Irina is ready to quit being the mediator between her Russian and Cuban parents and her younger, more Americanized brother. The role has strained her relationship with all of them, and, now that she has her own family, she wants to find the best way to change this dynamic—and to let them work things out on their own. A marriage and family therapist offers insights and techniques for anyone in this dilemma.
Our expert this week is Catalina Fortich, a marriage and family therapist based in South Florida. You can visit her website here. If you loved this episode, be sure to check out Struggling to Become More than a Dutiful Daughter and Papí and I Don't Talk, We Argue.
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Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming back to How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything, and bon jia, new listeners! I’m Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. Today I’m talking to Irina. Irina is the oldest daughter in an immigrant family, and I can picture many silent nods from all the first born, first gens listening. Irina also has a younger brother and since they were kids, she has played the role of go between with him, who is more Americanized, and her parents. But now that they’re both adults, she’s come to resent that role and the toll it takes on her. Let’s get into it.
My name is Irina Gonzalez and I am an editor and freelance writer based on Fort Myers, Florida, and in my family we call my parents mamí and papí. My mom is actually Russian, and my dad is Cuban, but I was born in Moscow. My parents met in college and in the ‘80s, and when I was eight years old, my parents decided to immigrate us to the United States, so we moved to Miami. I was eight and my brother at the time was two and a half, so he’s a younger sibling. And you know, things were pretty rocky those first few years. None of us knew the language or the culture. Eventually, when I was about 10 years old, we moved to Southwest Florida, and I would say that my relationship with my parents was always pretty solid. I was definitely sort of the perfect immigrant daughter.
I always got good grades. I always did my chores. I followed their rules and that kind of thing. But my brother definitely had a very different relationship with them, and I have a very good relationship with my brother. He very much grew up in American culture and he’s very much like the stereotypical first generation kid, and what I often find myself doing, I often find myself being the cultural translator for my parents and my younger brother. When it comes to issues of communication, so the biggest thing that I’ve seen them argue about and that still comes up all the time is that my brother is just not a very good texter and he doesn’t really appreciate communicating and being as informative about his life as my parents would prefer. And I think it’s a big shock to them still, because I have always been a very good communicator and I’m always in touch with them. I always text with them back when I was in college, and I went to college in New York, so it was like 1,500 miles away.
But you know, I called them every single day, and when my brother went to college, that was definitely not the case. You know, I often have to say, “Well, it’s just different here. None of my other “American” friends really talk to their parents every day or text them back every single day.” My husband, who’s American, he’s… I’m lucky if he calls his dad once every three weeks. You know, I’m often struggling because I will hear from my parents every once in a while like, “Why hasn’t he texted us back?” And at this point he’s almost 29 years old, he’s got his own life, and he just… That’s just not how he communicates.
I’ve kind of gotten to a place where I really just try to almost educate my parents about the issue, because I just don’t think it’s gonna change. It’s just not who he is. It’s not how he grew up. It’s not what he’s used to. And I think that a lot of their frustrations can be solved by being a little bit more lenient and just kind of accepting that that’s just how he communicates, and that that’s okay.
You know, my brother does have some depression issues, but he takes medication, and I think that there is a little bit of a behavior issue on his part, but I think that honestly, they worry excessively because he’s sort of like the baby of the family and he’s the boy of the family and that kind of stuff. So, I do talk to my brother about how I am frustrated sometimes about how I’m put in the middle between his and my parents’ communications issues. He tends to kind of excuse it. He’ll say, “Well, yeah. I’ll text them back.” What often comes up for me at this point is that I have my own life, and I have a husband, and a baby, and pets, and work, and when I’m stuck in the middle in this way, I have to communicate to both sides. And sometimes I get very frustrated and I just have to say like, “You know what? Take me out of this. I can’t be in this conversation right now.”
I do often find that being the cultural translator between my brother and my parents can be extremely frustrating and impactful to my relationships. It can be almost a little bit hurtful when let’s say I’m talking to my dad about something going on in my life, and all of a sudden he’s like, “Your brother hasn’t texted me back.” And my dad will spend the next five minutes really just saying like, “Well, why? Why is he like this?” And every time I just have to say like, “He just is.”
On the one hand, I feel like they’re paying less attention to me, and probably because they have less reason to worry with me, because I have always been the dependable one. You know, and with my brother, I literally have to get ahold of him just to be like, “Can you just answer them?” You know, and that can be frustrating in itself, because I’m not his mother, and I think that as often happens in Latino families, like I did, because I grew up the first child, and I was a girl, I did very much have a mothering relationship with him.
