Can One Person Always Change the System? (Part 3)

The idea that “one person can change the system” sounds nice in theory, but when we think about applying it to our real-life relationships, it may start to feel elusive. What if I feel like I have no power in the relationship? What if there’s no relationship left between us? My parents hurt me badly – why should I be the one to make things right?  These are important questions, so let me use this post to address them.

[This is Part 3 of a series on the Parent/Child Relationship. Find Part 2 here: “One Person Can Change the System.” Or start at the beginning with Part 1: “The Dynamics of the Parent/Child Relationship.”]

What if I have no power in the relationship?

When there is a significant power differential in a relationship, the person with less power will often feel like their contribution doesn’t make a difference. This is important, because the parent/child relationship is characterized by this sort of difference in power. This power gap is greatest when the child is born, and should, in theory, close as the child approaches adulthood. However, even when the child is an adult, and even if the child is physically stronger and more educated than their parents, there is often still the sense that the parent holds some sort of authority over the child. The extent to which this authority is perceived or respected varies greatly from culture to culture, but I believe it is usually present to some degree.

Here is the question we need to explore: Can we only bring about change to the extent that we have power in the relationship? Meaning, if I have a lot of power, I can bring a lot of change; but if I have little-to-no power, I can bring little-to-no change.

Before we can answer that question, we need to address a more fundamental question: What does it mean to bring about change in a relationship? First, let me say what it doesn’t mean. I am not talking about using force to bring about a desired outcome. I am not talking about being able to guarantee any particular outcome at all – e.g. getting you to pay for this, or to help me with that, or to stop doing X. If you can absolutely guarantee an outcome in any situation that involves other adults, you are probably exerting undue control over them. This kind of change does involve (the abuse of) power, and it is not what we are talking about here.

When I say that one person can change a relationship, the thing they can be guaranteed to change is not the other person (their behaviors, beliefs, decisions, etc.), but the dynamic of the relationship, the stuff that exists in between the people. Is your relationship characterized by conflict? Avoidance? Manipulation? Resentment? All of these things can be changed by one person in the relationship, even if the other person refuses to cooperate. Is your family system characterized by lack of communication? Fuzzy boundaries? Gossip? Heated arguments? It will take a lot of hard work, and certainly won’t happen overnight, but one person can be a catalyst for change within their family system.

It is not within your power to change the other person. It is within your power to change the dynamic of the relationship.

Ok now that we are clear on what is meant by “change,” let’s return to the question about power. Does a parent have a greater ability to change the dynamic of the parent/child relationship, since they (potentially) hold greater power? Is the (adult) child, therefore, at a disadvantage because of lack of power?

To test these questions, let’s use an extreme example. If an adult child has less power than their parent, how much more so a toddler. If relative power status is an important factor in this equation, then younger children should have less of an ability to impact the dynamic of the relationship.

Think about a 3-year-old boy who wants his mom to buy him a cookie at the grocery store. Who holds the power? The mother is older, stronger, and in a position of authority, so it should be no contest. And yet, we’ve all seen the mother vs. toddler showdown over the cookie (or toy, or bedtime), where the toddler employs every strategy available in an attempt to get what he wants. Now let’s assume that the mother is at her best – full of patience, confidence, and fortitude to withstand her son’s tantrum. And let’s say she tells him “no” and that’s that. She is clearly in control, she clearly holds the power. Does that mean that his response doesn’t matter? That it doesn’t impact their relationship? Imagine the difference between these two scenarios: 1) the child calmly says, “Ok, mommy,” and is a picture of perfect obedience as his mother finishes her grocery shopping, vs. 2) the child cannot accept his fate and must be carried, kicking and screaming, out of the grocery store.

It seems evident that, in spite of the fact that the son may not have the power to get what he wants in that moment, his decision to throw a tantrum will impact his mother in a very different way than if he decides to be compliant. And more importantly, it will impact the relationship dynamic that exists between them. When he contributes obedience, there will likely be more affection and warmth between them. When he contributes rebellion, there will likely be more anxiety and frustration between them. And the longer the pattern continues, the stronger those things will grow.

Now to be clear, I am not suggesting that compliance is the magic bullet in a relationship. Not at all! For the toddler, it is a good response, because he is at a developmental stage where he needs to learn boundaries and impulse control. Developing the ability to submit to authority is a very important skill that will serve him well throughout his life. However, a 20-year-old may need to develop a very different skill set. Depending on her temperament, she may need to learn how to boldly express her divergent opinions. If she wants to develop a healthy sense of autonomy as an adult, she needs to be able to disagree with her parents at times, and to push back when they pressure her to live in a way that doesn’t align with her values. In her case, to continue contributing compliance to her relationship with her parents might keep the peace, but that peace will be at the cost of her sense of self. If she continues hiding her true self from her parents for long enough, one of two outcomes is likely to occur: 1) resentment will start to emerge, and the relationship will become increasingly superficial and/or distant, or 2) she will begin to lose herself completely, and will never develop the ability to think for herself, creating an unhealthy dependency on her parents.

In the end, I think power does play an important role, but in a different way than we might think. It’s not my ability to control others that matters so much as my ability to control myself. If I have a reasonable level of control over my own behaviors, words, and even thoughts, then I have a lot of power over how I “show up” in the relationship. And any changes I make in how I “show up” will significantly impact the relationship. The real obstacle is not powerlessness, but the perception of powerlessness. If I am convinced that I cannot change a relationship, I will probably not even try. If I’m willing to even entertain the possibility that I can be an agent of change, I am much more likely to make that possibility a reality.

