Awkward parental relations: how to prevent?
May 14, 2008 3:07 PM   Subscribe

My divorced parents are both going to be at my college graduation party. How do I deal with this?

My parents divorced when I was in grade school. It was not a friendly divorce; there was animosity on both sides and all of the "how divorced parents should speak to their child" rules were broken as both mother and father openly squabbled and berated each other in front of me. They still do this, making nasty comments about each other when opportunity arises, but now I am old enough to remove myself from the negative situation.

This weekend, both will be at a smallish graduation party at my apartment. Originally, one parent was not going to attend but when that parent's friends indicated that they would come, that parent felt obligated to attend.

I don't know how to interact with both of them at the same time and feel like the situation will be horribly awkward. For example, what if one parent's friends are all there and the other parent's friends are not? Do I just leave one parent sitting on a couch while I interact with other people/other parent?

I am sort of hoping that the parent:parent friends ratio is equal and that they will both be able to occupy themselves and completely ignore each other. But, if that doesn't happen, how do I deal with this other than just getting really drunk?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My divorced parents were both at my graduation and also both went ot my sister's graduation dinner. There are a few things that help this situation. I'd love to say "hey this is YOUR DAY, don't let them screw it up and hopefully everyone can focus on your achievements (go you!) and not on their pettiness, but yes it sometimes doesn't work that way.

1. siblings/distractors - if you can sort of assign people to your parents to sort of make sure they're happy, and in the right space and just keep an eye on them, you don't feel that you have to be hosting or coddling them. I have a sister and at particularly stressful all family events we each sort of "take a parent" and try to focus on that one and keep each other posted on how things are going. These people can also discourage sniping and snarking, make sure the parent doesn't have too much to drink and even suggest they leave if they are an impediment to everyone else having a good time.

2. small discussions. Some people may not like this but I am in favor of the white lie approach where I talk to each parent and say "I know [other parent] can sometimes be unpleasant at these things, so I'm counting on you to try to set a tone and be gracious..." and make your enjoyment of the event a secret mision for each parent. This is mildly patronizing, of course, but with parents who might be jerkish at your party, it may be needed.

3. If they try to buttonhole you, do not be buttonholed. Sometimes parents will try to make a play for your attention in some weird way of having a power trip with the other parent. Find graceful ways for deflecting these ["no I can't open my gifts now" "oh thanks for the bottle of wine, let's open it after everyone's had some champagne" or whatever] and make sure your wingman-type person is also poised to see it. You should be comfortable talking to who you want to and doing more or less what you want and if a parent is trying to cordon you off for themselves you can say that's not the time or the place. It might be a good idea to have follow-up activities planned wiht both of them so you can say "Oh, now is not a great time for us to have an extended discussion about X, perhaps when I see you next weekend?"

4. And, lastly, after all this, presume the best of people and give them the opportunity to rise to the challenge. They may, for whatever reason be tense about seeing each other [particulrly if there are other partners involved] and making it clear that while you are happy to have them with you on your special day they are not REQUIRED to stay if they're not enjoying themselves and THANKS so much for coming etc etc is a good ay to frame it in your head so you're not a mess abot the whole thing.

Best of luck. My parents managed to hold it together and I hope yours do too.
posted by jessamyn at 3:15 PM on May 14, 2008 [5 favorites]

Can you tell them in advance, firmly and in person, that it is important to you that this party go well, that this night is about you and celebrating your accomplishment, and that you need to know that you can depend on them to be civil? Have you ever tried something like that?
posted by prefpara at 3:16 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't interact with them at the same time; they are separate people, now especially.

Send them both a short note (or call them, if required) and say "Mom/Dad, I know you don't get along with your former spouse, and I know that you find it very gratifying to take shots at them, but a party is a party, and I'd like you to help me keep things civil. If anyone does anything to make you feel uncomfortable, let me know right away."

