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Meeting the Family | by Linda Sherby, Ph.D., ABPP

06/27/2017 2:36 PM | Anonymous

A therapist must deal with both her own feelings and those of her patient when confronting a prejudiced father with the patient's interracial relationship

“Well, I started World War III,” Patrick says sighing deeply, as he settles into the chair across from me. “I knew Vi wouldn’t go down easily with my parents, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. My mother literally gasped and my father’s rage permeated the entire dinner. He didn’t say a word to her the whole time, but he had a lot to say to me afterwards. I guess I shouldn’t have just sprung her on them, but she surprised me by coming down for the weekend and I was supposed to go to my parents for dinner so, I guess I just decided to bring her along.”

“Wait, Patrick. You mean you hadn’t told your parents that Vi is African American? And then you just showed up with her for dinner?”

“Yeah. You know, she teaches law at Columbia University in New York, I’m down here in Florida, I knew my parents, particularly my father is very prejudiced, so I guess I kind of avoided the whole thing until I couldn’t anymore. Vi wasn’t very happy with me either. Obviously the dinner was awkward for her.”

Internally I find myself yelling at Patrick, ‘Awkward? That’s an understatement! She must have been consumed by anger she had to swallow. How could you have allowed this to happen? To everyone.”

Wondering if I’m feeling not only my anger, but Patrick’s as well, I ask, “Who are you feeling angry at Patrick?”

“Angry? Well, I’m angry at my parents, particularly my father. He really let me have it. He guessed no nice white woman would want me since I was such a loser; had to go looking in the gutter for some black chick.”

“And you felt and said what?”

“I hung up on him.”

“And felt?”

“Angry. Disgusted. Vi is this incredibly accomplished, smart, beautiful woman. I’m honored that she’d want me. And all he can see is her black skin. Except I don’t know if she still wants me. She’s pretty angry with me too. She didn’t know I hadn’t told my parents she was African American. She kept saying we’re not children, we’re in our 30s, what gives them the right to think they can decide our lives.”

“And can they? Can they decide your lives?”

Patrick hesitates before saying, “No, not exactly.”

“What do you mean, not exactly?”

“Well, I couldn’t figure out the long distant part of Vi and my relationship anyway. I mean, it would hard for me to start all over again as a financial planner in New York and to say that there are no law schools down here equivalent to Columbia would be putting it mildly.”

“You’re confusing me Patrick. Are you thinking of breaking up with Vi? Were you thinking of breaking up before the dinner with your parents? Is your parent’s reaction influencing your decision about breaking up?”

“I don’t know. I love Vi, but I can’t figure out the logistics. I couldn’t figure out the logistics before the dinner and I can’t figure it out now.”

“Have you talked to Vi about your concerns? I know you hadn’t talked with me about it.”

“No.”

“Did you set Vi up, Patrick?” Realizing my anger is seeping through, I try to temper my question. “I mean, did a part of you think taking Vi to dinner with your parents would precipitate World War III, as you said, and might lead to her breaking up with you?”

“I hadn’t thought of that at the time, but now that you mention it … I mean, she’s such a perfect woman for me, I can’t see how I could break up with her. Except she lives in New York and I don’t see how that’s workable.”

Now I feel more sad for Patrick than angry. “You know, Patrick, it’s difficult for you to take charge of your life, to decide what you want for you and make it happen. You don’t talk with Vi about your concern about living in two different cities and whether that can be worked out. I suspect you haven’t even looked at the possibility of becoming a financial planner in New York. You don’t confront your father about your feelings about what he said to you.”

“I guess I always take the coward’s way out. I run.”

Now that I am no longer angry with Patrick, I realize that I had been reacting to him much as his father did. “I wonder, Patrick, if you’ve heard your father call you a loser your whole life and if you’ve come to identify yourself as a loser, despite your obvious success and accomplishments. You feel you can’t do it, whatever it is, and so you don’t, you opt out.”

“I think that’s true. But it’s a hard pattern to break.”

“Yes, it’s a hard pattern to break, but we’ll work on it.”  


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