Question 157: Can I make my dad and my sister stop yelling at each other?

Bathroom graffiti says "Silence is golden, but duct tape is silver."

And it's temporary, unlike burying them under the floorboards of your home.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I wrote to you a while ago because I wanted to move and felt like my boyfriend, who I was then living with, was holding me back. Well, the good news is I moved. I’m living with my parents now and I’ll start a education here in January. My boyfriend and I are trying to make our relationship work long distance, with no promises for the future made, which is exactly what I want right now. I’m also trying to find a place of my own.

The problem is, my sister, also living at home, and my dad fights a lot. I have a hard time dealing with noise in general and it’s really hard for me to relax when people are yelling at each other in the other room. I’ve tried several times asking them to be less loud, but that doesn’t really work. My dad tends to overreact to any criticism and my sister has a problem with accepting that confronting him about behavior she finds hurtful or annoying will never lead to him actually changing or even apologizing. My dad also has some problems with alcohol, and while he’s never violent and manages to function anyway, I suspect it might be a reason for his behavior. However, the combination of this leads to them spending hours fighting, several times a week. It’s making me resent them both a little. I really need some advice for coping with that situation. I get along great with my sister. We have fun together and she’s a big emotional support for me. I also get along fairly well with both of my parents, although less so with my dad.  But it’s hard for me to deal with the fact that whenever the two of them are home at the same time, there’s a big possibility that I’ll have to listen to them fight.

Is there something I can do to make them fight less, or at least make less noise? And if not, do you have any suggestions for dealing with the negative feelings the situation is causing for me? I’m working on just finding a new, quiet, place to live, but that might take a while.

Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

I’m glad your move worked out. Re-reading my answer, I was kind of a jerk about your boyfriend, so I’m glad the two of you found a balance that works for you.

I’m sorry to say that there is nothing you can really do about your dad and your sister. A “Hey, can you guys quiet down?” may work, but probably won’t. Their relationship is their relationship. Your sister will deal with your dad in her own way and figure it out in her own time. If you insert yourself in the middle, you might find them both yelling at you instead of each other.

I can relate to your situation a lot. I am noise-sensitive like  Poe character. I like long interrupted silences where no one talks to me, and it’s really stressful and awful to listen to other people bickering or yelling.  As a child, I would read a book and tune out all other sounds, which would lead my dad to snap his fingers in front of my face and yell “What’s the matter with you, huh?” because he’d been talking to me for the last 10 minutes and I hadn’t heard a word. My folks took me to the doctor to test my hearing several times because it worried them. Turns out no, I wasn’t deaf – I was just ignoring them.

It’s a good call to look for your own small quiet place to live. In the meantime, I suggest you invest in a set of noise-canceling headphones and  go the fuck to the library to get as much quiet and alone time as you can. Figure out your dad & sister’s schedule and try to find a regular activity (working out, reading at the library, seeing friends) when you know they will both be around and you need a break.

9 comments
  1. KM said:

    I have been in this situation and, HEADPHONES. But, and correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think noise-cancelling ones are what you want because they’re expensive and work best for droning repetitive noises, like if you worked in a factory or had a really loud washing machine, not for random noise that comes in bursts, like people shouting. Also, again speaking from my personal experience, foam earplugs don’t really help much and also, don’t put on safety headphones and then wrap a pillow and then a bunch of blankets around your head and tie it all in place with nylon tights because even that doesn’t help that much, it maybe muffles the sound a bit but once you notice it and get annoyed, a little bit of muffling doesn’t really help. Plus it makes you look silly. The only solution (apart from leaving) that I found is to loudly play something through the headphones that annoys you less than the sounds of the people shouting, I have a recording of a thunderstorm which works for me.

    • JenniferP said:

      I don’t think noise-canceling headphones will cancel the noise, but listening to music through them (or a pair of good headphones, full stop) should drown out dad and sis. Thanks for the correction.

