Where is (my parents') love?
July 10, 2007 10:37 AM   Subscribe

My parents have a terrible marriage. What can I (the daughter) do?

I'll try to (briefly) paint the picture for you.

My parents have been married for nearly 30 years and seem to not have enjoyed much of it. They are never affectionate (I can only think of one time I saw them kiss just because), don't do things together and regularly speak negatively of each other to me. I describe them as "existing" together instead of "living" together because they don't interact.

My mom regularly sleeps in a different room. We had a guest a couple of weeks ago who was staying in my room so I was sleeping on the couch. That night my mom came into the living room and pouted saying, "You're sleeping in my bed!" When I jokingly said, "Well you do have a room upstairs. You can sleep there for a change." she made a disgusted face and walked away.

They fight about money. They owe money to the IRS, live paycheck to paycheck basically, but my dad will go out and buy expensive things just because he wants them or spends more money than my parents had agreed on, which infuriates my mom. Examples: $400 DVD player (even though my siblings and I had just bought him a brand new one less than a year prior), spending an extra $500-$1000 on car repairs at the dealer (rather than shopping around for a better quote). My mom works more than my dad does, is helping me and my siblings pay for college, but if my dad works overtime he takes that money and blows it on himself (even though they are barely getting by).

My mom is always trying to find ways to get away from him, even on anniversaries. My dad will try and go out to dinner or something, but my mom will insist she's too tired (to him) but will tell me how she just can't stand to be around him. My dad complains about how my mom doesn't tell him stuff and they both tried to use me as the messenger in between them.

My mom regularly complains about how selfish my dad is, from him cooking entire meals just for himself to him choosing to watch tv rather than spend time with me and my siblings (going to graduations, attending school recitals, PTA meetings, just everyday time, etc.)

The tension is ridiculous and my mom has mentioned divorce (to me) but I know they won't get divorce (religious reasons).

I'm going to be 22 soon (female), just graduated from college and am back at home to save money for grad school in a year. Younger sister (18), older brother (24) both living at home, though my sister is leaving for college in the next few months.

What can I do? I didn't want to get involved before (and wanted to tell them both to stop complaining to me about each other) because I know my mom's complaining over the years has negatively affected the way I feel about my father. As I've gotten older, I've been able to see how my mom isn't as blameless as I had thought.

I want to know what is and isn't appropriate for me to say, or what kind of advice I can and can't give (mainly talking financial because I know nothing about being married, obviously).

They are both incredibly stubborn and feel they are right, but since I will be here at least for a year (got to escape for the past four years in college), I feel like I've got to do something.

Please help.
posted by PinkButterfly to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can stay out of the way and not get hurt by it.

They've been at it longer than you've been alive. You can't help.

Yes, this hurts, but they have to want to change, and you've given me no evidence of that.

So save yourself more pain and damage and don't get in the middle of it. It will only hurt you and your relationship with them.

Live your life. Be happy and any time one of them tries to drag you into it by saying bad things about the other, thell them to knock it off and not talk about your parents that way.
posted by Ookseer at 10:43 AM on July 10, 2007

What do you know about finance and managing money? If they want to listen, tell them what you know.

But don't forget, until they're ready to change, there isn't a lot you can do. It's their marriage, remember, not yours. If they're accepting of this status quo, then you'll be banging your head against the wall. If they can't figure it out after spending 30 years together....
posted by Solomon at 10:44 AM on July 10, 2007

There isn't anything you can do except wait it out and decide that you won't take sides. That involves walking away and not engaging them when one parent starts in at you about the other, which can be hard.
posted by sian at 10:47 AM on July 10, 2007

I think the best thing you can do for yourself is not get involved. Leave the room when you feel uncomfortable -- do what you can to take yourself out of the situation.

If they ask, tell them to nut up because they aren't willing to do what it takes to be happy whether it be together or separate.
posted by spec80 at 10:47 AM on July 10, 2007

It's their marriage. They're adults. Adults who have evidently chosen to keep making themselves and each other miserable, but adults nevertheless. You are not their marriage counselor or their clergy or their confidante. And you are actually extremely lucky that apparently they haven't tried to make you play any of those roles. For your own emotional health, DO NOT take on those roles yourself. Do not insert yourself further into their dysfunction. I know you're their daughter and this is sad to watch, but it's not your job.

Your job is to leave the nest very soon, and start your own life. And in doing so, I personally think the most productive thing (IMO) is to consider very hard how their marriage will be an example that you aren't going to replicate in your own relationships in the future.
posted by scody at 10:48 AM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Recommending couples therapy is probably the best thing you can do. Other than that, there's not much you can do.
posted by electroboy at 10:50 AM on July 10, 2007

I'm living at home after being away and it's like I'm living with a totally different family. It's hard coming back, no matter the circumstances.

