What’s the time limit for silence?

I was reminded last week of a belief I hold that held me in good stead when my kids were younger and taking all things to the extremes that they did.  There were times when some one or another of my kids, even as very young adults, would get mad at me, disappear, and cut me off.  Months, sometimes years, would go by without a word. It was impossible to know what to do. In a culture where being divorced is almost a rite of passage now, there were no permanent relationship models to look to for what to do in the face of silence. It was hard to figure out how to keep the relationship alive when it was so silent, and sometimes silent for so long. Or even if it could be kept alive.  Is there a relationship time limit for silence?  Beyond a certain time period of silence does a relationship automatically die?

I knew that I was not ending the relationship; I was certain of that. Yet, it sure as heck felt ended; and the evidence also made it sure as heck seem that way.  For those of the kids whose adoptions were finalized, there was that legal tie that was there forever and I was very grateful and happy for that much anyway, little though it meant in real day to day life.   But for those whose adoptions had not yet finalized, I was forced to question: is the relationship over?  Is this what a failed adoption looks like?  And feels like?  Some of the foster kids went back to foster care and therefore had to be placed somewhere else.

Were they then not my kids?  Obviously in the material world they were not. But inside me, they absolutely were. I kept trying to figure out a model for how I could be so certain that these kids were mine, even though they were nowhere to be seen.

And then I remembered something Fr. Huntington had taught me: “there is nothing [real] that is not mutual.”  I had to take that lofty philosophical – or perhaps theological – concept and bring it down to earth.  And I did.

I figured out (decided?) that all relationships, like my television or stereo, had two controls.  The first was for the volume; and the second was the on/off switch.  I realized that the first person who walks away from the relationship only controls the volume: the relationship goes silent.  But it is the second person who then controls the on/off switch. And as long as that second person refuses to turn the switch off, the relationship remains alive and real, no matter how silent.  It worked out very well for me over the decades, and protected my relationships with, and my feelings for, my kids.  I sure believe it is an accurate representation of reality.

At the very least, it is an empowering concept.  Anybody has the freedom to walk away from a relationship. But it is the second person who controls whether a relationship lives or dies.  A child can reject a parent, but as long as the parent refuses to reject the child, the relationship remains alive, no matter what the kid does.  Very powerful and very freeing.

[Does it work the other way also?  I don’t think so, due to the need for the parent, not the child, to make the unconditional commitment. But maybe the kids think it does – and maybe that sense is part of why Ted (see older posts) and so many other kids fight against or even refuse to accept their parents walking away.  Maybe, aside from the pain and the loss,  they believe that by refusing to turn off that switch, they have the power to keep the relationship alive.  I don’t know.]



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1 Response to What’s the time limit for silence?

  1. Virginia says:

    Thank you for writing this insightful post. I’m going through yet another rebuild of my parenting skills and this is a brick in my foundation as I continue to learn how to help him. The “always on switch” is a very useful metaphor for me. Years of negative behavior directed at me has challenged my “on switch” and sometimes made the current feel weak (“my volume down”), or simply lost (crazy near mute). My switch is “on” even when I bungle everything.

    As to your parenthetical comment – should my son be keeping the switch open for his birth mom/dad then my goal has been for him to look and see my “real time” love and acceptance. That is who and where is lives. Keeping the “switch open” for a relationship where the door was closed keeps his feelings of hopelessness and abandonment. My kiddo needs to feel and see where the switch is “on”.

    Thanks again for writing.

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