      • De-lurking to offer headphone advice – in lieu of pricey noise-canceling headphones, I would suggest the solution I came to living in the dorms next to a trumpet major: earbuds worn under ear protection that I’d bought for the shooting range. As I recall, they cost about $20. Not expensive, and you don’t have to turn up your music/movie super loud.

  2. Yeah, this is definitely not a situation where the LW has any possible upside to getting involved, and plenty of possible downside.

    • JenniferP said:

      I realize I gave The Middle Child’s Classic Response (tune out! hide! do not engage!), but yeah, it works for a reason.

  3. Nemo said:

    I live in a house with family where the number of people living here doubled overnight due to a crisis that has turned out to be a long-term stay for them. It’s noisy. I can’t handle noisy. It stresses me out. My family is loud and argumentative. The house is open plan. The neighbors are noisy too. I don’t have a car and public transport here is horrible, so I have to spend a lot of time at home. So I’m in a situation similar to you, LW. Here’s what’s worked for me.

    * A set of in-ear headphones and a set of playlists for different moods so I always have something I can put on (rather than resorting to the one playlist of music that I may not feel like).
    * I wear foam earplugs to bed because I’m so sensitive to noise and am such a light sleeper. It’s not perfect at all, but it dulls noise enough to get to a manageable level. I have small ear canals so I get Mack’s SafeSound slim fit earplugs.
    * I set boundaries with them regarding my bedroom. Closing my door doesn’t remove the noise altogether, but having something separate them from me and mentally acknowledging that there is that barrier has helped to cope with the noise a lot.
    * When I’m able to get up early and get transport, I go out of a morning whenever I can before my day normally gets started and take 30 minutes to get a coffee and read. It lets me gather my thoughts and settle into a mood for the day before anyone at home sets me off. It gives me some mental distance from people, which I find makes it easier to deal with shouty people.

    I don’t know if any of these will be helpful to you, but I do hope you’re able to find some way to reduce the noise and increase the mental distance between you and the argumentative relatives!

  4. MHM said:

    Some ideas regarding the negative feelings: It may help to ponder how you are there temporarily. Also, try to develop compassion for your dad and sister- they are likely unhappy and suffering, stuck in this negative arguing loop that goes nowhere good!

    Remember that you are responsible for your own happiness. They are just stuck in negative-ville. Do what you can for yourself to find peace, but you cannot expect that they will contribute. Low expectations!

    I’m sorry your dad has issues with alcohol, that totally sucks and it just escalates things.

  5. I wonder, is your sister older or younger?

    I only ask because I’m the elder in my house, and I used to (and on occasion still do) have ROARING fights with my mother over issues ranging in importance from Incredibly Inane to Deadly Serious. These generally took place in a defined area–the kitchen–for a reasonably defined amount of time, often at a similar point in the week. I’m conflict-seeking, as is my mother, as are your sister and father, Letter Writer… however, my little brother is conflict-avoidant to the extreme. While he has never been able to intervene, he’s worked out how to disappear so quietly I only noticed he was doing it when he asked me casually to wait until he left the state to have the Giant Fight about moving in with my partner.

    (Interestingly, this also made me a lot more aware of how my clashes with my honestly-wonderful mother were affecting my sibling, and therefore think a lot more about if I needed to have that fight. So maybe if you do talk to your sister about it, frame it in a super casual way.)

    My brother would go do laundry or out to the garage or to his basement bedroom. Can you take a (possibly Extremely Obvious and Pointed) walk the instant they start? Can you go reorganize the attic or go through your childhood bedroom at the other end of the house? Call a friend? Go out for coffee? My approach would be to start yelling at both of them, but perhaps my brother is a better role model in this case.

    • Frustrated said:

      My sister is younger than me.

      Doing something else is a little hard, because they usually fight in the evening and that makes it hard for me to find somewhere else to be. Talking a walk might work, though.

      Thankfully, they’re fighting less often now than when I wrote this question, so that’s nice.

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