My Mom and Dad aren't in the fairy tale marriage I thought...
July 25, 2015 9:10 AM   Subscribe

...and it freaks me out! Mom gets snippy and negative with Dad a lot more these days while he tries to sweep it under the rug. My little sister left home last year, and with an empty nest it seems things are changing for them. I'm worried about my parents. More inside.

Both my sister and I have brought up to Mom how negative she sometimes seems with Dad and how she refuses his simple advances for hugs or kisses on the cheek - both because she's normally such a bright and positive person and because that's just cold - what we got from her (after some tears and reassurances that we don't think she's a bad person) was that she feels Dad uses her as his only emotional outlet (he doesn't have any friends, true, but it doesn't seem to bother him) and besides that she is frustrated by the differences between them.

I should go ahead and say that throughout my life I've felt closer to my mother because she's more the type to talk about everything, even uncomfortable stuff. But in regards to this situation I've kind of defended Dad to Mom (in conversations with her, talks like this have the subject changed quickly if Dad's around) because despite the fact that he's very introverted and a little closed off, he's one of the greatest guys I know. He and Mom both had terrible parents growing up (drug use, abuse, etc). He met Mom at church and they got married early - Mom had me soon after she got married at 19. Together they clawed their way out of their terrible small town with Dad working jobs he didn't much care for to support Mom and me, and soon after my sister. Neither him nor my mom had even a high school degree until Mom decided to go to college - she's now making double what Dad does but Dad is ever the rock - completely dependable and always there, even if it's kind of awkward talking to him about anything more emotionally involving than changing an air filter. He's very different from Mom, but I love him just as much even if there is a bit more distance there.

But evidently his introversion and distance makes Mom feel a bit cold. To compound the weirdness, Mom has on multiple occasions confided in me (despite my pleading that she leave me ignorant) about their sex life, and how she basically doesn't want it anymore despite Dad occasionally going for it. She's told me many times when women get older they pretty much don't want sex and I think that's wrong and it makes me feel even worse for Dad. Also, Dad's still a bit religious while none of the rest of the family is and even though he votes democrat I know he holds more conservative social values. He would never speak out against homosexuals or the like because he's not the type to start conflict or anything, but I know he and Mom don't see eye to eye on stuff like that so he just kind of deals with it silently? I don't know. Also, Mom is the kind of person who wants dinner parties and social events to happen while Dad would rather die than go to even a crowded movie theater it seems, so that doesn't help.

I feel like the answer is just that they'll figure it out one way or another, but - in true kid fashion even though I'm 24 - I don't want my family to break up! Is there anything I can do to help my Mom and Dad now that their kids are gone and they can't just focus on us anymore?
posted by johnpoe50 to Human Relations (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can't do anything about this.

What you can do is set boundaries for what kind of things your mom and you discuss on the phone. Things like "Mom, if you're just going to spend this call badmouthing dad, I'm going to have to hang up. I'd much rather hear about [something she did recently]." Or "Mom, I've told you over and over I don't want to hear about your sex life. I'm not your marriage counsellor, I'm your kid. If you bring it up again, I'm going to hang up the phone."

I've hung up the phone on my parents A LOT since moving out of their house, and it's only made my relationship with them better. They're adults and they need to find emotional dumping stations that are not their own children.

Encourage your mom (both parents, really) to find activities around her that she can participate in on her own. Book clubs, garden clubs, golf or some other sport, etc, etc. Things that get them out of the house socializing with people who aren't each other.

I've been trying to coax my parents into travelling by themselves for the last 15 years and they only just took their first (long weekend, driving-distance) trip last month. Your parents have got several decades of entrenched behavior on any life experience you can bring to the table. Ultimately, recognize that there's nothing you can do to change them. Just try to appreciate them as their own people the best you can and limit inappropriate emotional dumping in your direction.
posted by phunniemee at 9:21 AM on July 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

Not really, no. It may be that remaining married isn't what's best for them at this point, and staying together for the sake of their adult children shouldn't really be factoring in to that decision.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:22 AM on July 25, 2015 [11 favorites]

I don't think there's anything you can do. They're either going to stay together or they're not, which might involve working on problems or deciding that their relationship is worth it despite those problems. But you can't push them together because it doesn't work like that.

