Caught in the Middle of My Fighting Parents

February 19, 2017

8 min read


I am sick of holding my parents’ failing marriage on my shoulders.

Dear Emuna,

My father recently revealed to me that he's thinking about leaving my mother, who can be abusive toward him (and was toward me as well growing up). He's been complaining that she's kept him from pursuing his dreams in life, that she provides him with no emotional support, that she leans on him financially and refuses to go out, work, or do any of the housework, and that she "exploits" and "controls" him.

I know that some of what he says is objectively true. But despite everything, I love my mother and she genuinely loves him. She has her problems and is actively seeking help, but the two of them simply don't know how to communicate. I also have concerns that she may not be able to take care of herself on her own.

Meanwhile, I am (happily) married with a young child, and I am sick of being my parents' sounding board and keeping their secrets from each other. I have been holding their failing marriage on my shoulders since I was a teenager and I believe that I have the right to have the space to focus on my own family. I'm a full-time working mom supporting my husband through school right now and I don't have the emotional space to deal with this. I have asked both of my parents over the years to leave me alone and "grow up" and handle their emotions like adults. They blatantly ignore me, or hold the mitzvah to "honor your parents" over my head. I also am worried about exposing my child to their behavior. They are great with her for now, but what happens when she gets older? I feel like the entire responsibility for my parents' well-being is on my shoulders! What can/should I do?


Dear Torn,

I think you know what you should do; it’s just a question of getting up the nerve to take the stand you need to take. As you correctly recognize, it is not your job to be your parents’ sounding board. Not only are you not responsible for the state of their marriage, you are not responsible for the state of their collective or individual mental health either.

Additionally, even with all the good will in the world, you can’t force them to change. It may even be that in having you to turn to, they can avoid dealing with each other. It has clearly not been enough for you to just ask them to leave you alone. This is a bad habit that has just gone on too long and it’s up to you to break this destructive cycle.

At the moment, I only see one way out. Whenever your parents begin to criticize each other or complain to you about the other, you say to them very politely, “I love you very much but I refuse to listen to this and I’m hanging up the phone/leaving the room right now.”

This is not heartless. It is not in their best interests to keep harping on the negative qualities of their spouse. Complaining often takes the place of the real effort required to change. In additionally let me add that, while one should always consult a Rabbi to discuss the parameters of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, listening to one of them denigrate the other is definitely NOT a part of it. In fact the opposite may be much truer since we have prohibition of listening to and/or believing negative information we are told about others.

You are also correct that your primary focus right now is your own family and that you need to marshal your resources to deal with that demanding task and can’t waste or deplete them on the unending negative cycle taking place between your parents, a situation they are not taking ownership of or responsibility for.

Finally, with respect to your daughter. In general I believe that most children are not hurt by contact with their grandparents. They are able to benefit from the love and ignore the more destructive patterns of behavior because they are not dependent on their grandparents for their sense of emotional safety and security. You will, of course, have to use your own judgment. You seem to believe it’s okay for now and you will have to watch and see if there is a significant deterioration (I certainly hope not) as your daughter gets older. It should go without saying that if there is ever any physical risk to your daughter (or serious emotional risk) then you need to prevent that relationship as well. However, from your description that does not seem to be the case. You should stay far back from your parents but let your daughter continue to spend time with her grandparents who, with all their flaws, may genuinely love her and be able to lift up out of their own misery to be kind to her.

Controlling Sister-in-Law

Hey Emuna,

My husband and I share an amazing relationship; we both love each other a lot and he's my blessing. My relationship is perfect! All my husband’s friends tell him that he's very lucky and we're the perfect couple. The only problem is my sister-in-law; she's 2 years younger than my husband and the youngest in the family. She never liked me.

My husband and I have been together for almost 5 years and we've been married for almost 3 years now. We also have a 9-month-old son. But her behavior towards me hasn't changed. She's always rude to me and ignores me. Now we have a son and she wants to do everything with him and my husband but she wants nothing to do with me. She doesn't even say hi to me; she acts like I don't even exist.

It hurts me that my husband has talked to her about her behavior towards me many times but she's still the same. Now my husband just doesn't bother and he tells me that, "You don't have to be nice to her but just be civil." All these years that she's been mean and rude to me I've never been rude or mean in return. Instead I've always been the bigger person and I've always been nice to her. But she's still mean and rude, nothing has changed.

I just can't do it anymore. Sometimes I want to leave my husband because of his sister. I feel that it's his job to fix his family and the fact that nothing has changed in almost 3 years of marriage. I feel like he failed me as a husband. As a husband it's his responsibility to get me my respect and place in his family. I'm always stressed because of her. I'm always thinking about the stuff she says to me, the way she stares me down from my head to toe, how she completely blocks me and if I know that there's a party/event coming up I get so stressed that I'll be bumping into her. She is the only thing my husband and I argue about. He doesn't take her side but he's just too nonchalant about everything she does just to keep peace.

She's a very bitter, controlling and know-it-all kind of person. She's very social awkward but she thinks she's very smart. I can't deal with this issue anymore!


Dear Finished,

There are two ways to make this situation better and, unfortunately, they both depend on you. It is crucial for you and your marriage to recognize that no one can change another person. No matter how hard your husband tries, no matter how important it is to him, no matter how many times he approaches her, your sister will only change if she wants to change. So stop blaming your husband and stop threatening to leave your marriage. If you truly recognize how lucky you are, I don’t know why you would even consider this! Blaming your husband for his sister’s behavior which is totally out of his control is just plain wrong, and unfair. That’s the first important point.

Yes, your sister-in-law sounds like an unpleasant human being. But your husband has not failed you because he couldn’t get her to change her perspective.

Secondly if she’s the only thing you argue about you are very lucky. Stop telling yourself that you can’t deal with this. Of course you can deal with it. It’s frustrating and annoying but life has much greater challenges. Pass this one and you’ll be in a much stronger, healthier, and, may I suggest, more mature place when the next one comes along.

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