You know, looking back now, I can see all of the things that led to this overwhelming anxiety that I have, which is very, very largely based in expectations and in wanting everything to be perfect and doing everything for my parents, and so that impacts my health now. I mean, I still have anxiety. I take medication for it. And you know, I think that when they’re frustrated with my brother, and I can’t do anything about it, that really heightens my anxiety, too. Because I can’t help them, and so much of my relationship with them is based on wanting to please them. I think going forward, what I would really like to say to my brother and my parents is that I want to have a relationship with all of them that is based on me, and who I am, and not so much on what I can provide to them. I want it to be a little bit more focused on the moment, and less on their worrying about what’s going on in his life. I don’t know if I see it happening anytime soon, and that’s very difficult for my own mental health, too.
As the oldest child in my family, I feel for Irina. It’s a role we were accidentally born into, but never seem to get out of, and even if we love all the perks of being first, sometimes lines get crossed that leave us feeling burdened and unloved. Not surprisingly, though, we’re the ones that have to take the lead in changing this also. To help us out, I called in an expert.
My name is Catalina Fortich, and I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist in South Florida. My background is I’m a first generation Colombian American, and I was born and raised in South Florida, so I’m a native.
You have a lot in common with Irina. When you heard her story, what did you hear?
Fortich: Well, that was first and foremost, how many similarities I see. That she’s also from South Florida, and oldest child, which I am as well. As a family therapist, I got all my brain juices going, because it’s so many concepts of family therapy that are intertwined there in what she shared with us. I thought about how she is in this triangle with her parents is what we call it, that’s the psychological term that we use in family therapy. This triangle that she obviously has a lot of awareness about how it’s impacting her, but awareness doesn’t lead to change only. We need other elements for change.
So, if she’s ready for that, she’s gonna have to get a little bit uncomfortable, or get comfortable in the discomfort is what we like to say.
Tell me about the steps that follow after awareness.
Fortich: So, asking yourself questions about how is this triangle that’s happened, and I want to first reiterate that triangles are very common in all families, so it’s not necessarily a pathologizing term, it’s just it happens, and the way that it kind of shows up in our families is that one person in that triangle is not as comfortable with the situation, or begins to be more uncomfortable with the situation than the rest of them. It sounds like everybody else, unknowingly, right? Or unconsciously perpetuating this cycle, because even though she may be the one that has the most awareness, and probably the most discomfort with what’s happening, the next thing is behavior, right?
So, creating boundaries and speaking up, and sometimes we don’t want to, especially if we are the perpetual, dependable, perfect, consistent daughter, then it’s hard for us to break away with that role. Because it’s the one we know, right? And we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. There’s a lot of guilt associated with that behavioral change. But you know, sometimes we do have to get uncomfortable, and speak up, and begin to set boundaries.
So, one of the things that I noticed when I was talking to her was that yes, it definitely creates pressure on her to be the conduit between the parents and the brother, but the other thing that it does is it does give her a type of focused attention. And so, in the dynamic of this triangle, might there be implicit contradictions in the rewards, benefits, costs that each party brings to the dynamic?
Fortich: Absolutely. So, you know, there’s secondary gains here, right? There’s a reward to it staying the same. And that’s where she has to ask herself, have I come to that point where I’m uncomfortable enough with this to speak up about it? So, for her to be able to assertively state this is what I want to talk about, this is important to me, she’s gonna have to verbalize that. And the thing with… I think a lot of us struggle with just a general thing. It can be for many reasons. It could be in the Latino culture, for women particularly, it’s also difficult to assert ourselves, right?
So, asserting, sometimes if we don’t have the right definition of it, it may seem like I’m coming off aggressive, because I’m making people uncomfortable. But for me, the definition I like to use to kind of reframe what assertiveness is, it’s I’m being kind to you and to myself at the same time. Where aggression is I’m only kind to myself and not to you, right? So, once we reframe that definition of assertiveness, we get more comfortable in being aware that I’m not being unkind. I’m being kind to myself and you when I am being assertive.
So, here’s the other thing that a lot of the folks that come on the show talk about, which is this idea of absolute respect, and how anytime a first gen child questions, interrogates, suggests an alternative, suggests advice, it is almost immediately met with this, “Oh, you just don’t respect me.” Or, “You must respect me.” So, how can someone in Irina’s position anticipate that response of, “Oh, you just don’t respect me,” or, “That’s disrespectful.”
Fortich: Yeah. So, that’s a huge topic for me. I work with a lot of Latinos and with my teens, I actually call it parent crack. So, it’s like it’s almost like they live off that. They love that! They can’t have enough of that respect. But we gotta remember their background, right? Where they came from. These collectivistic cultures that they come from where the collective, or the community, or the family in this case, is more important than your individual needs. So, if you step out of those norms, then you are being disrespectful, right?
But we know that that’s not where it’s coming from and they don’t know our motive and our intention. Only we know that. So, you are going to get pushback. You have to normalize the pushback. You have to be okay with ruffling some feathers in this process of change.