I'd say that the best thing for you and the other kids to do is to move on with your life and avoid giving either parent advice - your parents' relationship is theirs; they might see any attempts by you to mitigate or improve things as over the line. My parents divorced while I was away at college, and since then I've had both of them talk to me about their relationship before and after; I try to listen, console, and sympathize, but they both realize the position they put me in, so I think they know that I'm just trying to be understanding without taking sides. They let me listen, I tell them what I think based on what they say if they want me to, and it ends there.

Your mom might also be implying that divorce isn't an option because she wants to make sure you and your siblings are stable and established enough not to need their dual-parent household to come home to on Thanksgiving or for laundry or something. My mom felt incredibly guilty about moving my stuff (which I asked her to do) to her new place after she and my dad split, and was constantly fretting about whether I liked it (I did); parents want the best for their kids, most of the time, and perhaps your mom is worried that being divorced means she'd be being a bad mom.

Are you still close to your peer network from college? Feel free to go fly out to see them every couple of months if you can afford it - vacations help everyone cool off a little.

I'm going to refrain from commenting on your parents' relationship, because I don't think that's what you want us to do.

Good luck.
posted by mdonley at 10:55 AM on July 10, 2007

You could remind your mother that not getting divorced for religious reasons is not the same as living separately. Tell her to go get her own apartment or kick him out. No need to get divorced.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:06 AM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was in this very situation for a while myself - home from college, parents hated each other and not only complained to me, but took it out on me. My social life absolutely flourished that year, because I went out every single night of the week just to get away from them. Now that I think about it, though, it was all bars-clubs-drinks-drugs. Eventually I just moved out. Getting away from them was a good thing, spinning out of control...not so much, probably. I guess my point is to be careful what your frustrations drive you to do, and most importantly, don't ever beat yourself up for their problems. Best of luck, and don't hesitate to email me if you need any moral support. I know it sucks.
posted by infinityjinx at 11:11 AM on July 10, 2007

What can I do?

Nothing. It isn't your marriage.

If it makes you uncomfortable you can ask your parents not to speak ill of each other to you.
posted by OmieWise at 11:18 AM on July 10, 2007

The best thing you can do is live your life well. Then they'll learn from your example. It'll take them years and years to catch on, but they might.

I know it's hard to watch your parents make bad decisions or be unhappy. Especially when you're in the process of really getting your life together.
posted by salvia at 11:48 AM on July 10, 2007

Been there. I put a stop to the confidante role (where they complained about each other to me in a really inappropriate way). I actually had to say to them, "I will talk to you about anything you like except mom/dad and your relationship. I will not talk about that with you." And then, I would follow that up with either a reminder when they began to talk or I would excuse myself from the room. Eventually, they stopped talking about each other to me.

They were angry about this at first. Not yelling. But the cold shoulder, snide comments, passive-aggressive stuff. Be prepared for the possibility of that. When you push a dysfunctional relationship in a healthy direction, there is always the chance of "push back" I just ignored it and tried to act as polite and neutral as possible. I think that it actually took a couple of years for my relationship with my parents to improve. Which it did, after all three of us were out of the house and they were forced to confront each other without any kids to hide behind.

Strangely, they have come to some sort of truce (and I always expected them to divorce and thought that it might be for the best.) It isn't sunshine and roses. But they tolerate each other. Not the marriage I want for myself, but then, I had the opportunity to have a different marriage.
posted by jeanmari at 11:51 AM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm going to buck the trend and not say "nothing" because I don't think that's helpful here--I'm sensing you are at the end of your rope and need to do something!

The two biggest problems are the financial situation with your Dad's spending, and the fact that they are emotionally divorced already (that's a therapist's term that seems to fit here) but believe religious reasons will not allow them to actually divorce.

First of all, as far as religious reasons go, even the Catholic church will allow a divorce in extreme circumstances. You might want to find out more about what their religion does allow--such as a separation--and then talk to your mother about her specific beliefs and what she can do.

If religion is really important to both of them, then I would also strongly suggest you speak to the religious authority figure (rabbi, priest, etc) your parents would trust and let him know you are worried about your parents. Perhaps he could sit down with them as a couple and at least show them the effect this is having on their kids' lives.