The most I think you can do is be there for them if they want to talk. Always be supportive. The other thing you can do is refuse to pick sides and make clear that you love both of them no matter what. If they do split up, you don't want them sniping at each other and you definitely don't want them to put you in the middle of it. You're a family whether they're together or not, and you want that family to be as functional as possible.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:25 AM on July 25, 2015

Based on your description, it sounds like life has been exhausting for your mom, and now she has more room to see that for herself. If she wants to talk about the underlying problems, tell her she needs to find someone much more objective, like a therapist, to help her work through it. Please quit putting her on trial.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2015 [25 favorites]

Just a thought: your mother is only what, 44? That seems pretty old when it's a parent and you're in your twenties, but it's not really very old at all. It's certainly young enough for it to be realistic to major changes in your life, or to realize that what you thought you wanted when you were young and comparatively helpless doesn't make you happy.

That doesn't mean you should be your mother's confidant, of course, and the other suggestions in this thread about bowing out of that are good. But I get the feeling from your question that you feel like your mother is being selfish and withholding and that she's sort of made her own bed and should lie in it. Your mother is at an age where she's got (with luck) many years ahead of her still, even if she seems old to you. Saying to yourself "I am going to be the main emotional outlet for this friendless guy for forty years; I am going to avoid sex or have sex i don't want for another forty years; I am never going to get to have dinner parties or go to the movies for the next forty years"....that's a pretty big deal, and that's what buckling down in the marriage will entail if her feelings don't generate either change in the marriage or its end.

Your question also suggests that your father just is the way he is - politically, sexually and socially - and it's your mother's job to accept this even if she doesn't like it.
posted by Frowner at 9:34 AM on July 25, 2015 [74 favorites]

Throughout your post, you are continually defending your dad. What about your mom? Does he help out around the house? How balanced is the housework? Is your dad still in the same job he doesn't like? Is your mom just getting tired of hearing him complain about things he hasn't made any effort to change or improve? Does your mom do all of the emotional work of keeping the kids, family and friends close? That can be godawful tiring. Has your dad grown at all from the young person he was when they first got married? It sounds like your mom certainly has.

I would suggest a thought experiment. Instead of immediately defending your dad, listen to your mom and try to see it from her point of view.
posted by jillithd at 9:37 AM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, feel like a few more details here are needed.

1 - If anything, I feel more for Mom - throughout our lives I've had about 200% more bonding with Mom but I just feel the need to defend Dad because he isn't there to defend himself in these conversations. Also, I don't think that just because somebody is less touchy-feely that makes them an inferior person. I feel like that might be a bias held on this forum, one that I hold myself, even, but still. You guys make me wanna defend Dad even more.

2 - I dunno if some of you just prefer big boundaries with your parents, but I like being able to talk to my Mom about stuff. The sex is gross, but just because it's gross, not because of emotional boundaries or whatever. Mom's like, my friend now. A good friend, and I like feeling close and talking about the stuff that matters.

2 - For jillithd: Dad does everything around the house, actually. Chores, cooking, lawn - Mom has him renovating a different part of the house every month. Mom works a lot more and stays late often, and Dad is pretty much the one who does all the housework so... if that's a factor, that's on Dad's side. I've also never heard him complain, although Mom dislikes that he is content in his job and wishes he had more ambition. Mom is the one who reaches out to me and sis more, but calling extended relatives is Dad's thing (because Mom doesn't like em). As far as his growth? I dunno. Again, Dad's a rock. He seems to stay the same, but who knows what's going on in his head?

Also, calling me "rape-y" towards my Mom because I'm worried about her not wanting to hug Dad seems fucked up, thanks for that. I don't want to FORCE her to hug Dad, it's just that when I'm looking at Dad going in for a hug and getting a "No, leave me alone" over and over it kinda makes me think that's a problem and it makes me feel bad.

All that said, I'm willing to accept there's not much I can do. Maybe Mom would be happier with someone else, or no one at all. Still, people like Dad deserve just as much love and benefit of the doubt as people like Mom.
posted by johnpoe50 at 9:53 AM on July 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yeah. Your poor mother.

That said, this is NONE of your business.

Tell your mom to go to therapy. Physically leave the room or simply say "Gotta go!" and hang up the phone if she mentions her sex life to you.

There are so many inappropriate boundaries going on here, you might want some therapy, too. It's a million times not OK that your father has no emotional outlets besides your mother, and that you defend that is.... strange. He can be an introvert and not use the shit out of his life partner. I'm sure he's not a bad person, but that dynamic is not sustainable and you should know better than to think that such a dynamic is sustainable or OK in any relationship.

Get thee some self-help books or therapy so you can unpack whatever unintentionally poor relationship habits you learned growing up. Tell you mother she would benefit greatly from processing her marriage with a professional, and YOU need to stop pressuring her to talk to you about same.

