For quite some time, I’ve known that my parents haven’t gotten along. They are polar opposites: My father is mild-mannered to the point of reticence; my mother is mercurial and can go from playful and loving to angry in a matter of minutes. Often, when they fought in the past, I played mediator even though I was a teenager. After I left for college, the fights became bigger and more serious.
Now my mother seems to resent my father’s very existence. My father has retreated from her and the rest of us. I have only really seen him happy when my mother is out of town.
My parents have never once talked about divorce openly; they come from a social, religious, and cultural background that attaches a lot of shame to it. But recently, my father confided in me—an act that I see as monumental—that after a particularly heated fight, he realized he was reaching a breaking point. He said he has been thinking of divorce, unless something can change. He is open to marriage counseling, but he knows that persuading my mother to attend is an uphill battle. I know that he came to me because he thinks I might be the only one in our family who can convince her. I’m closer to my mother than my father or sister are, and I realize I have many of her tendencies and can read her mood better than they can. But I have no clue how to approach her, because I suspect, based on previous but brief conversations we’ve had about their marriage, that she’ll see my intervention as me taking my father’s side over hers.
I want her to know that I’m asking from a place of love as her son, in the hopes that there can be reconciliation if she agrees to work for it. I’m worried that if I don’t approach it correctly, she’ll shut the idea down completely. How do I avoid that?
I can imagine how hard it has been for you to see your parents cause each other so much pain. But there’s another aspect of this that you don’t mention—their fights aren’t just painful for them; they’re also painful for you.
Kids rely on their parents to create a calm, predictable, and harmonious home environment that serves as a haven, a secure base to return to each day. When there is chronic strife in the home, that safe space is compromised, and kids will go to great lengths to try to restore it. Not only are these efforts generally ineffective, but the kid is also forced into the position of what’s known as a parentified child— a role reversal in which the child takes on responsibilities that belong to the adults.
For example, a child whose father died might be told, “Take care of your mother. You’re the man of the house now.” Or a parent may inappropriately confide in a child, relying on them to fill an emotional need that their adult partner should. A parentified child might also be tasked with taking care of a sibling at a young age, because a parent isn’t capable of fulfilling that responsibility—because of, say, addiction or depression. Or the case may be that a kid—like you—tries to bring stability to the home by mediating his parents’ arguments.
The common denominator of parentification is that a child is put in a developmentally inappropriate position, the consequences of which persist into adulthood. As grown-ups, many formerly parentified children feel overly responsible for the well-being of those around them while ignoring their own. If you know people who gravitate toward caretaking roles, are highly invested in being the peacemaker, and have trouble letting go and being playful (it’s hard to be playful when you have the weight of adult responsibility on your shoulders), there’s a good chance that this person was a parentified child.
You seem to think that your job right now is to find a way to convince your mother to go to couple’s therapy and thereby save your parents’ marriage, but your job as an adult is instead to redefine your role in the family and thereby save yourself from this long-standing pain. Because you’ve taken on the role of referee in your parents’ fights for many years, it will take some emotional rejiggering for you to not feel responsible for fixing your family’s pain. But it will be well worth the effort.
Here’s how you can start. First, talk to your mother, not about her relationship with your father, but about her relationship with you. You might tell her that you love her very much, and that because of your love for her and your desire to remain close, you want to have an honest conversation about your relationship now that you’ve left home and have come to see things from this new perspective. You can explain that you have no interest in getting involved in your parents’ marriage, so you’re no longer going to mediate in any way when they fight. At the same time, though, you want her to know that being part of a family in which there’s so much conflict affects you deeply. You can explain that it makes you sad and anxious, and that you can imagine not coming home as much in order to avoid this kind of pain, and later, choosing to minimize your future family’s exposure.
Then you can suggest that she pursue therapy—not for your father’s sake, but for yours. You can tell your mom that you wonder what’s going to change to make your family one that you look forward to spending time with, and that you believe her having a person to talk to about what’s going on will improve her life—which will, in turn, improve her relationship with you. Remember, you can’t force someone to change, so the point isn’t to get her to change. It’s to show her that you’ve decided to change.
You can have a similar conversation with your father. Let him know how much compassion you have for his pain, clarify that it’s not your role to get involved in your parents’ marriage, and suggest that talking to a therapist—even if he goes alone—can help him better understand what’s going on, and offer him a positive pathway for change.
Finally, many people who grow up focusing on their parents’ needs neglect their own, and that may be the case with you as well. Once you acknowledge that you aren’t responsible for your parents’ well-being, you can start to focus on your own. Instead of investing yourself in getting your mom to a therapist, consider how you might benefit from therapy. A therapist will help you identify your needs, support you in disentangling yourself from your parents’ marital issues, give you a place to work through the pain of seeing your parents in pain, and model healthy boundaries that will come in handy as you go through the normal developmental process of forming relationships with your peers—which is, at long last, exactly what you should be doing at your age.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.