It’s not my ability to control others that matters so much as my ability to control myself.

What if there’s no relationship left between us?

Perhaps your relationship with your parents has atrophied from lack of use. You’ve drifted apart, spending less and less time with each other over the years, and now it feels like almost nothing remains. Or perhaps one or both parties officially “cut off” from the other, saying something to the effect of, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Please never try to contact me again.” Cut-off, whether explicit or implicit, is one (of many) coping strategies used to escape relationship anxiety. When the anxiety within a relationship becomes too great, the person cutting off hopes that by removing themselves from the situation, they will be free from the anxiety it caused. While they may feel initial relief from their symptoms, they will carry the anxiety with them into every other relationship until they confront what they were running from.

If you were the one who cut off, perhaps for very legitimate reasons, I invite you to consider what you would need to feel safe enough to reconnect. Because although it is sometimes necessary to remove ourselves from a situation for our own safety, we are only harming ourselves if we neglect to confront the anxiety that drove us away. This is particularly true in the parent/child relationship. Because this is the relationship in which we were formed, whatever unresolved anxiety remains between us and our parents will follow us into every subsequent relationship – including, or perhaps especially, into our relationship with our spouse and our children. If you don’t want to repeat the patterns of the past, consider when you might feel ready to reconnect with your parents, and what would need to happen to make that feel possible for you.

Don’t assume that the way things are now, or the way they have been in the past, is the way they always have to be.

If your parents cut off from you, let me first acknowledge how incredibly painful that must have been. Perhaps they felt unsafe in the relationship, or perhaps their anxiety flowed more from judgment of your lifestyle choices. Whatever the case, parent-initiated cut-off is one of the most painful things a person can experience. So although there is more that could be said about how to approach this type of situation and how to attempt to reconnect, it is probably more important to address your wounds first. This topic is discussed in the following section.

My parents hurt me badly – why should I be the one to make things right?

Perhaps the most significant factor that will prevent adult children from seeking out a more meaningful relationship with our parents is our woundedness. As long as our wounds remain unconscious, unaddressed, and/or unforgiven, we will probably not feel ready to enter the relationship as an agent of change. The internal dialogue might go something like this: They wronged me, and yes, maybe I contributed something along the way, but they’re my parents. It’s their job to be the bigger person and make things right.

As long as our wounds remain unaddressed, we will not feel ready to enter the relationship as an agent of change.

Let me begin by affirming that the pain you feel is real. Wounds inflicted by our parents cut deep into our core and can be very difficult to overcome. In fact, this is such an important issue that I will devote an entire post to this topic. But for now, let me make a case for why it’s in your best interest to take the first step with your parents. First, as I mentioned in a previous post, your relationship with your parents is the highest leverage place to invest if you want to grow in emotional maturity. This is the relationship that formed you, and it is the relationship with the highest potential to re-form you. You can ignore your parents, you can cut off from them completely, but you will only be hurting yourself in the end, because you will be limiting your healing and growth. So even though it might be terrifying to think about taking a step towards your parents, consider the possibility that the benefits far outweigh the risk.

Second, you don’t have any control over what your parents do or don’t do. You do have control over what you do. So you can wait around indefinitely *hoping* that they will one day apologize for the ways they may not even know they wounded you (and yes, I know their obliviousness only makes things worse!!), or you can decide that you are done letting them call the shots. You can decide that you are ready to take responsibility for who you are becoming instead of remaining trapped by your past experiences.

Finally, let me address the idea that it’s our parents’ job, by virtue of being our parents, to take the first step. When we are young children, it’s true that our parents are responsible for taking care of us and for “being the bigger person” when the situation calls for it. But consider “trying on” this idea: Now that you are an adult, the two of you are in the same boat. You are both adults who were wounded by your parents and who are doing the best you can. You didn’t have perfect parents, and neither did your parents. Chances are, your grandparents wounded your parents in many of the same ways that your parents wounded you. And unless you decide that you want to interrupt the pattern by healing your relationship with your parents, you will almost certainly pass on the wounds to your children. (They may be the same wounds, or they may be reactionary wounds borne out of a determination to never be like them.) When this happens, you will desperately hope that one day your children will be able to give you the benefit of the doubt and see that you did the best you could. You will hope that they will have the courage to forgive you.

What would it take to be willing to give that gift to your parents? To give that gift to yourself?

None of this means that you shouldn’t take time to properly acknowledge and grieve the ways you were wounded as a child. I’m not saying “suck it up” or “forget about the past.” As an Enneagram 4, I definitely want you to make all the space you need to feel your feelings! But know that healing is not inevitable. It’s not something that will automatically happen with the passing of time. Healing is something that must be sought. It comes when we muster up the courage to look our wounds in the face and acknowledge the ways they continue to impact us today. It comes when we stop ignoring our past and give it the attention it’s clamoring for. Only when we do this can we be truly free to move forward into a new kind of future.

Next Steps

Are you ready to begin exploring what it would look like to confront these wounds from your past? Do you long to see healing in your relationship with your parents? If the anything in this post resonates, consider joining us in October for the coaching group, “How to Develop a More Meaningful Relationship with Your Parents (as an Adult!)” Find details here about content, logistics, and cost.

Reflection Questions:

  1. When you think about working on your relationship with your parents, what are some of the questions or concerns that might hold you back?
  2. What would it take to feel safe enough to take a step forward?
  3. If you had the courage to move forward, what difference would that make for you?

Ready for more? Find Part 4 of this series here: Confronting Our Wounds