For perspective, I survived heaps of childhood abuse to go on to and enjoy my own family and marriage. I'm aware daily that I have a lot of ongoing self-work to do if I want to avoid the mistakes my own parents made. I'm speaking from experience. Hope this perspective helps you tackle your own concerns.
posted by jbenben at 9:56 AM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Look, you don't actually know anything about your parents' marriage. You don't really know them as people (yet, hopefully) and you're 24, you don't really have a lot of romantic partnerships under your belt yet.

Deal with developing your own life; set conversational boundaries with your parents that you're happy with and let your parents be the human beings with an inner life that is not about you that they are.

If your parents break up, don't blame either of them; don't choose sides; try to love each of them for who they are and what they are to you. Frankly, try this now because you do come off sounding rather unkind toward your mother and there is very little in your description that demonstrates you should be.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

This is just not your business at all. It's really hard, especially at 24, to see your parents as people you don't actually know all that well, outside of their roles as your parents. But you don't. You especially don't know anything about the private history of their relationship and any conflicts over the years that might have led them to where they are today. Parents shield their kids from that sort of thing on purpose, to not cause you stress.

This is not your problem to solve. You should not intervene. You are seeing their relationship through an extremely skewed lens. I know you want your parents to be happy and it sounds like you want them to be happy together, but maybe that's not possible. And even if it is possible, it's not your job to make it happen. Back off.
posted by something something at 10:04 AM on July 25, 2015 [25 favorites]

My parents were like this when I was growing up. It was hard to see my dad try to hug my mom and have her recoil. It was hard to hear her snip at him and to hear her saying things like "get out of my kitchen!" when he would try to socialize with everyone while she cooked dinner. But my dad has never talked about his emotions or even outwardly expressed any feelings other than "I am feeling happy in this particular moment" so I have no idea how this felt for him. I know how it made me think he felt, how I felt like I would feel were I in his shoes, but I have no idea what he actually felt or thought about the whole thing.

They are not like this anymore. It took about three or four years after the youngest of us kids graduated from college, but now they are much happier. The stress of caring for kids, working full time - that was hard on my mom. And my dad was not really big on the whole emotional labor thing. Like, if my mom tried to talk to him about important things, he would literally get up and walk out of the room. Talk about avoidance. So my mom was doing it all, and pretty much doing it all alone. My dad worked full time and still does and he has an incredibly demanding job. He loves his kids and is an awesome man, but he wasn't really there when we were growing up. He was at work. No wonder my mom didn't want to hug and kiss him - she was spent. She spent all her emotional labor on us kids and on her job, and my dad was just another person who wanted more from her and she said no.

Now it is just them in the house. My mom is retired. My dad works full time still but he has a lot less job stress than he did when we were kids. He travels for work a lot less. My mom doesn't cook elaborate dinners anymore, and he doesn't expect her to anymore, either. He has learned how to talk about his emotions a little bit, and has learned to understand my mother for all her idiosyncrasies. And now I can see that they really love each other. My mom still does not like hugs, but my dad shows his affection in other ways because he figured out that she does not really like being touched unless she initiates it. That is just her.

I guess what I am saying is this: marriages are strange beasts. We do not know what they are like unless we are in the marriage in question, and even then I think they can be very inscrutable and complex. I am glad my parents stuck through the hard times because they love each other, and it's visible now, at least to me. It wasn't for most of my life, but that changed. Things change over time.

What really is at issue here is not their marriage, though. It is your involvement and your judgment. This is not really your business. You should try to enforce better boundaries, particularly with your mom, because this is not a good situation right now. I don't know how to say this any other way: you have no idea what you are talking about. This is their marriage, not yours. You have only biased and strange data and that is all you will ever have.

Instead of even giving this more than a passing thought - "I hope my parents are happy" - you should focus on yourself and your own life instead. Your parents and the state of their marriage is not really your concern, beyond wishing them the best.
posted by sockermom at 10:06 AM on July 25, 2015 [31 favorites]

One thing you're going to need to realize, and will as you get older and have more relationship and life experience under your belt, is that you don't get a relationship with a particular person because you're a good, deserving person.

It's not a question of whether your dad is an "inferior person" to your mom. I doubt even your mom sees it that way (although if she does, it's a problem, and probably an intractable one because that would be a sign of contempt, which is a lethal relationship-killer). It's a question of whether your parents, and their respective personality quirks, are right for each other. It's not like, you get relationship XP for each thing you do "right" or each "good" characteristic you have, and if you hit a certain level, you have a healthy, happy relationship. Everyone wants or needs different things. Sometimes one person wants or needs different things depending on where they are or what's going on in their life. The only question is whether they are -- or can be -- right for each other.

