Saturday 1 August 2015

When Your Married Relations Squabble

I will never forget the first time I felt on a level of equality with my mother and grandmother. I was 25 or 26, married, and visiting from the city where I lived with my then-husband. He didn't like coming with me because he didn't like my family. Let's not go there. Anyway, I was in the kitchen and my mother and her mother were sniping at each other. It was probably very mild sniping, as my mother was the apple of her mother's eye, but eventually I got sick of it and said, "If you two don't cut it out, I'm going home."

They cut it out.

Holy guacamole. Two of the three primary authority figures in my life had just caved before me. For a very long time I assumed it was part of the magic status that comes along with being a Married Woman. However, I now realize that it really stemmed from being acknowledged by both as an adult. There are other ways to be acknowledged as an adult--setting up your home away from home is one, having a proper 9-5 job is another, handing your mother  rent money because you are over 21 but still living in her house is another.  Adult is as adult does.

That said, your mum and dad and grandmas and grandpas are always your mum, dad, grandmas and grandpas, so they are always going to have one heckuva psychological influence on you, sometimes even after they are dead. Benedict Ambrose's heroic maternal grandmother was so influential in the life of B.A. that although she is on the road to heaven, she is also haunting my kitchen, telling me I am washing dishes the wrong way.

One thing it never occurred to me to do--not in a million zillion years--was intervene between my mother and grandmother. And to give them credit, it never occurred to either of them to ask me to take their side on any dispute. I seem to have grown up under very good, if rather strict, parenting, for I cannot remember a single serious instance of my mother moaning to me about my father, or my father about my mother, or my mother about my grandmother, or my grandmother about either of them. In fact, my grandmother praised my mother to me more, I believe, than she praised my mother in person.

They were the adults; we were the kids. They managed their own relationships without us, and the survivors still do. Surely my parents must quarrel occasionally; B.A. and I fell out last night over the not-so-simple simple syrup I was trying to make. However, I can remember only 2 of their quarrels in all my 40+ years; the last was 24 years ago.

And I am very thankful because I understand from a thousand sad divorce stories that parents pit their children--underage and adult--against each other all the time, and I think this is just horrid behaviour. Presumably parents feel that they would take a bullet for their children--why on earth do they do something so psychologically cruel to them in reality? My only explanation is the whole divorce-process itself. Divorcing people are crazy people.

I went through a divorce myself, and I was pretty crazy. The damage lasted for years. Anyone who runs away from her husband should run to a convent and have the nuns lock the doors. At the time I thought it was just me, but a woman the ex and both I knew was a minister's daughter, and her mother said all divorcing people were crazy: don't get emotionally involved with them.

Fortunately, I didn't drag any innocent children though that awful time, there being no innocent children around to drag. Oh, except my younger brother and sister. I do feel badly about that.  I remember one phone conversation with my 18 year old brother, when I was off my head, and suddenly stopping myself and saying, "Wait. Maybe you're too young to hear all this." "Yeah, " said my 18 year old brother, and I shut up.

As children, you're pretty helpless before your older brothers' and sisters' and parents' and grandparents' relationship disputes, but when you are an adult, you know enough (or should know enough) to refuse to take sides between people with an equal right to your loyalty*, to refuse to be the family counselor, to refuse to put up with craziness. As an adult you have the right (and the responsibility to your sanity to say), "If you don't cut it out, I'm going home."

One of the first things we learned in "Introduction to Ministry" class was that when we encountered a problem we couldn't handle, we refer the person to whom we are "ministering" to an expert. It was a mantra banged into our heads: refer, refer, REFER. It was also mentioned, by the by, that it is usually not ideal to "minister" to our own family members. Well, my goodness, if an actual priest isn't supposed to minister to his own family members--hearing their confessions (except in dire emergency), counselling them, etc.--imagine how unqualified you and I are to do so!

When I was a teenager, teenagers with alcoholic parents were refered to an AA offshoot called, if I recall correctly, "Alateen". (I read about it in Seventeen magazine.) This was probably to stop them from becoming victims of co-dependence, the overwhelming impulse to help the out-of-control parent who refuses to help him- or herself. There should be one for children whose parents are divorcing and so out-of-control as to enlist them in a war against their own mother or own father. This, to me, is psychological child abuse, and it remains so even when the children are grown up.

