My parents' fighting is out of control

Globe and Mail Update

Question: I dread going anywhere with my parents because of their constant bickering. Recently, while we were all in the car together, they started arguing over which way was the quickest to where we were going. Fine. Not a big deal. But it goes on and on, escalating to the point that my mother is complaining to my father that he never listens to her and my father is shouting that she suffocates him. When this happens, inevitably, one or the other starts appealing to me. "Can you believe your father/your mother is being so unreasonable?" I try to answer in a way that validates both their points of view, but the truth is, I think they're both lunatics. This isn't new it's been going on since I was a kid. Am I forever psychologically scarred, and can I make them stop?

Answer:As is oft noted by people with lunatic parents, you can choose your friends but not your family. And as such, the automobile is the perfect symbol and epitome of this social predicament inside of the car, you literally cannot escape. And meanwhile, you're travelling upwards of 100 kilometres per hour, your life back in the hands of your creators.

I've consulted what you might call a family mechanic to figure out what to do about this bickering-on-overdrive problem of yours. Michael Ungar is a professor at Dalhousie University's school of social work, and an author and therapist who's worked with families for over twenty years. One of the first things he points out is that when your parents try to drag you into their argument, they are perpetrating something he calls "triangulation."

Your parents and you form a triangle ideally, it is an upside-down triangle where they are equals at the top and you are below. "If son and mom align against dad," says Dr. Ungar, "then you flip and you get the son at level of the dad and you have the dad dropped down to the level where the son was. This is what's called an inversion of hierarchies."

Now although this may fulfill your deep-seated Freudian wish to supplant your father, that's not a wish that's actually supposed to come true. At this point, you've made it to adulthood, so I'd hardly suggest that you're on your way to becoming a maladjusted psychotic because of your parents' inability to create boundaries. But, if you don't eventually disentangle yourself, there are still very bad consequences to come: you'll start modelling their behaviour and become a bickerer yourself, suffering from family-style Stockholm syndrome. So before you go native, you better get off at the next exit.

Dr. Ungar says your parents should have taken the responsibility originally to create boundaries and not have had the constant and from the sounds of it, somewhat emotionally abusive arguments in front of you when you were growing up. "In this case, since it's an older child," he adds, "I would suggest the child establish those boundaries himself."

Dr. Ungar warns straight off, however, not to start by making accusations or telling your parents what to do. "Saying 'you guys gotta stop this, this is a crap family' will not work," he says. He suggests instead taking the "I" route, stating how their behaviour is impacting your personal experience: "You can say 'I don't want to bring my friends home. I don't want to go on vacation with you. I don't spend time with you.'"

And of course, the shot to the heart of any parent: "I am embarrassed by you."

Hopefully, this "I" assault will make them step back and realize they need to bring the bickering down a gear.

For parents reading this, Dr. Ungar does allow that as long as you're not trying to ally your kid to your side not all arguments need to be made private. "As a parent, you're trying to model appropriate behaviour," he says. "And one of those behaviours is conflict resolution." Common sense will guide what you talk about in front of them. "Obviously, not sexual matters," notes Dr. Ungar. Yes, obviously. But what else? "Let's put it this way: When your child goes out and talks about your fight around the neighbourhood, what are you comfortable with them talking about?"

Which gives me an idea. If telling your parents how you feel doesn't work, there's always the modern approach, what one could call the Hasselhoffian Method: secretly videotape their bicker marathons and post them on YouTube.

That should end that.