It's that last question that's critical, and frankly, the only place they can be helped. I suggest that you encourage them to seek therapy. Both of them. They need to process what they need and how to get it, and if they can get/give it to each other. Despite your best intentions, I suspect that a trained professional is more capable of helping them with this than you. Of course, to do this, you need to accept that the answer might be that they would be happiest apart rather than together. But it could be the opposite, and they will be happiest together. You (and they) will never know until they work through their issues.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:15 AM on July 25, 2015 [18 favorites]

Let me just speak to this, because folks are right to highlight it for you and it's concerning that you don't get what's going on....

"I don't want to FORCE her to hug Dad, it's just that when I'm looking at Dad going in for a hug and getting a "No, leave me alone" over and over it kinda makes me think that's a problem and it makes me feel bad."

First of all, you're making this about you, so here is a direct example of those inappropriate boundaries I mentioned.

Second, there was a thread the other day on Metafilter about Emotional Labor, and in a lot of ways you would benefit from reading it. For starters, you seem to feel it's your mom's job to assuage your dad. I want to point out to you that your father is repeatedly going in for a hug and purposely ignoring that your mother has drawn a boundary and indicated to him there is a problem(s) in their relationship that urgently needs to be addressed. Your mom is pointedly showing your father there is a relationship problem every time she refuses his touch. She couldn't be clearer. Your father has not honestly tried to talk through his issues with your mom, instead he uses the presence of you and your sister to try and emotionally blackmail your mother into ignoring her grievances and return his affection. Affection which feels very hollow to your mother, I'm sure, since your father seems not to back it up by doing the relationship work required to keep a marriage healthy.

I don't want to get bogged down analyzing your folks behaviors, but that's just one deeper reading into what's going on there between them. Suffice it to say:

No one has the right to touch anyone else without their consent.

Bolded because you seem to have missed this important message thus far growing up. You don't have to accept a shoulder rub from a touchy feely boss, no one gets to hug your future children if it makes them uncomfortable, and your dad can't hug your mom if she says no. Full stop.

Hope that cleared some stuff up for you. I think you would definitely get a lot from that thread about Emotional Labor on the Blue, and I hope someone posts a link or you go find it yourself! On my phone, so making links is a little complicated.
posted by jbenben at 10:19 AM on July 25, 2015 [23 favorites]

The emotional labor thread is sidebarred. You, your mother, and your father should read it. So should everyone else in the world, but start with your loved ones experiencing some of the difficulties directly addressed in that thread.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:21 AM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: what we got from her (after some tears and reassurances that we don't think she's a bad person) was that she feels Dad uses her as his only emotional outlet (he doesn't have any friends, true, but it doesn't seem to bother him) and besides that she is frustrated by the differences between them. .... Also, I don't think that just because somebody is less touchy-feely that makes them an inferior person. I feel like that might be a bias held on this forum, one that I hold myself, even, but still. You guys make me wanna defend Dad even more.

It's all the rage here recently, but you should really spend a few hours reading the recent emotional labor thread to understand why many people feel this way. It's not that 'not being touchy-feely' makes anyone inferior - it's that it offloads a lot of work and labor onto the people around them, which in this case means your mom. Your mom told you very honestly how she feels, and she says she is exhausted from doing all his emotional labor ('Dad uses her as his only emotional outlet') and yet you dismiss her concern because it 'doesn't seem to bother him' - no, but it certainly bothers her, and that matters just as much in the context of their relationship. Both parties don't need to agree that there's a problem for there to be a real problem.

Again, Dad's a rock. He seems to stay the same, but who knows what's going on in his head?

Just to help you expand your point of view here, I could never be happy in a relationship with someone who shared so little of their inner world, especially if they were as antisocial as you describe your dad. I would be unspeakably bored and lonely. Maybe your mom feels the same now that she doesn't have kids at home to share with. You talk about her like she is required to stay with him unless he beats her or something, but that isn't the way adult relationships work, even marriages. Just being 'dependable' isn't enough to keep a relationship together; it needs to be mutually satisfying. It sounds like your mom was trying to tell you that she doesn't find it mutually satisfying anymore.

