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Elderly Parents' Relationships

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Helping my parents in an unhappy relationship

May 2007

My parents, in their late 60s, are going through a real rough patch after 40+ years of marriage. My mom has had some health issues and my dad isn't coping particualrly well, having been cared for by my mom all his life. She's not perfect, though, and tends to harp on him and criticize endlessly. Now, each time I see either one alone all they do is complain about the other and when we are all together, there is a lot of tension--so much so that we are avoiding them. (This isn't what I had in mind when I moved into their community.) So far I've lent good marriage books, tried to get them to engage one another instead of me, and told them to both seek counseling, separately or together.

I believe that parents shouldn't use their kids as marriage counselors. Do others agree? If so, how do I maintain that stance and still be supportive? How much unconstructive frustration/complaining do I have to bear witness to? Any advice from others who have found themeselves dealing with a similar challenge is most welcome. Stuck in the middle (again)


I think it isn't right for your parents to bring their marital problems to you. The exception would be if, in getting older, one had difficulty meeting the needs of the other. That's a yuck conversation but one would have to have it (ie nursing care, home health aide etc). But if they are looking for you to talk to the other, intervene, or agree about the other's faults then this is inappropriate. One of my parents did this to me throughout my adolescence and into my early 30s until I learned to , excuse the cliche, set boundaries. This parent would even try again in the guise of mentioning a mental health concern, it it would turn into a whine session about a confrontation where both parties seemed to me at fault. So I learned to stop those too. You might think of something like, ''You and mom/dad chose one another; but I have no choice but to try to have a good relationship with both of you for the rest of my life. Talking this way puts me in an awkward position with Mom/Dad. I can be a great resource person in terms of suggesting books or therapists, but I cannot be your ear or therapist. That's what friends are for, or support groups.'' Pad it with lots of I love yous and an ''I statement'' about how upset and demoralized it makes you feel. Pop in some guilt about imagining their grandchildren w/ divorced grandparents or some such. And ask them to respect your feelings. You are an adult in every respect but this one. At 60 w/o alzheimers or other disease they still can be the parents and protect you. By 75 or 80 you may have to listen to more than your share, but by then one can only hope that you'll be able to let it slide off your back. been there
The psychological term is ''parentification,'' for when the child becomes the parent to the parent. This is not healthy and this is also much different than when mom or dad is too old to take care of themselves. It sure sounds like this is a pattern in your life, and I would guess that a therapist (I am not one) would tell you that the only way to stop this cycle is to stop participating in it, completely. I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you that I made the conscious choice NOT to be my father's father, and, while it is sometimes hard to watch him live with the dumb choices he makes, it is quite a relief to know that I am HIS son, and HE is MY father -- not the other way around. Standing my ground has not always made him happy, but I know that I have made the right choice. Father doesn't always know best
Hi, wow, your parents sound just like my in-laws! Although, I think that their marriage has been relatively ''unhappy'' all along. They live locally, and I spend more time with them than my husband, because we have kids that I am home with. I am trying the provide a nice relationship with them and the kids, so I see them at least once a week.

The constant bad-mouthing, is always from my mother-in-law, and is very tiresome and irritating. I have to say that I am very impressed that you have put effort forth in trying to help them save their marriage--that is very kind of you. I also wonder if that, in their minds, has given them permission to continuously turn to you.

I have only found one thing that stops my mom-in-law from the trash talking, and that is not responding. I used to try to actively listen, look at her, nod my head, ask questions, ect. I thought that by doing this I was showing her respect and in some way helping her work through it ... wrong. I was just giving her permission to use me as a person to vent to. I decided that I do not have to be that person in her life and I really like her husband so I don't want to hear it anymore.

Now, whenever she starts up, I give her very little response. I do not keep the eye-contact going, I do not nod, ask questions, ect. I sit quietly and let my gaze focus elsewhere. As soon as she changes the subject, I swing my attention back and engage in the converation 100%. ... So far, it is working. After she has rambled on about him for minutes, with no respponse, she will quiet down and say, ''oh, well, we don't have to talk about this.''

Just remember that only they can save their marriage, and it is not fair that you get stuck in the middle. anon


I know it's hard to see your parents be unhappy, but the most helpful thing you can do is let them be adults. And there's no need to let them talk about each other behind the other one's back. It's taken me a while, but I'm learning to redirect the conversation when it turns to complaining about the other parent. Sometimes just a simple statement, like, ''I don't really want to talk about mom/dad right now, what have you been up to?'' helps. Just something to redirect the conversation. You've already shown them where to find real help, now you need to let them decide what to do with it on their own. learning to be a good daughter
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