To the child whose parents are fighting, I hope these words help you.
You are not alone
I know it may not feel like anyone can understand the burning feeling in your heart right now; that no one has had to live through the same pain, sadness, anger and frustration that you are going through. And that may be true. Everyone’s family situation is different and even if you have siblings, your experiences of the same trauma may not be the same.
But what many of us have been through is the fallout- the disillusionment and disappointment that come with realising that our parents are not infallible. We have looked up to them as idols and they have proven themselves deeply flawed humans, just like the rest of us.
We lose hope and look at our friends’ families, who seem to always have it together, to always be happy. It is our shameful little secret and we can’t talk about it- we have to protect our parents. Besides, the world wouldn’t understand anyway.
What I would like you to know is that all of us put up a front. We hide our deepest secrets and pain from the world. You would be surprised at how many of your friends and random strangers on the street have felt as you feel today. Some, like you, have recently had their world crash down. Others have been living with this reality since they can remember. And all offer camaraderie.
Talk to them. Your friends, siblings- anyone that you have wanted to confide in but have felt that you could not. There is no shame in admitting your worries. You are brave to be seeking help. They may not be able to offer all solutions and you don’t need to feel obliged to act on any of their well-meaning advice. Simply wash in their concern and understanding of your dilemma. Take comfort in their stories of shared distress.
You have been hurt by the people you love the most but that hurt is not a cross you alone must bear. Share your vulnerabilities and you will feel stronger for it.
It isn’t your fault
Many times, we take the blame on ourselves. It must have been the added stress of children that made them fall apart. If you know of something that you are doing that is contributing to their conflict, then, by all means, stop it. But most of the time, their quarrels have absolutely nothing to do with us. If you look at the crux of the fights, their unhappiness usually stems back to an age-old contention, something that they have not been able to reconcile from the start. It could be incompatible principles, upbringings or world views, but whatever it is, it has been brewing since the ‘I do’. Nothing you have done or could have done would have brought these 2 people down a different path than they find themselves on today. They have advanced each step through the choices they both have made and you cannot give yourself the credit of having made those decisions for them. Free yourself from the undeserved guilt.
Their happiness is not your responsibility
The urge is there, to fix it, to make everything better again. The duty is strong too- I am their child, I should help. These are all valid emotions. Naturally, we hate to see people we love at odds. Naturally, we want to pull out the thorn that is causing our own distress. But the situation is often much more complicated than that. At times, there seems to be no amount of mediating, paraphrasing, affirming and setting straight that can save this drowning ship. Just when you think the storm has settled down for a while, another wave crashes in and topples the whole boat. It is maddening. It is disheartening. All these failed missions eventually begin to affect your mood. You can’t concentrate in school/ at work, every happy moment seems to be tinged with sadness and there is just an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and despair.
You dream of packing your parents off to a marriage counsellor, of pulling a ‘Parent-Trap’ on them and making them see that they do still love each other. Of doing one last, final, desperate act- something, anything- to wake them up from this nightmare, to have them hug and laugh and admit they were foolish, that it was all a mistake.
But it never happens. And slowly, you begin to lose hope that it ever will. This stalemate has become your new reality and there is a dead feeling of resignation where there used to be hope. You have failed in your mission. You don’t even try anymore. Your tired, glazed eyes take in scene after scene of dissatisfaction and something begins to glow from the embers in your chest. It is quiet at first but will soon grow into a raging furnace. It is resentment. At the two people you love the most, whom you gave your hopes to for protection and who have thoughtlessly ripped them apart. Why can’t they just grow up? Stop being so selfish. Can’t they see what this is doing to the rest of us? If they are so unhappy maybe they should just- just… why should I have to deal with any of this? It isn’t fair. You come to the conclusion that your parents are utterly irresponsible and that you must be the martyr that will spend the rest of his/her life trying to salvage them.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. You don’t have to go through this torture of bubbling hope, herculean strain, crushing disappointment and weary resentment. It is a toxic cycle bound to repeat itself into oblivion. Instead, admit from the start that there is nothing you can do. This is difficult, because it means also admitting that you have no control over what is happening. But that is the truth of the matter. You have no control over your parent’s actions and decisions. They are two fully autonomous adults- when they choose to wound one another in harsh words and thoughtless actions, they do this in full awareness of the consequences. Sometimes, we must accept that other people’s battles are their own to fight, no matter how painful it is to watch from the side lines. As our parents did for us, we must trust in the necessity of letting them learn from their own mistakes. Their struggle is their own and it is unrealistic to think otherwise.