Married people squabble. Of course they do. And there are happy married couples who squabble and there are unhappy married couples who squabble. But here's a freaky thing: the unhappy married couples are no less married because they are unhappy. You know that line in movies when two agonized lovers say to each other, "This thing [our relationship] is bigger than both of us" ? It's true. I have seen two absolutely dysfunctional people (who, come to think of it, weren't even married) who were completely stuck to each other (and the bottle), and their relationship was an erotic war in which "secondary partners" were pawns and fodder. Their romance looked like a life-sentence, and when I last saw the female half, I barely recognized her--she looked so old and crazy.

Blah. Shudder. So what I am saying is that as sad it is when your parents or grandparents or married brothers and sisters are having marital disputes, not only should you keep out of them--save to give shelter to whoever needs shelter and to REFER your parent, grandparent or sibling to Catholic Family Services--you should refuse to be sucked in.  REFUSE. Say, "I can do this, but I can't hear that. It is too much for me. Here's the phone number for Catholic Family Services/a counsellor I know."

On airplanes you will notice that the travelling parent is always supposed to put on his/her own  oxygen mask on (should it drop from above) before putting one on his/her child. This is because an adult cannot help the child if she/he has passed out, and the child certainly can't help her/him. Well, although as an adult you can give your parents money, shelter, etc., etc., you are still their child. You can NOT solve their emotional problems, and if they crazily try to make you try, you must draw the line. "Cut it out, or I'm going home." Otherwise, you will be trying to put an oxygen mask on your parent(s) while you are passing out yourself.

*Naturally it's different in the case of siblings, for your loyalty is usually going to be with your blood sibling. However, the last thing you want to do is somehow exacerbate tension between your sibling and his/her spouse, or create a war between you and the spouse. So if you do listen to squabble stuff, remind yourself that's only half the story, and forget everything you have heard--unless it is a clear case of abuse, in which case, offer shelter and REFER.


  1. Thanks Auntie Seraphic. I needed to read this. I was doubting if I had done the right thing by recently referring a family member to a therapist . Thanks for the clearing the doubt!
    --- Charlotte

  2. Auntie, what if your parent, quite obviously needs a referral to Catholic Family Services, but refuses to seek help for their mental condition because of a cultural aversion (an immigrant family) to therapy or to talking about these things outside the family?

  3. I see. Well, you can tell him/her they need to see a doctor, or you can ask him/her to see a priest. I suppose if there is an acknowledged Head of the Family, you can beg him/her to consult him/her (after you have spoken to the Head of the Family yourself) .

    Ultimately, you can't make your parent do what he or she should do--unless he or she is so far gone, some authority makes you their legal guardian. However, you can always protect your own psyche from demands the parent tried to make on YOU.

  4. Survivor of parental divorce5 August 2015 at 20:50

    Amen to all of that. My most vivid memory of my teenage years is of hurtling down side streets in the winter after being picked up from my mother's house, my dad full of anger over something either that she had done or that I or my sister had said that had appeared to be favouring her over him in some matter. He was driving so recklessly that I was quite convinced that he was going to hit a patch of ice and kill us or some poor hapless pedestrian. The newly-divorced are absolutely not in their right mind.

    -Anonymous out of respect to parent who is no longer completely out of his mind, although he did refuse to attend my sister's wedding last year so he wouldn't have to see my mom which I thought was tragically petty given it's been over 15 years since the split.

  5. Awful. I'm so sorry that happened to you. And how sad that the joy of seeing his daughter married... Wait a minute. What is it like for divorced fathers to see their daughters--especially if they look like their ex-wives--get married? What a mixture of emotions they must feel! Meanwhile, I suspect (and fear) not wanting to see your mother was not as petty as all that. If I saw my own ex coming down the street, I would run a mile.

    In my experience, divorce is simply not the end of it, and even an annulment cannot take away the scars.


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