As far as the financial issues go, if your parents separated, would you be in a position to help either one of them financially, and have you ever sat down with them and discussed this? Have you spoken to your Dad about his selfish spending habits? Have you advocated separate checking accounts? I would think anything that might take the financial pressure off of your Mom and thus get rid of a lot of the resentment she feels over your Dad's spending would be helpful to their marriage.

Sorry you are stuck in the middle of all this. You should know, too, that you can't always see a relationship clearly if you aren't in it yourself. Maybe after sitting down and talking with them, you will at least be able to come away with a clearer picture of your parents' marriage.
posted by misha at 12:04 PM on July 10, 2007

If they want to work on it, I'd recommend these books.

His Needs, Her Needs
Love Busters
and the companion workbook

If they don't want to work on it, I don't know what to say except that there's nothing "religious" about hating the person you vowed to love and cherish.
posted by stuboo at 12:15 PM on July 10, 2007

I'm going to buck the trend and not say "nothing" because I don't think that's helpful here--I'm sensing you are at the end of your rope and need to do something!

misha's comment is sweet and all, but I think it's bad advice. It misses the point of the "you can't do anything comments." It isn't simply that it's difficult to take responsibility for someone else's relationship, it's that you fundamentally cannot do it. The more disturbing possibility, and the reason that misha's advice is potentially damaging, is that you'll end up really resented by both of your parents. There's nothing in your post that even suggests that they want to change their relations with each other (assuming for the moment that divorce is simply a severing of those relations).

It's hard to see your parents go through something like this, but there is nothing in your comments that makes it seem as if they'd be amenable to your interventions. There is a difference between really, really wanting to be able to help, and whether or not your interventions are really likely to achieve that help. You may just find that you cannot effect change, but you may start the kind of family feud (now with you, deservedly, at the center), that will haunt you for years to come. Part of being an adult is realizing that your parents have a relationship to which you do not have access, and, barring outright abuse, should not have access.

Of course, I could be wrong, it could all end well, with everyone happy and thanking you for your help, but most family dramas don't play that way.
posted by OmieWise at 12:35 PM on July 10, 2007

Your job is to leave the nest very soon, and start your own life. And in doing so, I personally think the most productive thing (IMO) is to consider very hard how their marriage will be an example that you aren't going to replicate in your own relationships in the future.

This is fantastic advice. Time spent investing in your parents' emotional lives is time not spent investing in your own. For whatever reason, they've chosen this life of conflict and misery. Anything you could do to better their situation is likely to be indirect at best.
posted by felix betachat at 12:47 PM on July 10, 2007

This sounds almost exactly like my parents' marriage, except they rarely fought about money. Come to think of it, they rarely fought about anything. They didn't fight, therefore they didn't make up, there was just never much passion in the relationship. I called them indifferent.
My mom also did to me what your mom is doing to you by treating you as a confidante or a "pal" and telling you how unhappy she is. My mom started doing that to me at 15 and my parents were divorced right after my 18th birthday. It, to this day, messes me up to remember how I felt like I was keeping a secret or lying to my dad. I say this because you need to take yourself into consideration too. Tell her to talk to a friend or a counselor, not you. You're not her peer, you're her daughter and her husband's daughter too. Yours is not an unbiased opinion.
But, as most above have said, there's not much you can do. I remember the tension being so thick in my house, you could cut it with a knife. I don't envy your position but I do sympathize.
But try to remember that you're an adult now too, with your own life and things to figure out, and pretty soon you won't be living there amidst the tension. Maybe just make some suggestions for marriage counselors or individual counseling for each parent, and then bow out. Unfortunately, there's nothing more you can do to change or better things. They are the way they are.
I'm so sorry to hear of what you're going through. It's no fun, at all.
posted by slyboots421 at 12:58 PM on July 10, 2007

Consider that they could well both be worse off if they separated anyway. The status quo sounds crap to those of us who are young, but to people in middle age and beyond, the status quo is a reassuring rut.
posted by wackybrit at 2:08 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I personally think the most productive thing (IMO) is to consider very hard how their marriage will be an example that you aren't going to replicate in your own relationships in the future.

Great advice, and I've done this myself, but I'd caution to not go too far in the opposite direction -- i.e., jump ship at the first sign of trouble. (I question myself on this quite often.)
posted by LordSludge at 2:24 PM on July 10, 2007

Speaking as someone who should have learned the lesson earlier than I did: You can't fix your parents.

Make your concerns clear to them, and then understand that their inability to address any of your concerns of fix themselves has nothing to do with how much they love you.
posted by Good Brain at 2:27 PM on July 10, 2007

The default Ask Metafilter response of "you can't do anything, live with it" says more about the answeree than anything else.