As in all things, we only have control over one person- ourselves. We may not be able to choose our circumstances but we can choose our response. We can decide that no matter how bad the chaos gets around us, we will strive to remain calm. We can set boundaries as to how much we are willing to get involved. This is not selfishness. Give counsel when it is sought, gently steer them when the opportunity arises, but do not expect to be able to rescue them from capsize; do not be affronted if your advice gets lost in their old ways.
This distinction between their responsibility to their marriage as a couple and your responsibilities to them as their child will save you a lot of heartache and headache. There will still be times of emotional fluctuation when they hit a rough spot, but you will no longer feel as though you too are at risk of drowning every single time.
They don’t love you any less
This is a question that floats in our subconscious, afraid to breach the surface. Most times, we may not even be aware that we have this fear. If they are so unhappy, do they regret getting married? Perhaps they regret having us as well. Are we stopping them from pursuing their own happiness? These are the worries that pile up in our mind long before the D word is ever mentioned. It makes us hold back when speaking to our parents, hesitant to look them in the eye, afraid to know the answer. In everyone’s flurry to reconcile the two warring parties, the third internal battle often goes unnoticed.
We build our identities on ‘stable’ structures- our family, friends, religion, work etc. When any of these begins to crumble, so too does our sense of self and self-worth. We need assurance from our parents that though the bond between them is changing, their love for us as their child has not. It is something most parents would rush to assure once asked, but may neglect to emphasise otherwise.
So if you are in doubt, just ask. It is better than the uncertainty of not knowing. But chances are you are worried over nothing.
They may or may not still love each other
This is a something we may blurt out to one party or the other in the lull of a silence. Do you still love Mum/Dad? It seems vital that we must know because if the answer is yes, there is still hope. If the answer is no, then all is lost. But the reality is far from that simple. They may still love each other and choose to separate, or they may no longer feel any love, yet stay in the marriage. Emotions are so convoluted that they may not know at all. Or perhaps they have been avoiding this issue and your question has forced them to re-evaluate their relationship. When we as children ask this question, we must understand its limitations and be prepared for the consequences.
It’s okay to talk about divorce
The D word is scary. When thrown out in a fit of passion, it is meant to wound- and it does. But more terrifying still is when it is spoken in seriousness. It means a whole other world that is mutually exclusive to the one you now reside in. It is final. When Divorce happens, your current reality ceases to exist.
Except that that is not entirely true. Divorce does not have to be a mythical horror, spoken about only in shadows. If we do that, we accord it more power than it should have. It is a big decision, to be sure, and one that should not be approached lightly. But precisely because it is such a big decision, we should discuss it properly with all parties involved. And that includes us, the children.
Often times, parents are afraid to broach the topic because they do not want to make us worry. But we can see exactly what has been going on for months or years and the toll that it has taken on all parties - we are not blind.
We love our parents, we don’t want them to be miserable- we want them to be happy. And if this means discussing ALL the options that are on the table, then so be it. Just because divorce is discussed does not mean it will be taken. And just because we are open to talking about it does not mean that we have given up hope on their marriage or on them.
Sometimes, all people need is the knowledge that they have the freedom to choose if they so wish. Or perhaps the offered reality of an alternative they have long viewed as their ‘escape’ will not appeal as much as they first thought. Whatever the family decides, it should be done as a whole, with everyone upfront about discussing all options, including divorce.
You are not doomed to repeat their mistakes
It’s not true. Not all marriage has to be like this. Just because your parents have lost the thread at the moment does not mean they were never happy together, that they will never be happy again. Marriage has hope- Love has hope.
It is easy to be demoralised about your own potential, to watch the power couple that has always held centre stage tear each other up and think- what’s the point? If we all end up like this, then what the hell is the point.
Do not allow yourself to fall down this pessimistic, fatalistic well. You are not your parents. You are a different person entirely and you will choose how you behave in the future.
And despite how fruitless it all seems right now, there is a point in all this suffering. You have just had an excellent case study in what not to do. Every little thing that you wish you could make your parents see- store that up in your mental inventory. It is a promise to yourself and to your future partner that you will never repeat these sins against each other. Look into your own heart at the sorrow that is there and swear to your future children that you will never put them through this pain. Mister Auguste Rodin was correct when he said ‘Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely’.
It will pass
I know some days it seems like it will never, ever, end. Either make-up right now or get a divorce already- don’t go putting us through this crap any longer. That is the worse part- the uncertainty, the dread that it might go on forever. But I am here to tell you that nothing remains unchanged. For better or for worse, your family will move forward from its current situation. Whether it is because time has grown over old wounds, age has mellowed them, other priorities have stepped in, they have finally learnt to communicate better or have called it quits, there will be an end to it. Change is inevitable but we are human- we will adapt.
When the ashes have settled and the smoke has cleared, look out- we will build our worlds again, together.