Ask Louise: 'My adult parents seem to really hate each other'

Q: My adult parents, who are in their late 50s, seem to really hate each other yet have no intention of separating. Most days they barely acknowledge one another. Sometimes they make small talk but it’s really just a poorly-disguised attempt at keeping up appearances.
Ask Louise: 'My adult parents seem to really hate each other'
A couple fighting. File image.
A couple fighting. File image.

Q: My adult parents, who are in their late 50s, seem to really hate each other yet have no intention of separating. Most days they barely acknowledge one another. Sometimes they make small talk but it’s really just a poorly-disguised attempt at keeping up appearances.

The resentment and anger is palpable and I honestly can’t emphasize how truly awful and completely toxic the whole situation is. Without regaling you with all the details, mental health is a factor as is years and years of sweeping issues under the carpet. I know that they tried to save the marriage at one point, but it’s clear they have given up completely in the last 5-10 years.

I doubt that either of them will initiate a separation. I imagine they think that that is the right thing to do and wish to save face. However, by not separating, we, their children, are subjected to an almost intolerable situation. I lose sleep over it and it has made me physically ill in the past. My sister, who still lives with them, does not lead a full life and I have no doubt that this situation is a contributing factor.

In a way, I know there is nothing I can do except exercise good boundaries. However, I am getting married next year and I am worried about what could happen. I would like to have an honest conversation with them, but it is difficult to bring up something that has never and may never be acknowledged. I wish more than anything that they would separate and move on with their lives.

The Divorce Referendum of 1995 was a hotly contested one, with No Campaigners predicting a wave of marriage breakdowns and separations if the amendment was passed.

“Hello Divorce,” the posters screamed. “Bye Bye, Daddy.”

But in the twenty-five years since, Ireland still has a remarkably low divorce rate; at 0.6%, according to the Eurostat, we have the lowest rate in Europe. Perhaps it is a hangover from our Catholic guilt but when Irish couples marry, they usually intend to stay together for life.

This is even more true for people of your parents’ generation and there are multiple reasons why couples who seem completely ill-suited to one another remain married – it could be, as you said, an attempt to save face and to do the ‘right thing’. It could be for financial reasons or to maintain a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Your parents might think a ‘bad marriage’ is one characterised by abuse or affairs, and their palpable resentment of each other isn’t on the same scale.

Or maybe they’ve simply become accustomed to the status quo, their unhappiness creeping up on them so gradually that they didn’t even notice. What you see as intolerable, could be their new normal.

Better the Devil you know, and all that.

Never underestimate how frightening change can seem, even if it’s for their own good. You say you doubt they will ever separate which is a shame because they are both still relatively young; the likelihood is they will live for at least another 25 years, if not more.

It’s a long time to remained trapped in a mire of toxicity, particularly if there are unresolved mental health issues at play here too. I’m a great believer in the capacity for change, regardless of a person’s age or how deeply rooted their habits have become, but the person has to be a) willing to change and b) prepared to do the work to facilitate that change. You doubt your parents on both counts but from what I can gather, you haven’t spoken to them directly about this issue.

Oblique communication is a common theme in dysfunctional families; much is left unspoken, too many important conversations left unsaid. You mentioned your sister, saying she does not lead a full life as a result of your parents’ relationship. Has she told you that? Or is this something you’re projecting onto her? And if this is something that is impacting your sister as deeply as it is you, could the two of you speak to your parents together?

My advice is to be as honest as possible – particularly regarding your own wedding; you are entitled to ask them to behave in a civil manner out of respect for you and your partner on your special day. But I want you to be prepared that your parents may tell you their marriage is none of your business; that they are adults and their relationship does not concern you. If that is the case, you will have to accept their decision as gracefully as you can.

Regardless of what you choose to do here, you are correct in saying that establishing healthy boundaries is key to moving forward. When I was a teenager, my father stuck an extract from ‘The Promise of a New Day’ on the inside of a kitchen cupboard. One passage has stayed with me – “We are constantly expecting things, and then being disappointed, shocked, heartbroken, and betrayed. It would be much more rational simply to take things as they come, without expectations. But that would involve a degree of detachment that most of us would find impossible – even repulsive. It would mean unhooking our feelings from other people’s behaviour.”

In families without clear boundaries, members become enmeshed in each other’s lives; it becomes hard to know where they end and you begin. It is not healthy that you are losing sleep over your parents’ marriage, that it has made you physically ill. That cannot continue. It would be beneficial to speak with a therapist to unpack all of this. He/she would support you through the process of disentangling yourself from this complicated, messy state of affairs and help you to understand what good boundaries look like to you. Does that mean you spend less time with your parents? Do you develop different coping mechanisms? In the end, only you know what is going to help you survive this.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up