The first one to start any trouble should be asked to leave. Being older and being a parent doesn't eliminate one's obligation to be polite and fun at parties. Treat them like adults, even if you don't think they'll act like it.
posted by chudmonkey at 3:16 PM on May 14, 2008

I went out to my graduation dinner with my mom, my dad (divoced since I was 6), and my stepmom, who had broken up with my dad a couple years prior. I was a bit worried about it beforehand, but everything went fine and everybody behaved themselves quite well. Your family is coming to celebrate your graduation, and they'll most likely be able to put other things on the shelf for a bit. Heck, as long as you have no younger brothers or sisters, your college graduation pretty much means that they never have to interact with each other ever again, since you're on your own now. No more custody battles, no more fighting about who has to pay for what or what toys or clothes at which person's place or anything. If anyone decides where you're going to be for Christmas, it's you.
posted by LionIndex at 3:16 PM on May 14, 2008

Everyone here has good advice. If you think it will be a problem, talk to them first. But really, people tend to recognize the importance of acting civil in these situations and it will probably not be as bad as you think. They won't start foaming at the mouth as soon as they see easch other.

Also, this is why alcohol (in moderation) was invented.
posted by gnutron at 3:22 PM on May 14, 2008

I think that it might help to enlarge the party a little bit -- invite a few more people so you can be absolutely sure that each parent will have plenty of other people to interact with.
posted by Perplexity at 3:24 PM on May 14, 2008

Jessamyn hit the nail on the head. I have been dealing with this same type of stuff since I was a child. There are a few things I have tried to do now that I am an adult that I feel have helped to ease some tension (at least my own!).

If you can, spend time with each parent alone either before or after the party (dinner the night before, breakfast the morning of, etc). That will give them the opportunity to give you gifts privately and will not take away from your enjoyment (hopefully!) of the gift, due to the other parent being present.

The other piece of advice I can give is to not fuel the fire of one parent's hurt and anger. I often find myself in the position of being in a small group with my mother once my father and stepmother have left and all my mother wants to do is criticize my stepmother. What she said, how she acted, etc. I have (just recently learned) to remove myself from these conversations because of the fact that it just makes things worse to agree with my mom. Of course I say just learned because I had the hurt and anger turned on me at Easter for "defending" my stepmother. Now I just choose not to participate in any discussions with her about the subject of my father and stepmother.

Good luck! Don't expect the worst but be prepared for it. They will probably surprise you with how well behaved they all are together.
posted by sisflit at 3:31 PM on May 14, 2008

I had this same experience, except it was a more intimate dinner instead of a party. It will be awkward, but it will not last forever. You are an adult now, so treat them as adults. If they are acting out of line, tell them so, tell them to please respect your time in the spotlight, and if they cannot conduct themselves in a respectable manner then they may leave at any time.
posted by greta simone at 3:36 PM on May 14, 2008

Take the responsibility off of yourself. They need to buck up for your day. Have faith that they will do this. If they can't, that's THEIR deal. Don't take it personally. Then get drunk.
posted by wafaa at 3:52 PM on May 14, 2008

Jessamyn is correct. My aunt's role at these types of things was to distract one parent while I interacted with the other one [distractor] and ultimately, I made sure to warn them of the other's attendance with an expectation that it was important to me that they get along.

Also, don't pre-occupy yourself with it. Their behavior won't reflect negatively on *you* and may provide for hilarious horror stories among your friends/relatives for years to come!
posted by parilous at 4:11 PM on May 14, 2008

Be careful; this happened to me too. My parents divorced when I was 11 and my dad had a restraining order against my mom. The first time they'd ever been in the room together since my divorce was college graduation. I got so drunk the night before, when it was time to cross the stage and get my diploma, I was sweating, seeing black spots, and almost puked and/or passed out when I got up there. So, please, please save the alcohol for after.

That being said, we all ate dinner together (including with hostile step-parents, one of which is still an active drug addict) and they were all well-behaved. I think being the age I was, I thought they'd act badly because I would in that situation and I remembered their fighting from childhood. They remained civil to each other and me.

Now, if you are not that lucky, this is what I would suggest (having dealt with such family drama as a parent foaming at the mouth on drugs and then fall unconscious into their food): If things get uncomfortable between THEM, politely excuse yourself for the restroom. Make a point of not coming back, mingle among everyone else at the party except the parents. Do this every time they start to argue. They will notice and stop. Don't try to arbitrate them; you are the child. They are the parents. Hopefully they will remember that it's your day if they do quibble and stop quickly.

