Dear Therapist: Should My Parents Get Divorced?

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?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

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 grownups, 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.