Trau­ma­tised by par­ents’ di­vorce bat­tle

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I AM a col­lege stu­dent and I have a younger brother who is still in school. After 20 years of mar­riage, my par­ents have gone their sep­a­rate ways.

I have wit­nessed many ar­gu­ments at home from a very young age.

My dad is a com­pul­sive drinker and does not want to give up this bad habit. He used to come home from work, some­times late at night, and yelled at my mother over the most triv­ial mat­ters.

Dur­ing my grow­ing up years, I felt ner­vous and anx­ious when­ever we at­tended pub­lic events for fear of a blow-up be­tween my par­ents.

My mother filed for di­vorce early last year. She moved out of the house, tak­ing my brother and me with her.

My par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship has turned ac­ri­mo­nious. I am wor­ried that all this bick­er­ing will have a neg­a­tive im­pact on my brother who is still young and un­able to fully com­pre­hend the com­plex­ity of the sit­u­a­tion.

Both my par­ents have an ego prob­lem and refuse to com­pro­mise to en­sure an am­i­ca­ble di­vorce. They have re­sorted to heated ar­gu­ments. This has placed im­mense pres­sure on me as a stu­dent; I know I have no one to count on.

Both my par­ents con­fide in me, and I am torn be­tween the two. I am frus­trated that they act im­pul­sively when they ar­gue and nei­ther of them is will­ing to com­pro­mise so that we can all put this ugly di­vorce be­hind us.

I worry about my brother who is go­ing through ado­les­cence.

I re­cently found out that my fa­ther had been sex­ting other women to­wards the end of his mar­riage, and this has dis­turbed me even more.

I feel lost at times. I re­ally want to move on. Some­times I am bur­dened with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of tak­ing care of my younger brother.

This trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence has made me a stronger per­son, but I do not know how long I can hang on. How can I move on with my life?

Caught In The Mid­dle

There are sev­eral is­sues in your let­ter, so let’s pick them out one by one.

First, your par­ents are di­vorc­ing and both con­fide in you. Sec­ond, you are con­cerned over the ef­fect these is­sues will have on your brother. Third, you’ve grown up with lots of fam­ily squab­bles.

I am leav­ing out all the com­ments about who is right and wrong in your par­ents’ mar­riage. There is a good rea­son for that. Let me show you what I see by shift­ing per­spec­tive.

Mary is six years old. She wit­nesses her mum and dad hav­ing a fight over who should be wash­ing the car. Mary’s par­ents both make their case to Mary. Mary lis­tens, and then de­liv­ers her ver­dict over who is right and who is wrong.

Okay, what is wrong with that pic­ture? Is it proper for Mary to in­ter­vene in her par­ents’ fight? Of course not! Her role is that of a daugh­ter, not a coun­sel­lor or judge. It is in­ap­pro­pri­ate for Mary’s par­ents to pull their daugh­ter into their mar­i­tal squab­bles.

When you see the prob­lems with Mary and her par­ents, you will have iden­ti­fied the is­sues you are fac­ing.

You are not your par­ents’ coun­sel­lor; you are their daugh­ter. You should have a good healthy re­la­tion­ship with your mum, and a good healthy re­la­tion­ship with your dad.

Stud­ies show that when chil­dren do not have healthy re­la­tion­ships with their par­ents, there can be reper­cus­sions for many years after. These is­sues in­clude hav­ing prob­lems with their own mar­riages as well as de­pres­sion.

So the first thing is to step back from be­ing pulled into these fights. I sug­gest you have a talk with each one, say­ing some­thing like, “Mum, I love you. I’m sorry you’re hav­ing a bad time. How­ever, I love Dad too and it hurts me when you talk badly about him.” As they live apart now, talk­ing to them one-on-one should be easy.

If your par­ents are sen­si­ble, they should re­alise they must not pull you into their fights. It’s a shame their mar­riage isn’t work­ing out. How­ever, they should turn to their own friends for sup­port. They can also con­sult coun­sel­lors, lawyers and other pro­fes­sional par­ties.

How­ever, par­ent­ing is not easy. It’s not like you have to train for the re­spon­si­bil­ity be­fore you get the kids, ei­ther. So let’s be real here. If your par­ents aren’t good at that life role, you may get sulks and re­peated at­tempts to pull you back into their fights.

If this hap­pens, I sug­gest you sim­ply keep quiet. If you refuse to com­ment, they will hope­fully get the mes­sage. If your par­ents are very child­ish, and let’s hope they’re not, they may throw tantrums. Be strong! Re­mem­ber, Mary: you are not in a po­si­tion where you can help.

As for your cur­rent feel­ings about who is to blame, I sug­gest you try not to judge ei­ther par­ent. When you are older, and once you have ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship for years and years, you can talk to them adult to adult. But at the mo­ment, I think you should just con­cen­trate on be­ing a daugh­ter to your mum, and a daugh­ter to your dad.

The sec­ond is­sue, your con­cerns about your brother, is some­thing you can and should deal with. Sib­ling re­la­tion­ships are very im­por­tant and you can help your brother dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time by be­ing his sis­ter.

Let him vent when he needs to, en­cour­age him to get into happy pur­suits, and sup­port him in ev­ery way you can. Sounds huge, right? But it can be as sim­ple as go­ing out for a walk to­gether when your par­ents are hav­ing a text mes­sage fight, or tak­ing him to the cinema for an af­ter­noon’s en­ter­tain­ment.

Fi­nally, your grow­ing up with your par­ents fight­ing and pos­si­bly abus­ing al­co­hol, is some­thing I worry about. Par­ents are hu­man and there­fore they have their flaws. That’s okay but as we spend our de­vel­op­men­tal years liv­ing with them, and they are our teach­ers, their styles can im­pact us in later life.

Your let­ter sounds as if you’re very sen­si­ble but I think it can’t ever do any harm to look into learn­ing ef­fec­tive ways to man­age con­flict in per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. There are loads of good books out there, so you can read up eas­ily.

Al­ter­na­tively, as you are in col­lege, you prob­a­bly have ac­cess to free coun­selling. If you like, this can in­clude all kinds of anal­y­sis of your re­la­tion­ships. How­ever, it can also be as sim­ple as say­ing, “I’m not happy with the way I deal with con­flict. Help me im­prove on this!” That can’t be any­thing but good, right? So go along and have a chat.

I hope this will help you to look at the prob­lem from a dis­tance.

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