If they begin to speak to you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, touch the person (if you can) on the arm a bit firmly and make eye contact firmly and say, "Please don't speak to me this way on a day like today." Again, hopefully, this will shame the person into stopping.

If you feel goaded to answer something you don't want to, be silent. If things get really bad, leave the graduation party altogether. Have a backup location to go to if the party doesn't go well so you don't go somewhere and get wasted or drive drunk or eat too many donuts or whatever your coping mechanism is.

Seriously, though, I don't think it will come to that.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:33 PM on May 14, 2008

I had pretty much the same fears before my college graduation. In my case, I was most worried about the private family dinner, which consisted of my siblings, one parent and their grandparents and some of their siblings, and the other parent and their spouse (who I do not get along with.) There's plenty of tension, bad blood, people talking about other people behind their backs, etc. So, like you, I was terrified. However, things went surprisingly smoothly. This is what helped me:

-Have separate events with each parent, along with the graduation party and the ceremony. Even if you are only able to run out for lunch or a snack with each parent, it can help reassure them that you do want to share the event with them, and that you value their presence. Give them time to congratulate you in their own way.

-Enlist siblings, friends, relatives, whatever to help you out at the party. It isn't your job to keep your parents away from each others' throats; having other people around to distract you (and them) can't hurt. Furthermore, having other people present can provide a bit of a buffer, meaning that your parents won't be forced to interact too much. I told my siblings I'd need their help, and it really helped keep me calm, knowing that they were there to jump in if necessary.

-Don't underestimate them. There's still a great deal of bitterness and resentment between my parents. However, they've been able to deal with each other cordially for years at important events (high school graduation, parent-teacher conferences, whatever); they were able to deal with each other cordially at dinner as well. Furthermore, everyone else - siblings, grandparents, step-parent, aunts/uncles, etc. - managed to behave civilly and even carry on conversations. There were awkward moments, but overall, it was... surprisingly OK. Despite their problems with each other, your parents still care about you; hopefully they won't want to ruin your graduation by making a scene. Play on the importance of your graduation, if guilt will help keep them in line.

-But don't be afraid to end the night early. Or at least the part of the night that you're spending with both of your parents. Don't get drunk before dealing with them - that could easily end up a disaster! - but make sure they understand you'll be celebrating with friends (or something) after a certain point in the evening. You'll want time to recuperate, whether that means grabbing a well-deserved drink, or collapsing, or hiding in your room, or having a party with friends, or whatever. And that's OK; it's a hard situation to be in, and you deserve some time to recuperate!

But you'll get through it. It'll be intimidating to start out, and at best, it's apt to have awkward moments, but you will survive.
posted by ubersturm at 4:46 PM on May 14, 2008

talk to them individually before the event. ask them to be nice to each other, make them understand that this is an important day for you and that you hope you all can get along peacefully. you have a right to ask them to be both there and you have a right to ask them to be both civil. especially if some time has passed, they should be able to understand this. also arm yourself with a few friends. most people are not going to fight as badly when there are non-relatives around.

and congratulations.
posted by krautland at 5:22 PM on May 14, 2008

Talk to them ahead of time and explain how you want them to behave and why you feel it's necessary for you to address it so explicitly. My parents did the same thing for years and I finally had to explain that I would never invite them to anything meaningful in my life if they continue to act inappropriately.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:06 PM on May 14, 2008

Try as well as you can to give equal time, but realise that if they're that hostile they are likely to see it as yet another way of marking territory and it's a no-win situation you'll have to live with.

I had this happen as a surprise (yay!) a couple of years ago. Awkward and stilted situation, but they both behaved for the two hours spend in each others vicinity - wasn't enjoyable though, and I was happy to get drunk with friends later.

Send the same email to both of them stating "behave of gtfo."

Treating them as adults and telling them to shut up can be rather cathartic...
posted by monocultured at 3:21 AM on May 15, 2008

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