This column tells a story based on a composite of real-life situations in therapy to represent both teen and parent viewpoints on anger and guilt in families during divorce. The characters are fictitious and were derived from a composite of people and events.
Sabrina, 18, was a freshman away at college. Shortly after she arrived at school she found out that her parents had just split up. Sabrina also soon discovered that her dad had been having an affair since she was in high school, and was still involved with the other woman.
Sabrina came across as superficially tough and apathetic but her hurt and desire for connection were just beneath the surface. She said she had no idea why she felt so bad — so depressed and anxious — and that there was no good reason for it. However, when the topic of her dad came up, Sabrina became visibly distressed. She was adamant that she didn’t want to talk about him, didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and “didn’t care” — but often ended up talking about him anyway. Also, Sabrina frequently commented that if she met her dad’s girlfriend she would “punch her in the face.”
Sabrina’s attitude towards her dad was a change of heart from how she felt towards him growing up. Even though he wasn’t around all the time, she felt a strong connection and identification with him. In this regard, she talked about how she was never a “girly girl ” like her sister, and how she and her dad were both good at math and science.
Sabrina always did well in school until she went off to college. She was caught off guard this year when she began feeling homesick and out of her element — lost in a large school in the engineering department. Sabrina was noticeably hard on herself, hating that she was “weak and pathetic” and criticizing herself for not being able to focus on her work or to get better. Her depression made it hard to concentrate. She found herself constantly ruminating about failing and worried about disappointing her parents. The pressure led to a repetitive spiral of poor grades and increasing panic, guilt and shame. Sabrina became uncertain of what she was good at or interested in, losing her focus and direction.
Sabrina didn’t tell anyone what she was going through and felt lonely and isolated. She didn’t want to talk to her dad and felt protective of her mom, fearful of burdening her. Sabrina mostly pretended things were fine, though occasionally dropping some conspicuous hints to her mom about wishing she (Sabrina) were dead.
Sabrina’s mom, Deb, was in the throes of grief and depression following the breakup of her marriage. She wanted to help Sabrina and seemed loving but, at the same time, needed her daughter to be OK and was generally oblivious to what Sabrina was going through. Deb often gave quick advice or geared the conversation to her own problems, not taking seriously Sabrina’s expressions of desperation about whether she could survive.
Sabrina’s dad, Sam, was a high-achieving, very successful engineer. He held Sabrina to similarly high standards, confident (as she had been) that she would flourish in a related field. He seemed to love Sabrina more than anything but was somewhat emotionally immature — clueless about how to manage their relationship. Though he frequently came across as critical, reactive and not easily empathic or tuned in to feelings, he also seemed ingenuous, and was himself easily hurt.
Sam expressed his love and caring for Sabrina by giving her money and advice. On the one hand, he seemed to feel guilty when he recognized how much he hurt her by having the affair. But on the other, he was mad about her ongoing anger toward him, arguing self-righteously that he also was entitled to happiness.
Sam was very focused on wanting Sabrina to meet his girlfriend and be friendly with her, which would help his life be less divided. “Why should Sabrina be mad at her? And how long do I have to let her be mad at me? Plenty of families go through this. This can’t be all my fault. She’s just manipulating me into feeling bad. Sabrina’s problem is that she likes to blame everyone else but herself for her problems and failures.”