I agree with other posters that the way you talk about your dad being entitled to your mom's sexual attention is super problematic and you should re-examine your attitudes there. Your mom has the right to control what happens to her body, full stop, and if she isn't interested in physical affection or sex with your father, that is none of your business and completely her choice. You should not be criticizing her for those choices, period.

Honestly, I think the best thing you could do is try to be there emotionally for your father a little more. If your mom feels exhausted by being his only outlet, try to take some of that burden from her to whatever extent he'll allow. This also helps you get closer to him, since you seem to know little of his inner world either, and hopefully will give him an emotional outlet and support system in case his relationship with your mother really is on the rocks.
posted by dialetheia at 10:22 AM on July 25, 2015 [55 favorites]

My husband and I are older than your parents, but share a lot of the same circumstances. I'm retired, he works from home. Our kids are out on their own. We are together A LOT during the day and we get on each other's last nerve regularly. We have small spats, we snap at each other, etc. If my husband was introverted, stayed home, looked to me for all his social needs, I would lose my fucking mind and there's no way we could make this work.

They are probably going through a transitional period in their lives and relationships. For me, the issue is your dad's lack of outside interests. You gotta "bring something to the table" to maintain a lifelong relationship. He needs some hobbies and social interactions that do not involve your mom, because expecting someone to be your entire support/entertainment/companion is irritating at best and is just too much of a burden for her.

If you really want to help here, you need to help your dad find that outlet. Take some hobby classes with him, join some clubs together, take up bike riding or dodgeball, join a book club, or anything that gets him out into the world.
posted by raisingsand at 10:53 AM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Your dad is not the same person that your mother's husband is.

By that I mean, there are only two people in any given relationship. Just because your dad comes across as a great guy to you, as his child, that doesn't necessarily mean that he is the husband that this woman (your mother) wants/wanted. And she could probably brush her wants and needs under the rug while she kept herself busy raising children, but now that she no longer has that distraction she is facing the reality of her life, living with this man.

It's for her to work out, to accept what her life is and get happy with it, or to decide it's not working for her and move on.

In short, as others have said upthread, it's none of your business, so stay the eff out of it. There's nothing worse than being in a position in your life where you are unhappy, and having some well-meaning person try to convince you that you really should be happy with what you've got.

You are too biased in this instance to give your mother good advice.
posted by vignettist at 10:59 AM on July 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

To directly answer your question: there is no way to tell if your parents' marriage can be saved. However, it seems pretty clear that if it is going to be saved, what needs to change is that your mom needs to have more of her own needs met either by your father or by other friendships and activities in her life, and she needs to not bear the full brunt of meeting all of your father's emotional needs. Your mother deserves to be happy in her marriage, and there is no way to guilt trip her into being happy in it by making her feel bad about expressing her unhappiness by being cold to your father. The problem in their marriage is not whether or not your dad is a deserving or worse or inferior person: it is whether or not he has the capacity and willingness to change that will be required for him to offer your mother a mutually satisfying relationship.

No doubt this is a confusing time for all of you - the family dynamic has changed, and everyone is reassessing their relationships - for you that means building an adult friendship with your parents and getting to know them in that new light, for your parents it means shifting from interacting with one another largely as parents to just as husband and wife. The fact that things are changing does not mean you don't all love each other, and no matter what the outcome, it doesn't invalidate the goodness of your family life while you were growing up. But it is certainly true that part of having a more adult relationship with your parents is realizing that their marriage was not a fairy tale (no real marriage is) but had ups and downs and frustrations and conflicts, just like every relationship between two people does. The fact that it is your mother's behavior that is causing you to have this realization does not mean it's her fault their relationship isn't magical and perfect.

So how do you all move forward? Well, the thing I would suggest is that you try to be a better friend to your mother. She got married and had children so young that she never really had time to figure out what kind of life and romantic relationship (without the responsibilities of parenting) she wanted as an independent adult. So it's very understandable that now that you and your sister have moved out and she has the time and space to take stock of things, she feels confused - she knows she's unhappy but doesn't know how to fix it. So rather than seeing her completely natural and understandable feelings as a betrayal of your father (or you), focus on her. As a friend, help her think through what would make her happier. What does she want your father to do differently? Is there anything he could do that would make her happier? Can she imagine being happy with him again at all? How can she ask him to make changes in a way that he can hear and accept? How can she stay strong and stand up for what she needs when the decades-long habits of their relationship pulls them back into their old routines? Don't judge her for her feelings. Don't make her feel bad for wanting more out of her marriage. Don't make it about your own feelings about your dad and your childhood. Be a good friend to her, don't just use the mantle of friendship to push her into maintaining a comforting (to you) status quo.