PinkButterfly, it's possible that this is the only way your parents know how to live, and in fact are most comfortable this way, but that doesn't mean you have to sit back and let them be assholes to each other.

My parents are nuts. Part of getting them to respect me as an adult was to start calling them on their bullshit. They don't like being lectured by me, but now they know that when they complain about their issues (with life, the universe and everything), I'm going to offer them three solutions and expect them to choose one.

Dad watches too much TV? "Throw the TV out."
Mom can't stand to be around Dad? "Go spend a weekend with your favorite sister."

Do my parents take my advice? Rarely. But at least it shuts them up.

Having said that -- being in a household like that for a year is going to be really rough on you. If you really can't live anywhere else, make sure you make a habit of getting out into the real world every day. Crazy is contagious.
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:36 PM on July 10, 2007

Staying in the confidante role is making things worse, not better. As long as you are there as a confidante, your mom blows off steam to you, and not talking to the person she actually needs to talk to, your dad.

Just. Stop.

If you stay in the triangle, you just distract them from the real issue, which is each other.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:19 PM on July 10, 2007

I'm 23 now but when 15...

(Obviously everything I will ever say on this subject is biased but please look beyond any emotion, amongst it, are 8 years of observations and thought).


I don't give a fuck who you are it's never okay to be saying things to a person about their parents. For fun just imagine saying the things they say to you about each other but about one of their parents. Delicious thought, huh? You wouldn't even dare!!

What can you do to help? The 'pawn' thing just feels so right, I know. They know you too well regardless. Have you tried different approaches with them? (I'd like to get a better idea of the situation and offer you everything that I can)..

What do they want? You mentioned so very little about your father. I can't even picture him, just your mothers words? I'm not even entertaining the idea your mother associates 'my husband' with anything flattering. So what does she want? Divorce is out? So...? Your father seems to enjoy retail therapy but what is you escape, Chick?

Where does a girl get the idea she should have a full grown adult on each shoulder and haul them uphill? With the right wind maybe...But they protest so bitterly and are determined never to go...
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:01 PM on July 10, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your responses. The consensus seems to be stay out of it and I will do that.
posted by PinkButterfly at 10:18 PM on July 10, 2007

You seem sad, Chicka... What would You change? Then look at it from the individual perspectives of the other four in your family. What would be in their best interests? And then what would You hope for them?

I'll explain what I'm trying to get at. For years I passionately loathed mums' SO. About a year ago I was thinking about it -'Sure he's a jerk but you know other jerks, bigger jerks in fact...' So I thought I'd explore the possibility of the kids always want their parents to be together theory. I'd always rolled my eyes and dismissed it.

So I opened up to the thought... nothing. Started poking at it. 'Parents together? Meh. Parents getting back together?' Something, ok... 'Ok edit stuff out - and Dad's pleased. Yeah I want that for Dad. Now mum...' Smile fades. 'No... I wouldn't want that for mum, dad's a bit of a jerk too... OMG!! - My mum LIKES jerks!! I laughed and shook my head and have been in a good place since.

You can't change them, my Chicka, but you can save yourself alot of heartache, hey? It might seem silly to ask but do they know how it makes you feel? You just seem so defenceless... Be brave, instead of absorbing all the unpleasant, unhappy things become a mirror for it. So they can see things for what they are.

Make an effort to be happy (in yourself - find things that really truly bring you joy) They will likely be interested. If they start any of their crap. Bang! hit pause - become like an impassive stone giving and taking nothing from the interaction. It's important you go absolutely blank.

Then you either wait 'til it ends, walk off or just interupt with a complete change of subject, whatever feels right. At the same time pause comes off, like nothing happened. Even the slowest person gets the idea. It works on my Kitties too when they're trying to boss me around a bit much... Hairy Bastards... :) *Big Hug*
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 12:38 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd like to second others' advice about recognizing your own parents' marriage as an example of how not to conduct a relationship - but I'd also like to suggest finding some positive examples as well. Befriend older couples (friends' parents, maybe) who can provide an object lesson in how to conduct a respectful and loving relationship. That's ordinarily a role parents play, and if yours didn't, you still need to learn how somewhere, and I would actively seek out opportunities to learn if I were you.
posted by catesbie at 8:58 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not just 'do nothing.' I'd say look to move out ASAP. What is worth repeating is that you can still be their daughter but you have to draw the line about being their personal live-in confidante/marriage counselor. It's not fair to you. You can't affect them or unfortunately, help them. Just back off and save your own sanity. (yeah I had to pay a therapist lots of $$$ for this advice I just gave you for free! lol)
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2007

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