My wife's parents are separating.
November 8, 2010 11:41 AM   Subscribe

How can I be most helpful & supportive to my wife as her parents go through a trial separation?

We have been married for not-quite-a-month. After their younger daughter moved out to college in August, and we got married in October, my wife's parents revealed to their daughters that Dad had been having some "issues", felt disconnected, and was moving out. Dad has always been very reserved and underemotional with his daughters, and in this situation he is being a lot more so (reassuring that it's no big deal, discussing it very matter-of-factly as though it's vcr repair). Mom has always been very unfiltered and hyperemotional with her daughters, and she is becoming a lot more so (cataloging their sex life to younger daughter, etc.)

They are seeing a couples counselor, but other than that, they are only talking to their daughters -- my wife & her sister -- about all of this. They are hiding it from their own brothers/sisters, who they are usually very close with. I understand the desire to keep marital problems personal, but the problem is that my wife and her sister are shouldering the burden of an apparently unconcerned father and a worryingly hysterical mother. What can I do to be most helpful?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If it were me I would suggest to her that she tell her parents she is not their dumping ground for their marital issues. And then recommend they see a counselor or talk to their friends or whatever.

This is not your wife's burden to bear and it is wrong of them to try to make it so.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:46 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

My partner of six years' parents are currently going through a divorce.

The best thing I have found is a) not expressing my opinions about his parents actions, and b) being supportive of what he thinks is the best option.

a) is important mostly because even though it is incredibly obvious to me that one of his parents is "at fault" in this situation, there is absolutely no benefit to saying negative things about them. He is going to need to find a way to have a relationship with both of them, and he doesn't need my opinions weighing him down.

b) is important because there generally is no "right action" in a situation like this, and what he really needs from me is someone to be supportive of his decisions (eg telling one of his parents when they are oversharing, or saying inappropriate things about their ex-spouse) since he isn't getting that reassurance from the parental unit he used to expect it from. This also means that when he said "maybe I should considering counseling" I encouraged him to do so, but before that I bit my tongue and never told him to do it without his suggestion first.
posted by CharlieSue at 11:54 AM on November 8, 2010

That is, we have been dating for six years. His parents marriage is ending after 30.
posted by CharlieSue at 11:54 AM on November 8, 2010

Ultimately, this separation is between the two people separating, and sharing the burden of it with their children is rude and irresponsible. From that perspective, I see the father's position of distance and rationality on the subject (assuming he's not bringing it up, just responding to inquiries) to be the appropriate one, and the mother's position of gushing details no kid wants to know to be highly inappropriate.

So help your wife by listening, and supporting her, and if/when she talks to you about boundaries, reassure her that she's entitled to tell them things like "I don't want to hear this", "I know this is hard for you, but it has nothing to do with me", and "These issues are between you and [spouse], and you need to leave me out of it."

By all means, make sure she knows that she's right and taking appropriate action by setting such boundaries, and that by taking steps to distance herself from the whole mess, she's actually being a good daughter (inasmuch as this shouldn't involve her at all, so as one or both of her parents are drawing her in, she's doing their job for them by pushing back on it.)
posted by davejay at 12:31 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing: just because her father is being cold (and colder in this circumstance) doesn't mean he's feeling no emotion about it. It's just as likely that he is setting and respecting proper boundaries -- and that in fact he sets the boundaries more firmly, the more emotional involved he is. Is it great that he was a distant, unemotional father? Perhaps not -- but in this particular instance, it's a boon.
posted by davejay at 12:33 PM on November 8, 2010

I was the daughter in this situation. See here. (They eventually moved back in together and things are probably worse, but that was discussed here. Sigh.)

It helped me to remember that their behavior was attempting to set up a sort of "new normal" that was, in fact, nothing close to normal. Don't get me wrong; I thought and still think that they should have just split up. But my mother's seeming need to treat this as if it were a trip to the grocery store just blew my mind. It's especially bad because your parents are theoretically the ones who should show/tell you what "normal" actually should be like.

I was just starting to date my now-fiance, and his descriptions of his own therapy sessions were a huge help to me (he was dealing with adult-child-of-alcoholics and his own divorce issues) because they brought in an outside perspective on how warped things really were. (Note: I had also gone through my own divorce.)

Things I refused to do:
--hide the separation from their closest friends (they kept attending events together, but then he'd go "home" to his little room down the street, while people kept asking me how they were doing as if they were still together)
--let my dad sit around with an untreated broken wrist
--listen to my mom whine about how needy my dad was
--talk to my mom for three months

Okay, maybe that last one was a bit much, but I just couldn't bring myself to associate with her when she was so disconnected from reality. Sure, you want to be compassionate and all, but you need to do whatever is necessary to maintain your own standards and values. You can't be an advocate for them, or for other members of the family, if you aren't first in tune with your own wants and needs. "Fix your own oxygen mask before assisting others."

It is not your/her responsibility to protect their cockamamie way of doing things, especially when their behavior conflicts with the things that are important to you -- which they almost certainly taught to you in the first place!

My partner was there when I finally went over and sat down with her; if we had needed to talk to her, I wouldn't have made my partner be an intermediary, but he probably would have done so :P e was there for Christmas and helped me celebrate in a way that was meaningful to me when my family was scattered and split. He listened to me rant and suggested things from his own experience. He listened to me discuss my therapy sessions and brought in his own perspective from what he'd gone though.

Overall, it also helped to create better relationships with people in my family that were separate from this dynamic. I tried to be with my dad and get him out of the house (and, um, take him to Urgent Care :P) in a way that didn't make us his only options for entertainment. I tried to get in touch with my cousins, whom I hadn't spent time with as adults. And I tried to do things with myself and my partner to identify and find different sources for the things I needed to get from my parents.

I'm STILL going through this crap, and I can't make much sense of it some days, but you're welcome to MeMail me if you'd like.
posted by Madamina at 2:32 PM on November 8, 2010

I've been the daughter in that situation too. (And still shoulder the burden of a miserable, TMI-sharing, now-divorced mother, and a father who thinks nothing serious happened.)

One thing my husband did for me at the time when I was really upset by it was to start taking all phone calls. Then he would often say I was out, and talk to my mother briefly himself. Then I had to option of calling her back later (or not) when I was mentally prepared.

Another thing he did was to encourage me to see a therapist, just for a little while, and reassure me that it wasn't because I was crazy, but because I needed to figure out some coping strategies (and boundary-drawing strategies) for dealing with the crazy olds.

Also he just listened to me ranting, without judgement, and probably pulled more than his weight on household chores for a bit.
posted by lollusc at 2:56 PM on November 8, 2010

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