And of course you want your father to be happy too. But just having your mother suck up her unhappiness and pretend everything's okay is not an acceptable path to his happiness. It's not her job to sacrifice her own needs to meet his, or to sustain your illusions about your childhood. Admitting that your parents' marriage is imperfect doesn't mean your father is a bad or unworthy person. Try to be a good friend to him as well - not by defending him but by supporting him and encouraging him through the needed changes in his relationship with your mom.

And if all of that gets too hard, then step back and encourage your parents to work things out in therapy with a trained professional who can help them sort out what they need and how they can improve their relationship, or if necessary end it in the least damaging way possible.
posted by unsub at 11:04 AM on July 25, 2015

Your parents need marriage counseling. Now.
posted by Beholder at 11:07 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

You don't need to feel shitty. Your parents' thing is your parents' thing and you didn't make it and you don't have to feel responsible for it or for either of them and it's lovely that you want to help them. I was thrilled to see you say you intend to read that emotional labor thread and I promise you if you give the thread a chance (actually, a lot lot lot of chances, because if this stuff in this thread makes you feel shitty and condescended to, some of the stuff in that thread is going to seriously sting. I know this because it stings me repeatedly, and I'm in a relatively safe demographic ;most of the stingers are aimed away from me) it will answer not only the questions you're asking but questions you never thought to ask. It's an amazing resource for anybody trying to live in a family, or anybody with friends--anybody human trying to co-exist with other humans AND, not only that, at least one human who has found a way to just not deal that much with other humans and is still happy and not hurting anybody. It's amazing. Mostly I'm popping back in to say if you do read it, please take it slow and take a bunch of breaks and have lots of snacks and beverages while you read and anytime you start to feel hurt or targeted, time for a break and watch some small claims court TV or play air hockey or whatever you like. Think about it and come back later.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:20 AM on July 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yor dad needs a life. You're focused on your mom adjusting to your dad, because she is the one who has changed herself previously and because your dad, as you put it, "is a rock."

Your dad needs to change. Get him out of the house, for a start. Maybe hearing from you what your mother needs will sink in for him enough for him to make a change. Get him friends, get him busier. Maybe an extra money-making side job.
posted by quincunx at 11:20 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's interesting how many of these answers go into analyzing the details of this relationship (though I agree with not pressuring your mom to hug him back or whatever).

My advice would be to start reducing how much you're involved. Instead, encourage your mom to talk to a therapist and to consider getting the two of them to a couples therapist.

If they do divorce it'll be incredibly painful for them. You will want your relationship with them to be separate from their relationship with each other, because the latter will become such a source of pain. You won't want to be seen as talking sides (e.g., pressuring your mom, or being such a confidant to your mom that your dad thinks you helped her make the decision to divorce, if she does). All your involvement now could look different in retrospect, and you may be surprised at how your parents change while going through something so intense. You want them to know you love them no matter what, you don't blame them for the divorce, you're sorry things are so hard now, and that you just want them to be happy.

As this thread shows, you are not a neutral party nor someone who can be 100% supportive to her. You have your own interest. You want them to stay together, but maybe what's best for her or them both is to break up. She needs friends who are 100% on her side who can help her find her own views and voice. So does your dad. You are trying to troubleshoot things, but you have incomplete info, your own biases, and none of the training that a couples counselor has.

tl;dr Start extricating yourself now because the situation may get way more painful for them, and if you're too involved, it carries the risk (hopefully a small one, but a risk) of damaging your relationship with one or both of them, especially since other kinds of support would ultimately be far more helpful to them.
posted by salvia at 11:24 AM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

You know, I'm almost a decade older than your mother and I was also a parent at a young age. What I didn't 'get' at 24 that I 'get' now is that my parents are people, no more or no less than I am. Your parents are still young people. They have the right to live their lives on their own terms, not on yours. At your mother's age, I left my marriage and embarked upon a new life. I couldn't stand the thought of another 40 years of being unsatisfied and resentful, which is what I'd become. Because my children were mostly grown, there seemed to be no reason to stay or to accept the status quo. It was time for me to take care of myself after over twenty years of taking care of everyone else. It's not wrong of your mother or even unusual for her to be questioning the validity of her marriage at this point in time.

As for you, try to remember that at your age, your mother was already a parent responsible for a 5 year old child. I take it that you're not in a similar situation. Imagine though, that you were and how different your life would be, how narrowed the scope of your opportunity and experience would be and how you might feel when your children were no longer your primary responsibility in life.

