Dear Dr. Shari

My mother and father have been married for 50 years. I know that is quite a feat. They seem happy and are “young” 70’s. They travel, go out to eat, and they would have your believe that all is good. I have been bothered in the last few years, realizing how submissive my mother is and how domineering my father is. This is NOT an equal relationship. HE worked, SHE took care of the kids. HE pays the bills, SHE cooks and cleans. SHE helped with homework HE read the paper. HE always sits at the head of the table but if he needs something, SHE runs to get it. Conversations always seem to focus on his intellect and knowledge with her asking questions or seconding. I never noticed this, because they never really fought or had issues, but now I see why. I called my mom out on this, and it just made her uncomfortable, so we have to revisit it when she has had time to think. What I want to know from you is how I can empower my mom. — Wendy G., Portland

Dear Wendy,

You can empower your mom, first, by not insinuating that you know more about how her relationship should be than she does. It seems you have decided that the 50-year structure that was built and happily maintained, is somehow of lesser value than your theoretical vision. I find that quite insulting, actually.

Is it possible that they had a mutual respect for each other’s separate and different roles? Is it possible that they each covered different bases and were brilliant at fulfilling all needs of the family with relative ease? Is is possible that they really were happy?

You were way out of line to “call her out” Wendy. As such, my first suggestion is to apologize, and acknowledge her for what she has accomplished and what you admire. Perhaps consider pointing out that you have no idea what it takes to maintain a marriage and family for 50 years and that it is quite a feat. Then, if you want to have this conversation, and truly empower your mother, learn about her first. Ask about her philosophies of marriage, happiness, equality. Ask her what she would and would not change.

Empowerment, means to begin with the respect of the person, to find their core, their strengths and build upon them. Empowerment also means to accept that every person ultimately has responsibility over their own life and gets to make decisions about how they want to live. It is theirs. They get to own their values, choices and results. They can take or leave advice, they can explain themselves, or not. It is theirs. THEY have the power.

Finally, Wendy, you need to understand that Judgement is DISempowering. Honoring is empowering. To contribute to your mother, point out her value, listen to her stories. If you want her to be more assertive, or feel like her words are important, then YOU should be the one showing her this. Encourage her, listen to her, acknowledge her.

Judging her history is unproductive and demeaning. If you want to contribute, get to know her and honor her NOW.

My best,

Dr. Shari

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