry). Or not caring who we hurt or offend. Another family member to whom I reached out for help told me to "back off and shut up," hardly an olive branch for moving this conflict toward resolution.

So, then my mind asks: what does the psychology literature say about refusing to apologize? This Scientific American article describes research about the benefits of not apologizing: retaining a position and power and saving face. I get that in this situation, my aunt is getting both of these things out of her refusal. But the article continues, refusing to apologize comes at a cost for all involved. For the person refusing to apologize, it limits their ability to accept constructive feedback and, ultimately, personal growth. And in the desire to grasp onto power by not admitting mistakes could lead to weakness (in this situation, the loss of control over the now cascading levels of conflict with everyone else who is now involved). Refusing to apologize also has social consequences, both for the relationship involved and people's general perception of the non-apologizer in a community.

So, where to go from here? Part of my trouble with academic research in general is that it is really good at describing problems and less good at suggesting solutions. Part of the reason for that is because many of these problems are learned at a society-wide cultural level and can't be addressed solely individually. Knowing this is why we moved out of the U.S. and as each day passes (including with this current conflict) we are more and more sure this is the right decision. Some of the same family members who lament the state of U.S. politics and culture daily are the ones mocking us for moving away. Which illustrates even more clearly the extent to which most people don't see how they are individually impacted by a dysfunctional society.

But, here's where it would be helpful to turn away from social scientific sources and toward more philosophical ones. I am re-reading a book now The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, widely considered to be the best book ever written on love. In it, Fromm suggests that love is something that can only come from a solid foundation of psychological health and emotional maturity. That is, it is literally impossible to having a loving relationship with someone who is unhealthy in these ways. Fromm, a philosopher, a psychologist and sociologist, explains in great detail the ways in which modern capitalistic society keeps individuals from being healthy, and therefore from being able to truly love.

Fromm describes a cultural phenomenon that I have experienced in droves lately:

One other frequent error must be mentioned here. The illusion, namely, that love means necessarily the absence of conflict...the 'conflicts' of most people are actually attempts to avoid the real conflicts. They are disagreements on minor or superficial matters which by their very nature do not lend themselves to clarification or solution. Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or project, but which are experienced at the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification, they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength. 

So, I guess for me, it comes down to a sick culture producing a sick individual who is then unable to address the conflict from a place of inner reality. This conflict could have lead to growth for both of us, and then allowed us to speak more clearly about expectations and boundaries in our relationship moving forward. This is my original message to my other aunt (the 'back off and shut up' aunt) asking for help:

Family values are supporting one another and giving family members the respect of not gossiping and laughing at each other's personal hardships. This behavior is shameful by everyone involved. I am deeply hurt and betrayed. My relationship with my in laws is also at risk because of aunt *****'s hurtful words about me, her niece, her family. I have done nothing to hurt or offend her, ever. Ever. I have only loved, confided in, and included her. I truly want this to be resolved positively and I am willing to do the work. Yet no one has reached out to me still yet everyone is still talking. The offer to chat is still on the table. You have an important opportunity to rectify this. I hope you make the choice that befits your love of family. There is little I can do without other family members stepping in and giving me a voice here, from far away, when I have none. I am counting on you to do the right thing here. I need your help.

After many exchanges justifying my other aunt's refusal to apologize, my last communication with my 'shut up' aunt was the following:

My dad wants a family in which we root for each other, are each other's cheerleaders and resources and support. My dad would be available to any member of this family if they ask for help (and he has been, and will continue to be). He will lend a tool and fix a sink and move some furniture (just moved some a month or so ago for M******l!), and answer a question or give you a jump. My dad would defend any member of this family to an outside source, and this family is a source of pride for him. He is proud to share that he is related to all of you, and will bring up his relation and talk positively about his family to anyone who will listen. I've heard him do this. He also defends members of this family from gossip, both from within and without. I have heard him tell others to 'knock it off' (I think probably as Poppy would) if there are words being said that are hurtful and unnecessary. I believe he is trying to fill the role your dad once held, and (from what I can tell) promote the values Poppy held so dearly.

This is the vision my dad has for this family, and this conflict is just the latest in his hope for something better. I reached out to Aunt ***** for support, guidance, and as a resource. I expected that she would be my cheerleader, that she would root for me and a resolution to my conflict with my in-laws, her best friends. That she would do everything in her power to help both my in-laws and me in seeing the humanity in one another. That is the culture I expected, and it is not what I got. The rest of the details don't matter. Now, I'll leave it to my dad to try to express this in his own way. Give him a call, and give him the chance to speak sincerely about his vision for something better.

It is clear to me in these exchanges that I am coming from, in Fromm's words, a place of inner reality, not superficiality. Yet, the response from my aunt and anyone she has involved in her wake is to refuse to apologize, to resist any positive communication for resolution, to fail to move on (despite making promises to) and now to cut off all contact as a means of self-preservation. Her actions are the result of a culture that tells her to act this way. A culture that sees an apology as a loss of power. It is a culture that refuses to have conflict at the level of inner reality, and that sees all conflict as bad. It is sad, and I do take some comfort in the fact that her many conflicts of the past are not all because of me, but something about her own psychology. But, since I am one of the few people to try to actually address her wrongdoing in a more than superficial way and hold her accountable for it, I am resisted with an extremely strong emotional response.

The take away, for me moving forward, is to accept the consequences of a toxic culture, even if it means the loss of relationships I once treasured. I can grieve this loss while at the same time releasing the idea that I am at fault for it. I tried to reach out with positivity. I tried connecting deeply in order to obtain a resolution. And I will continue to act this way to anyone who reaches out to me. I will not go on a campaign, as my aunt has and continues to, smearing her or validating myself. I will let go of control over this conflict and the results of my aunt's toxic psychology.

However, I will not be socialized into thinking all conflict is bad, because I choose love, and I know my interactions here have come from a place of love and resolution. The only way I will continue to work on the art of loving is to practice it. And practicing it means continuing to reach out to others at the level of our inner realities, and to connect with them deeply, even if it is difficult to do. Even if it means I will be called arrogant and ignorant and delusional (as I have by my two aunts). Because the alternative is giving up the ability to love, and I refuse to let the socialization of a sick society take that away from me.


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