I want my parents to get divorced.
There’s been a lot of unexpected changes from their marriage to today, but everything always seemed okay, at least topically.
But a big reason my mother married my father specifically was because he was a Christian. Recently, his views have changed, and he is an atheist. This is partially due to a domino effect from my coming out. I am an atheist as well, and my sister is Christian.
This has sort of put a spilt through family dynamics, because religion is a very large part of my mother and sister’s lives, and, in the case of my mother, recovery and dealing with mental illness. Non-religion is a very large part of my father and I’s lives, and, in my case, recovery and dealing with mental illness.
The atmosphere has been tense for weeks. They’ve been arguing, assuming things about each other, and their already very different personalities have started to seriously clash. I’m not sure my sister notices it, but my father has noticed that I’m noticing, and we’ve talked a little bit. He says he wishes I weren’t so perceptive. Right now I’m inclined to agree.
And it bothers me. More than that, it’s making my anxiety, feelings of guilt, and general mental state get significantly worse.
My father brought up “staying together for you kids”, but that kind of atmosphere is tugging at my seams. It’s stressful to watch, and I want it to stop. But… it’s not my relationship, and even if my father doesn’t feel the marriage is working out and is coming to terms with “the D word”, my mother denies the tension and seems to err on the side of marriage being held super importantly and not getting divorced unless things absolutely implode. Neither of them are faultless in this, not by a long shot, but if this carries on the way it is, to the point where someone breaks down or things and collide?
That implosion would hurt like hell for me. But I feel selfish that I want them to split up, at least partially for my sake. But I don’t want to relapse from stressful second-hand emotions. But it’s, above all, not my relationship.
How can we, as a family, discuss this and come to a solution? I have no idea what to say, or what to do, or if I should even do or say anything.
A Deer’s Divorce Dilemma
I am so sorry that it sucks so hard in your house right now. This could be a rough patch that your parents work through, or it could be the beginning of the end of their marriage, and there is no way for you to know. They don’t even know which thing it is.
First Principle: Whatever is happening between them, it is not your fault. It is not your fault for being who you are, it is not your fault for telling them who you are. If their marriage was solid and true, there would be almost nothing you or anyone could do to shake it. Even if they were to tell you that it’s your fault in a thoughtless or angry moment, or even if it seems like the timing of your coming out sparked all of this, it wouldn’t make it true. It’s not your fault.
The question of staying vs. divorce is for them to work out between themselves, and you don’t really get a vote, which is a powerless sort of place to be but it’s also a place for you to draw boundaries. It’s not good to be in the middle, to be the one hearing your parents speak badly about each other, or to be your dad’s sounding board (which it sounds like you might be). That doesn’t mean that you have to be silent about everything, and I think there are a few things you can safely say to either parent when things the topic comes up:
- “I’m scared and worried at the prospect of our family breaking up, but I also hate how tense things are right now. I will love you both whatever happens.” (Yep, a version of the speech that divorcing parents give their kids).
- “Telling me you want to ‘stay together for you kids’ is a LOT of pressure. I can’t be the reason you stay OR the person who tells you to leave.”
- “You sound like you are asking for permission. You don’t need my permission. You’ve got my love whatever you decide.”
- “Have you and Other Parent talked to a counselor about this? I don’t think I’m the right audience for stuff like that.”
- “I don’t think I can be your sounding board on this, but I hope your friend/counselor/pastors can help you.”
- “I know things are tough right now, but I don’t like hearing you fight or say bad things about Other Parent (& I’d tell them the same thing). You’re both my parents, I love you both, and I’m not the right audience for that.”
Pick what you find most useful, translate into your own words, repeat as necessary. Messages: “I am not pretending that I am ok with all of this, I am not your sounding board, I don’t want to be your reason or excuse for doing anything, I love you.” You don’t have to have a perfect response ready to go, you don’t have to hide uncomfortable or stressed out feelings. These scripts (like many of the scripts on this site) are for you, so that you can say something back and not just have to silently squirm or swallow everything and take it into yourself. Whether or not your parents are going to get divorced, there’s no “mistake” you could make in talking to them that would make that happen or prevent it from happening.
Now let’s forget about what other people need and talk about you. What would make things better, for you, right now? What could help you manage all the stress and anxiety you are feeling?
- Could you temporarily move in with or set up periodic short stays with grandparents/other relatives or friends to give yourself a break from dealing with all of it (and give your parents space to talk)? Even if it’s just “I’m going to hang out with Aunt Awesome on Friday nights and stay over there eating grilled cheese and doing my laundry.” Sometimes just knowing that you have some sanctuary and safety coming up in your week can help.
- Are you in school? Is there a school counselor you can talk to? Can that person help you keep up with your assignments, etc., so you’re not adding academic angst on top of everything else?
- Do you need to amp up your own therapy efforts/find a counselor/find a new counselor? “Mom/Dad, I’m really feeling anxious and stressed lately, can you… help make an appointment/drive me to the appointment/let me take the car/pay for sessions, etc.?”
- Not sure if you “came out” as LGBTQ or “came out” as an atheist, but what support groups for people your age are around?( Here’s a (US-based) directory of sorts for LGBTQ orgs). Could you find something located near you? I’m not sure how old you are, or if it’s a question of needing rides/time/permission, but here’s the script: “Mom/Dad, I’ve found this group that meets every week and I’d like to go. I think it would really help me deal with the stress of coming out and with everything that’s going on.”
- What other self-care things are you doing/could you be doing? What are rituals that you could hold onto in the middle of all this chaos? Stuff like:
- Seek out the company friends you can always count on to be kind to you
- Avoid people who stress you out as much as possible (hard to do when it’s your parents, but this is not the time to call up the friend-who-makes-cutting-remarks or the difficult ex or whatnot).
- Write in a journal every day as a way to deal with/process feelings
- Work on art or writing or other creative projects
- Make to watch your favorite shows and read
- Get enough sleep
- Eat enough foods at regular intervals
- Make your room into a comfy, cosy sanctuary where you can relax
- If your house is a sucky place to be right now, find other places to be: the library, a job, the bike trail, volunteering.
- Do some kind of regular physical activity that you enjoy, anything from walking to sports to a daily “8 Minute Dance Party” (maybe with your sister?)
- Find one safe, neutral topic to talk about with every single person in your family. A TV show you both like, a hobby or interest that you both share. When conversations get too intense, you have something to change the subject to. And you have something that reminds you of what you share with these people, that can hopefully be experienced in a pleasurable way. Asking them to teach you things is a nice way to spend time together. “Dad, what’s the family recipe for lasagna? Can you show me?” “Mom, I want to paint my room, can you show me what to do and help me pick out a color?”
- Make time every day to do one thing that makes you feel good.
Your job right now is to take care of YOU. And sometimes that might mean asking your parents for help and support, and not pretending that you are a good and perfect and handling everything just fine for their sakes. It’s their job, as your parents, to help you access all the care and help you need, and to not put it on you and your sister to hold their marriage together or help it break all the way apart.