Are you caught in a relational pyramid scheme?

In some family systems, there can be a feeling that the children “owe” something to the parents. This manifests not only later in life when parents need advocacy and/or care, but even earlier, when both children and parents feel that the child’s role is to pay attention to, support, comfort or even guide the parents. (We see this very often when the parent has high levels of narcissism or borderline personality, but that’s not necessarily a requirement.)

On an energetic level, I was recently pondering this dynamic (very present in my own life) with a colleague. Both of us were frustrated by the fact that one or both of our parents felt we owed them but hadn’t provided much love, care and attention to us in childhood or later. Where was this “owing” feeling coming from when they really hadn’t done their part as parents? Was it just that they had a personality type that feels the world owes them?

That may be a large part of it, but another idea came to us. Perhaps we were being asked to be the latest layer in what we could think of as a relational pyramid scheme. Maybe the feeling of being owed was similar to the next layer above in Bernie Madoff’s structure. In our own examples, our parents had “paid” their own parents with attention, care, prioritization, etc., even when it was not in alignment with their own soul path, desire, or even mental health.

No wonder—on an energetic level—they feel “owed.” Just like the higher levels in a pyramid scheme, they paid in, expecting a return from the next layer down. One example from my own life happened when I married my first husband. My mother jumped in uninvited to manage many aspects of the wedding. I felt like I was standing in front of a steamroller on a mission, and at the time (I was only 23) like I had little choice in the matter of her opinions and desires. My dysfunctional strategy was to simply let her decide a lot of it and focus on things like my dress, which I bought out of town on my own. I found out later that her own mother (by all accounts a very “difficult” woman) had ruled my mom’s wedding to my dad with an iron fist, leaving my mom little choice about anything. And so, one perspective is that my mom had paid then, and so was owed a wedding. I honestly think she felt that way, although probably not on a conscious level.

But—and we have ample evidence of this in today’s world—pyramid schemes always fail at some point. In terms of finance they are not mathematically sustainable (you have to keep recruiting new investors and at some point you max this out and it falls apart). In terms of a relational pyramid scheme, the risk is that the bottom row wakes up. As many of us in this generation focus more on leading lives where we care both for our families and ourselves, and are no longer willing to do things that feel overly burdensome and/or out of alignment, we may see some of these pyramids breaking apart. This isn’t easy, because it requires saying to your “upline” (your parents) that you aren’t going to spend so much energy devoting yourself to their happiness, but rather, invest more in yourself and your current family. It takes guts to say, no, I don’t owe you.

Awake and aware parents will actually encourage and support this. They know the next generation does not owe them, no matter what they gave to the previous or even, legitimately to their own kids. And these are the parents where love, care and ongoing support and connection feel life-giving, reciprocal, and easy.

But parents who are still caught in their own distorted reality may get very upset and tell you that you are betraying them or the family if you stop giving as much to them. They may label you as selfish, ungrateful, unkind. They may even disown you or cut you off somehow. None of this feels good, but it can also be freeing to realize you no longer have to pay a debt that was never really yours in the first place.

I am reminded of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s famous words on children:

Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

     You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
     You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

From The Prophet, 1923