I’m Afraid I’ve Driven My Parents to Divorce

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Reader’s Question

My parents just had a fight — like the first one where they have gotten really mad! They have had arguments but this one went way too far. I was telling my dad that my sister was telling me stuff and that my mom wasn’t getting mad at her about it. When we got home we all argued and my dad got really mad at my mom because she started saying nonsense. My dad told her to go to her room and stay there. My mom said “no” in an angry way so my dad shoved her into her room while she was telling him some bad words. I started crying and started having a stomach ache. Now my dad is sleeping in the living room, and I think it’s all my fault. I’m just 13 years old, but it’s my fault all of this happened. I cry even more thinking that my parents won’t love each other or will get divorced.

Psychologist’s Reply

As children we rely on our parents to be the constant in our lives. No matter what else changes, there’s safety in feeling that our parents will always love us and each other, and that those family bonds will remain firmly in place. So, when those connections are threatened or in danger of being severed, it’s natural to feel anxiety and sadness.

Whereas it’s natural to feel upset that your parents are fighting, it’s not sensible to blame yourself. I can understand how it’s easy to do, though. The complaining about your sister seemed to spark the fight that then grew out of proportion to what started it. So, it’s easy to think, “If I hadn’t complained or continued to make a big deal out of it, none of this would have happened.” In simple terms, this line of reasoning seems to make sense.

In reality, parents (as the adults) have the responsibility to act as adults, no matter what their children do or say. The reasonable assumption is that parents are more mature than their children, and have greater ability to regulate their emotions and their behavior. Plus, even if a child’s behavior was the “start” of a nasty fight, there have to be much more important problems in the relationship for such a minor thing to escalate to an all-out blow-up. Let’s use the analogy of a rope with spots where it has worn very thin. A sudden tug on the rope will result in its snapping, but the “real” cause of the break is not the tugging. The weaknesses in the rope were already there, and the tugging simply made them apparent or more obvious. A solid rope should be able to withstand a sudden tug, just as a healthy marriage should be able to withstand fighting among the children.

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Hopefully, by now, the problems you’re seeing in your parent’s relationship will have been mended. The larger point I want to emphasize here, though, is that many of us are prone to taking on blame for other people’s actions, even when those other people are not blaming us. Instead, we should remember that ultimately we do not have that much control over other people. That can be a frustrating realization when we’re trying to help someone (especially when that person doesn’t seem to want the help). The positive side, however, is that there is no reason to so often regret having done or said something that “made” the other person react destructively. For adults the ultimate responsibility for their own behavior rests firmly on their shoulders.

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