Dear Thelma,

I am a college student and I have a younger brother who is still in school. After 20 years of marriage, my parents have gone their separate ways.

I have witnessed many arguments at home from a very young age.

My dad is a compulsive drinker and does not want to give up this bad habit. He used to come home from work, sometimes late at night, and yelled at my mother over the most trivial matters.

During my growing up years, I felt nervous and anxious whenever we attended public events for fear of a blow-up between my parents.

My mother filed for divorce early last year. She moved out of the house, taking my brother and me with her.

My parents’ relationship has turned acrimonious. I am worried that all this bickering will have a negative impact on my brother who is still young and unable to fully comprehend the complexity of the situation.

Both my parents have an ego problem and refuse to compromise to ensure an amicable divorce. They have resorted to heated arguments. This has placed immense pressure on me as a student; I know I have no one to count on.

Both my parents confide in me, and I am torn between the two. I am frustrated that they act impulsively when they argue and neither of them is willing to compromise so that we can all put this ugly divorce behind us.

I worry about my brother who is going through adolescence.

I recently found out that my father had been sexting other women towards the end of his marriage, and this has disturbed me even more.

I feel lost at times. I really want to move on. Sometimes I am burdened with the responsibility of taking care of my younger brother.

This traumatic experience has made me a stronger person, but I do not know how long I can hang on. How can I move on with my life? – Caught In The Middle

Dear Caught In The Middle

There are several issues in your letter, so let’s pick them out one by one.

First, your parents are divorcing and both confide in you. Second, you are concerned over the effect these issues will have on your brother. Third, you’ve grown up with lots of family squabbles.

I am leaving out all the comments about who is right and wrong in your parents’ marriage. There is a good reason for that. Let me show you what I see by shifting perspective.

Mary is six years old. She witnesses her mum and dad having a fight over who should be washing the car. Mary’s parents both make their case to Mary. Mary listens, and then delivers her verdict over who is right and who is wrong.

Okay, what is wrong with that picture? Is it proper for Mary to intervene in her parents’ fight? Of course not! Her role is that of a daughter, not a counsellor or judge. It is inappropriate for Mary’s parents to pull their daughter into their marital squabbles.

When you see the problems with Mary and her parents, you will have identified the issues you are facing.

You are not your parents’ counsellor; you are their daughter. You should have a good healthy relationship with your mum, and a good healthy relationship with your dad.

Studies show that when children do not have healthy relationships with their parents, there can be repercussions for many years after. These issues include having problems with their own marriages as well as depression.

So the first thing is to step back from being pulled into these fights. I suggest you have a talk with each one, saying something like, “Mum, I love you. I’m sorry you’re having a bad time. However, I love Dad too and it hurts me when you talk badly about him.” As they live apart now, talking to them one-on-one should be easy.

If your parents are sensible, they should realise they must not pull you into their fights. It’s a shame their marriage isn’t working out. However, they should turn to their own friends for support. They can also consult counsellors, lawyers and other professional parties.

However, parenting is not easy. It’s not like you have to train for the responsibility before you get the kids, either. So let’s be real here. If your parents aren’t good at that life role, you may get sulks and repeated attempts to pull you back into their fights.

If this happens, I suggest you simply keep quiet. If you refuse to comment, they will hopefully get the message. If your parents are very childish, and let’s hope they’re not, they may throw tantrums. Be strong! Remember, Mary: you are not in a position where you can help.

As for your current feelings about who is to blame, I suggest you try not to judge either parent. When you are older, and once you have experience of being in a relationship for years and years, you can talk to them adult to adult. But at the moment, I think you should just concentrate on being a daughter to your mum, and a daughter to your dad.

The second issue, your concerns about your brother, is something you can and should deal with. Sibling relationships are very important and you can help your brother during this difficult time by being his sister.

Let him vent when he needs to, encourage him to get into happy pursuits, and support him in every way you can. Sounds huge, right? But it can be as simple as going out for a walk together when your parents are having a text message fight, or taking him to the cinema for an afternoon’s entertainment.

Finally, your growing up with your parents fighting and possibly abusing alcohol, is something I worry about. Parents are human and therefore they have their flaws. That’s okay but as we spend our developmental years living with them, and they are our teachers, their styles can impact us in later life.

Your letter sounds as if you’re very sensible but I think it can’t ever do any harm to look into learning effective ways to manage conflict in personal relationships. There are loads of good books out there, so you can read up easily.

Alternatively, as you are in college, you probably have access to free counselling. If you like, this can include all kinds of analysis of your relationships. However, it can also be as simple as saying, “I’m not happy with the way I deal with conflict. Help me improve on this!” That can’t be anything but good, right? So go along and have a chat.

I hope this will help you to look at the problem from a distance. – Thelma

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