In short, you're not in this marriage, but your mother and father are. If your mother is not happy in her marriage, that's for her and your father to deal with. You are not obligated or advised to take on the problems of their marriage. Don't allow your mother to use you for emotional support in this matter, but accept what she has told you and perhaps advise her to seek other means of emotional support from a counselor or therapist. Then, accept what happens. Your parents are still relatively young. They are entitled to enjoy the remainder of their lives, whether that be separately or together. You are entitled to enjoy yours without feeling responsible for their marital issues. Please disengage from being your mother's emotional sounding board. It's not a burden you should be carrying.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 11:32 AM on July 25, 2015 [20 favorites]

Gently: so much of this post is about you. What you want. Who you think is right. How their marriage looks to you and how you think it should look. The ways all of this makes you feel. What you can do for your parents' marriage. Honestly, that puts a lot of pressure on your parents' marriage which stands as an intimate and complex connection outside of you and between two people who have parts of themselves and parts of their relationships that you don't (can't possibly) see. Now, you're asking (and asking pretty directly, I might add, by inviting and encouraging discussions with your parents as peers as defending or castigating behavior when you see it) that space of intimate complexity to accommodate a third unit's wants and needs: to try and make their marriage look the way that you want it to and think it should look and to mean what you want it to and think it should mean.

I suspect that I like stronger boundaries than you do in terms of how I conduct my relationships with my offspring and my parents, but even accepting that individuals have understandable differences about their boundary preferences, I still think that it would be helpful for you to try and extricate yourself from the emotional headspace and pragmatics of your parents' marriage. And although there's lots of good ideas up there about ways you might lessen your mom's emotional workload (by getting dad involved in a hobby with you, for example), I wouldn't even advocate taking on those action items. As I tell my offspring repeatedly and sometimes have to tell myself when I'm engaging with my weird parents, "The only person's behavior and feelings you can control is your own." I think that's a key moment in learning "to adult." And I also think that it has the added benefit of letting your parents' relationship be about them and not about you or your sister, which might even be good for their marriage as they navigate their shared history, feelings, and wants more laterally between the two of them now that you and your sister are out of the house.
posted by pinkacademic at 11:37 AM on July 25, 2015 [14 favorites]

One of the things I'm figuring out as I head toward 40 is that no one has a damn clue what's happening in anyone else's relationship. Even if they tell you things, even if you see things, even if you grew up with that relationship in your house. You do not know what their relationship is all about or where it might be broken, and you have neither the responsibility nor the ability to fix it.

They will work through it or they won't, and all you can do is take care of yourself and draw any boundaries you need to protect your own feelings. They might benefit from more separate time and/or some counseling, if you think there's a way to suggest that. But mostly this is not your issue to get in the middle of, except to let them both know that you love them and want them to be happy.

If figuring out where your boundaries should be is hard for you to do, you may want to speak with a therapist yourself, for some expert advice on the matter.
posted by Stacey at 11:44 AM on July 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

The emotional labor conversation is important, but some of the conversation here is a little troubling as an answer; to the extent it becomes *the* lens people are going to start evaluating everything through (while bringing a lot of assumptions to the table about relationships they know little about in the process), you're going to get some advice that may be more about advancing the body of ideas around it than helping you answer your question. I think that's happened here to some degree in this thread, so tread cautiously. And anyone attacking you on the issue is out of line. It's obvious you're trying to do some emotional labor for others yourself and maybe more than you can or should.

With that out of the way...

If your mother isn't getting something that's important to her -- perhaps more engaged relationship and relationship problem-solving conversation from your father, perhaps support in connecting with the social world outside their home that she values -- that's seems like a pretty legitimate concern, possibly a crucial one that needs attentive care. Your Dad may need to figure out a way to step up and help with this. He may even need help learning to do it. Therapy is one way to provide that help without making anyone else in the relationship do uncompensated emotional labor.

Her complaint about not wanting to have sex seems more murky to me. Consent is bedrock, and any entitled position that one partner owes the other sex is a non-starter, but it is not the only entitled position. A categorical decision to avoid sex because it makes one partner uncomfortable can also be an entitled one in a relationship context that usually includes a sexual component (and I say this as someone who is arguably guilty of the latter entitled behavior). It's worth exploring the idea that she may be uninterested in sex because her partner isn't doing things that would make that experience one she desires. But this may well be your Mom's issue as much or more than your Dad's, and her problematic generalization about women not wanting sex when they're older is one that I think would make most people lean that direction. Of course, whether or not *you* should be in the middle of that is another question. That really seems like a job for a professional.