So, what do you say, though?
Fortich: To the parent themself?
Yeah. When you’re in that moment, and you’re trying in a respectful, good tone, being cautious of your words, just really putting out how you’re feeling and how you see things, and you get back the, “Well, that’s just disrespectful.”
Fortich: Yeah. So, you know, you set up the intent and you go in there trying to make sure that the message is relayed in the most respectful possible way, and you watch your tone and all that, I like to call it the stroke-stroke-kick. So, before you give the kick, you’re gonna stroke a little, right? So, I know you have the best intent, and I know you care about me. You set it up. You do all the stroking possible, you give the kick, and then you stroke a little more. I always like to give that. That’s my little tool.
Because you don’t know and can’t control for the other person’s response, and when you ask yourself, could I have said that any differently? Any more respectfully? No, I couldn’t have. So, that’s where you can release your guilt and let what happens or what needs to happen, happen.
Okay, so let’s talk about the adult here, which might turn our triangle into a square. How does she, Irina in this instance, approach her brother?
Fortich: He’s not really the one putting her in the triangle, though. This is what I see. You know, this is an issue between her and her parents that they keep bringing her into. Brother’s doing his thing, right? So, the triangle is all about anxiety, so the parents are anxious about brother not kind of falling into place with how the things need to go, right? So, they’re trying to pull him in, it’s not working, so they go to her hoping that she’ll pull him in, and she’s not pulling. And to some extent she’s trying, but brother’s holding strong to his boundaries, right?
So, she needs to set the boundary with parents, and even kind of maybe possibly direct them and be like, “You know what? This sounds like a good conversation that you and he need to have.” Almost directing them to be like, “You need to go directly and talk to them.” Because the way the triangle works is as long as she’s in that cycle, then she’s always gonna be leaned on to kind of disperse the anxiety. But if she tells them, “Hey, you guys need to deal with it together on your own,” or even tell brother, “Maybe it’s time you called mom and dad and explained to them why you don’t want to call them or why you can’t call them, because I’m not available for that anymore.”
So, she’s aware, definitely, that this has some implied risk in terms of her emotional and social relationship with her parents. But what should she be prepared to lose in this instance or what should she be prepared to give up, or seriously modify in that dynamic so that she can get herself out of this triangle?
Fortich: I think the fear of loss is what’s keeping the triangle going and this cycle going, right? So, your parents love you, and it sounds like she has a beautiful relationship with them. The fear of them disconnecting, the fear of possible guilt, the fear of whatever may be lost might not be a real loss. Might not really happen. It might be a perceived loss or risk of what’s happening. They might just be uncomfortable for a little bit. She will never know until she tries it.
You know, it’s important to understand that this happens often in family dynamics. I don’t think it’s about blame. I think we can get lost a little bit in the anger and in the blaming when we realize, “Hey, I’m being pulled into this.” And the resentment and all that. Once we shift our focus to, “Okay, so this is the problem. What’s the solution here? What can I do? What do I have control of?” And I really only have control of how I respond, my role, and what can I do differently.
So, asking yourself some questions of like how do I perpetuate this cycle? Who’s benefiting from this? Who’s not benefiting? In this case, it’s her. And since I’m not benefiting from this anymore, how can I begin to disrupt this cycle? Because change is hard. Change is very hard and in a family system that if you’re 40 years old, you’ve been in that system for 40 years, right? The only way we can really disrupt that is looking at our own role in that and kind of taking inventory of what I can change about that.
Thank you so much. Oh, my goodness.
Fortich: You’re so welcome.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from Catalina. Identify your triangle. Step back and take a look at the roles you and your parents are playing in a hurtful dynamic. Everyone is contributing and perpetuating it, so name it. Understand the hidden rewards. What are you and what is everyone else getting out of behaving in the same ways? Ways that can be hurtful. Comfort, attention, avoiding conflict? Name it so you can change it. Drop it. Just give up the role you always play and allow others to adjust accordingly. And most importantly, be okay with the results. Prepare for pushback. Stand your ground and wait out the discomfort. Understand the hidden rewards. What are you and what is everyone else getting out of behaving in the same hurtful ways? Comfort? Attention? Conflict avoidance? Name it so you can change it. Stroke, stroke, kick. I love this one. Be respectful in your tone and prepare the way gently if you need to, but say what you need to say. And remember, let go of the guilt. It’s useless. You cannot control other people’s behavior or their point of view, so focus your energy on the changes you can make.
Have I thanked you enough for listening? I hope I have. Thank you. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora produced this episode. Carolina Rodriguez mixed it. Micaela Rodríguez is our founding producer and social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Remember to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. And if you want to be on the show, hit us up at email@example.com. Bye, everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “She’s Stuck in a Family Triangle.”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
Lantigua Williams & Co., August 24, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.