Hostility Between Aged Parents: A dilemma for adult Children

Renjitha Reddy’s aged parents used to live harmoniously but now, in their 80s, they constantly bicker and snipe at each other. Renjitha is no more able to withstand this new development called “parental quarrelling” and she is fed up with being caught in the crossfire.

Hostility Between Aged Parents: A dilemma for adult Children

Renjitha Reddy’s aged parents used to live harmoniously but now, in their 80s, they constantly bicker and snipe at each other. Renjitha is no more able to withstand this new development called “parental quarrelling” and she is fed up with being caught in the crossfire.

Usually adult children come to me for care related counselling and this time Renjitha’s visit is very peculiar and she wants to find a solution for parental conflict. An increasing number of adult children are finding themselves in similar positions because more people are living longer and becoming emotionally dependent on their adult children. Let’s listen to Renjitha’s woes, a spectre haunting her past few months. As a counsellor, I listened carefully to her without interrupting.

Read Ageing without children

“In my growing years, one of the worst things I could imagine was my parents – now in their eighties – separating. Now I think it’s one of the best things they could have done. There are many authors to tell you how to handle a divorce as warring parents of a young child. But no help for such parents when those children have grown up. I’m in my late forties, but seeing my parents like this is only marginally easier than if I were still a child. To me, they’re still my mum and dad.” Renjitha started her story.

My parents weren’t like this. Occasionally, I saw them arguing, but It wasn’t bitter like this and they patch up within few hours. My mother used to complain about my father, but in any marriage it is a normal. Now she clearly has regrets and she speaks with the desperation of a woman looking back at a life she can not re-live. My father was different. Indeed, I have never heard my father complain about my mother but now he has started doing it too. If I am left alone in the room with one of them, the knives come out for the other and I am brought in as some sort of mediator/counsellor.

When they are alone, every exchange between them is an exercise in point scoring. What they don’t realise, in this constant bickering, is how much it hurts me. Sometimes it gets uglier. Separately, they have both admitted to me that they wish they’d never married.

The dilemma is, if I sympathise with one is to naturally side against the other. My brothers, who stays abroad don’t seem to get the same avalanche of complaints, although they understand the intensity of the bickering and the bitterness and it upsets them greatly. However, unlike me, they are not brought in because they live far away – to referee.

It is natural to seek guidance from friends and then I realize, among my friends there are three types: those whose parents, both or one, are no longer alive; those who aren’t close to their parents so they don’t really care if they get along or not; and those, like me, whose mum and dad no longer get on but the bickering has become part of the daily life. Everybody admit it’s painful. “I try not to think about it,” says one of my friend who also face the same situation. But she quipped, “Anyway, they’ll be dead soon.”

“Now-a-days, I hate visiting my parents because all they did was argue and complain. I used to come home exhausted because they expected me to settle their differences.” Renjitha poured out her frustration.

Elderly couples quarrel for a variety of reasons. Like in the case of Renjitha’s parents, some who have got along well in the past, argue after a major change in their lives, such as the husband’s retirement, because they may be new to this 24/7 ‘togetherness’ phase. There is all the possibility that once they are established in new routines these arguments may disappear. Again it depends on the cause; how deep rooted is the issue determines ‘healing’. Mostly couples argue over issues related to continuing problems such as finances or poor health. Still other couples argue out of habit or out of sheer monotony.

It is very much natural that elderly parents often turn to their adult children for emotional support and help in solving their differences because they have few other support systems latch on. A robust social support system no longer exists and most of their friends and other relatives may have moved away or died. Because of their infirmity reconnecting with the society is no longer an option. The only solace for the aged parents at this juncture is to engage with the adult children. But conditions apply before you jump on the bandwagon.

Essentially, your parents are ‘super’ adults having an adult problem in their relationship, and even if the drama is centered on you, it’s not actually your responsibility to arbitrate. And in all probability, as “the only sane adult in the situation” you will be wade in to solve things, or for them to use you as a mediator, supporter, audience, or weapon. Better to stay away till it crosses the threshold level. The sole area in which you may have responsibility is if one of your parents is abusing the other; and even then, you’re not on your own to do something about it. Call support lines, family or friends and in extreme case the police who may be able to assist.

If you’re going to deal with warring parents, it is better that you and your adult siblings are in this together, and having a conversation about how you’re dealing with it, is a good plan. But the reality is that siblings often have different “roles” when it comes to the fighting parents at the centre of the family dynamic: the rebellious one, the mediating one, the ignoring one, the one who escalates, the one who smooths things over or pretends stuff is OK.

Five fingers are not the same. If someone backs out, that’s their right. Don’t let fighting parents try to pit you against one another, either. Always remember that it’s their own making, not your or your siblings’, and you are not metaphors or proxies for their deal. I understand your struggle If you’re an only child, well, then, my sympathies that you’re alone in dealing with this.

I always suggest the universal ‘wait and watch’ approach, before you partake in the ‘mediation’ process. Adult children have to ask themselves what is going on with their parents as individuals and as a couple. They have to spend some time observing their situation and examining their own feelings toward their parents so that they can come up with creative solutions. I strongly recommend that adult children should avoid the temptation to jump in and try to solve these problems because they will be taking the risk of alienating one or both parents. I mean, unknowingly you will be a victim to the ‘misplaced loyalty’ towards one parent.

'’I had always wanted to win my mother’s affection, and one way to do this was to take her part against my father in their squabbles,’’ Renjitha explained. ‘‘My mother is much more aggressive than is my father, and one way she could stand up to him was by having me point out things to him that she really wanted to say.’’ I quote Renjitha

Taking my cue, ‘How to handle the fighting parents’ Mrs. Renjitha and her parents got out of this unpleasant pattern by sitting down once a week and calmly discussing the parents’ disagreements over household chores and finances. The mother tweaked to be more forthright about her feelings and the father to listen to the mother’s views. They also learned to work out some compromises so that the mother did not feel overworked. ‘‘The person who benefitted most from their new way of relating to each other was me,’’ said Mrs. Renjitha.

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