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Dear Claudia,

After my youngest brother left home, my parents sold our family home and have been moving ever since. Every time they settle in a new community, they start to find things wrong with it, and they uproot everything and start over. They have been to Florida, to luxury condominiums, assisted living places, and apartments. It is driving us all up the wall, and we are wondering if it is ever going to stop. Is there any way we can help them to settle somewhere comfortably?

Tired of moving parents



Dear Tired:

The common sense answer to this problem is, of course, to sit down with your parents and have a good, long talk with them. I’m not going to tell you to do this though, because, well, I can imagine you have already tried. And let me guess: it didn’t work. Your next best bet: bulk-rates to U-Haul. 


Why are your parents not listening to you? Why can’t they think straight and stop squandering their money and time on all this moving around? The answer to these questions is simple: they are behaving irrationally.

Irrational behavior has a very strange and mysterious way of being completely un-amenable to reason. Have you noticed? 

Now, let’s ask a different question: why are your parents behaving irrationally? This is where things get interesting. They get interesting because your parents probably don’t think they’re being irrational; they probably think they’re being perfectly justified in being completely dissatisfied with every single blessed place they move to. 

This is where families usually reach a stalemate: one party thinks the other party is being irrational, and the other party doesn’t see it, and thinks the first party is being mean. 

The solution most families use when they have this problem of not seeing eye-to-eye as to what is rational and what is not, is to use the boink-in-the-head method of trying to knock some sense into each other. This is where they might start arguing “You’re wasting all your money! You can’t keep moving like this! You don’t have the energy to pack up again!”  Then the parents argue back “But this community is too expensive! The neighbors are unfriendly! The walls are too thin and the basement is musty!” And these arguments can go on ad infinitum, with both parties increasingly exasperated with each other. 

What I find helps in these situations sometimes, is to decide that we all have an unconscious. I personally believe in the unconscious, because all too often I recognize that people don’t always fully understand why they say and do. We may have reasonable explanations for everything, but there are underlying reasons for why we do things too, which we may not always be aware of. Otherwise known as unconscious motivation.

Behind all of your parent’s conscious rationales for their incessant moving, may be some unconscious motivation. Here’s where things get tricky. Why? Because the thing about thoughts, feelings and ideas being unconscious is that they are, well, unconscious. They are unknown to us. This does not leave us with much to go on. Unless, of course, you are like me, and have a big imagination. If you have a big imagination, you can come up with some hypotheses for what your parent’s unconscious motivation may be for moving so much.

Here are some hypotheses I have personally conjured about your parent’s unconscious motivation for moving. Maybe they can’t face being empty-nesters. Maybe being alone together after so many years does not feel pleasurable. It could be that they dread beginning this new chapter in their lives, which is often called the “third” chapter: aging.

OK, so now we have a few hypotheses about unconscious motivation, and when families reach this point in their thinking, they want to go right back to the boink-in-the-head method. They run to their family members and say, “You’re afraid of something! You’re running away from something! You don’t want to face things!” 

In the field of psychology, therapists often come up with hypotheses about unconscious motivation, and they likewise try to help their patients ease into making the ideas conscious and dealing with them for once and for all. And sometimes it works. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

The reason interpretation and confrontation doesn’t always work is that if an idea or thought or feeling is unconscious, there is a reason for it. Usually, the reason is that it would be too painful and difficult to be made consciously aware of. We create a defence against knowing things as a way to avoid psychic pain.

Defences really get a bad rap. People often talk about other people’s defences in an accusatory way; as if they were defects in character. We should be strong; we should face ourselves; we should not be afraid.

Sometimes though, creative defenses that repress painful thoughts and feelings from consciousness work much better than Prozac, Zoloft, or all the drugs in the world put together, in sparing us from pain. 

The only problem with defenses, as you point out, is that they can become a little wacky. In the field, we call those “maladaptive defenses” Still; it’s hard to reason people out of their defenses, because they do spare us from pain. Your parents are using their defense to stay in a hopeful, optimistic place. Their positive life drive is taking over, turning their life into an adventure. It’s really not so bad if you think about it.

I personally have a great respect the role of defenses in the psyche and I use interpretation, which is my hypotheses about their behavior, very, very sparingly. In fact, although I urge families to try to come up with hypotheses about their spouse or children or parent’s unconscious motivation, I don’t encourage that they use the hypotheses to make confrontational interpretations, which sometimes feel like artillery to force an argument. Coming up with hypotheses about unconscious motivation is better used as a way of being more compassionate and accepting

In the end, understanding usually works to best advantage, because of a very, very important psychoanalytic discovery: when you support the defences and respect their role in keeping a psyche free of pain, it has a strengthening effect on the person. And guess what: psychic strength is the single, best weapon against defences. Why strength, as opposed to reason, works best for optimal mental health is now increasingly being understood by neuroscientists. There is now real proof now that accepting defences really works.

I hope your parents find what they are looking for. I hope the discomforts of moving will make the prospects of facing their fears less intolerable. Perhaps, their motivation is pure and the perfect location will be found. 

In the meantime, try, if you can, to respect your parent’s creative, wacky, irrational solution to defending against pain. We all long to neatly package life, put things in all their proper boxes, and set things right with our ideas and logic. If only life were like that. Instead, we have to tolerate the strange twists and turns of our emotions, longings and desires, as well as those of the people we love. Take heart; I hear the real-estate market is not doing too badly right now…

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