Her complaint about being her spouse's only emotional connection is also murky. On one hand, it's important to be part of a community bigger than a household, it's usually healthier for individuals to have some close emotional connections outside the marriage. It will likely be good for everyone if your Dad starts thinking of other places he would enjoy putting in time, social energy, and gradually building up other emotional connection (maybe church, volunteer orgs, community ed classes, bowling league, whatever). You might even be in a position to identify and suggest some steps. But on the other, it is overwhelmingly the default and reasonable expectation that one's partner will be one's primary emotional connection, one people will often be looking inward for support on outward issues. The only way outside relationships actually touch the issue of the marriage itself is where they either are draining energy that should be directed inward outward, or where their absence plus some kind of conflict means there's a persistent internal imbalance in how much of the emotional work of the relationship is being carried by one partner over the other (or where both partners, even if working equally, are just overburdened). So while a theoretical outside connection might help distribute a persistent load your Dad sometimes directs into the marriage, it's arguably such a load itself that's the real problem rather than the missing extra sink for it a friend might provide. It's probably worth trying to identify what some of those persistent loads might be as much as it is to think about how to make sure he has support beyond your Mom.

The issue of different religious/social values from your Mom is hard to call. On one hand, if they really don't touch many shared decisions your parents have to make together, and your Dad isn't starting any conflicts over them, it really shouldn't be a matter of concern. On the other hand, if those values are deeply held and the reason nobody is talking about them is because one or both members of the couple are conflict-averse (and it sounds likely enough), the not-sharing can lead to a problem where partners aren't having many intimate discussions of their inner lives, and that can empty out a relationship more than outright conflict.

Of course, most of what I'm doing here is reflecting the outline of the issues involved that you gave us, and adding what I think good baseline expectations and red flags are. That's what you're thinking about, so it seems what's best to talk about. But the other thing I'd do is echo others who have noted that your ability to contribute helpfully here is limited. What will happen next will depend primarily on what your parents do, not what you do. Some of their choices may well be different from what you'd want and what will make sense to you.

I don't say this to discourage you from doing anything: clearly you can make limited suggestions to your parents, as friends often do for each other. You could even look for a therapist yourself with the goal of asking them for tools you could pass on to your parents, and if you find one you like you could recommend them to either your parents individually or as a couple. I got a lot out of my early experience with therapy, and I regret not using it in a little more timely manner at some later and recent times. Just want to express that you should set your expectations about what you have control over reasonably.
posted by weston at 12:51 PM on July 25, 2015 [10 favorites]

I think it's really empathetic of you to be concerned about how your dad is feeling - it is really sad when you see someone being rejected emotionally, or it looks to you like they are.

I agre with the other commenters that your mom might also feel bad, and that you could try to see it from her side as well.

Or you could focus more on living your own life, which I'm sure both your parents would really want you to do!
posted by mgrrl at 4:32 PM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

This may help:

Their relationship is not your business. As in, not at all. What they do between them is between them. It does not involve you.

Your choice is how to react.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:18 PM on July 25, 2015

I certainly understand your sympathy for your father. Affection given and received (and some kind of occasional sex life, even) is not an unreasonable thing to expect or want in one's marriage. The consensus here that your dad is wrong to even want this is bizarre.

That said--

> Is there anything I can do to help my Mom and Dad now that their kids are gone and they can't just focus on us anymore?

As far as their marriage goes, probably not. Parents aren't too likely to take marriage tips from their kids under the best of circumstances, and both your parents (for different reasons) seem especially unlikely to do so.

You can try to spend more time with Dad and do things with him. (Can he help you with anything around your home/apt? Is there any project he's working on that you could help out with?) I rather suspect spending time with his daughter(s) will mean a lot to him.
posted by mattu at 10:31 PM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Withholding affection is a form of emotional/verbal abuse. While the 'emotional labor' thread has much to recommend it, I'm afraid many of the responders here are replying in a very gendered manner, and that if the genders were reversed, the responses would be very different.

When I read that your dad does most of the cooking, chores, yard work, renovations and housework, and that your mom recoils at any display of affection, I wonder about the power dynamic in this relationship. I agree with most others above-- your parents need better skills for relating to each other, and these come from intentional work (i.e., individual or couples therapy or similar). There's little you can do, other than perhaps 'being there' for your dad.
posted by Doc_Sock at 3:44 AM on July 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

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