Dear Dr. Respler,
Recently I spent a week at my parent’s home on the West Coast for Pesach. I’m single, in my early twenties, and Pesach is when I go home. During my visit I noticed some distressing attitudes between my parents that seemed to characterize their relationship. This is not the first time I’ve noticed these issues, it’s just the first time I’ve decided to speak up. At my age it is somewhat disconcerting to see my parents fight over the most trivial matters and call each other names in my presence. Added to the situation is my father’s constant prodding and offerings to please me – as if I’m still his baby daughter.
He acts as victim to my mother’s temper and verbal abuse, which is only exacerbated by his poor health (cancer coupled with a lifelong psychiatric condition). He has accepted these diagnoses as a part of his life, while at the same time pretending that he is just as capable as ever and wants to continue his fatherly role even though my siblings and myself are far beyond our childhood years. He has always hid his medical conditions from us, as if he thinks shielding us from the truth is in our best interest. Although both conditions are controlled and medicated, my strong-willed mother can only complain about the high insurance bills and deductibles they must pay out of pocket (she is the breadwinner in the family as my father has been too sick to work for many years). It is no wonder that returning to visit my family for Yom Tov has become torturous for me.
My question to you, Dr. Respler, is what should I be doing? My instinct tells me to be more open with my parents about my disappointment in their relationship, but this may fail since they have been treating each other this way for many years. My second thought is that I must change myself and become a more independent adult, while being attentive to my ailing father even in the presence of my mother’s difficult behavior and my father’s self-defeating attitude. My overall feeling is that I do not want to lose my family identity, but at the same time I feel it is impossible to keep living this way, overshadowed by their troubled relationship.
My only solace has been my sister (we are one year apart), but she has fallen on hard times. After being caught with illegal drugs on multiple occasions and almost flunking out of college, she has also become irreligious. At first this seemed to be another phase, and everyone in my immediate family just tried to cope with her irreligious lifestyle. This Pesach, however, it became clear that this is how it’s going to be.
While I recognize that she is an adult and may choose what she practices and believes in, it is still difficult for me to accept. We still talk often, as I have recently gone through a difficult breakup and, at a distance, it’s easy for me to be open with her. Seeing her over Pesach, though, was very hard and left me feeling as if things will never be the same. In addition, her boyfriend is not Jewish and we are all keeping this a secret from my father, as my mother believes this will only send him over a cliff and will cause him untold mental harm (he may even harm himself). While I have sought therapy in the past for low self-esteem and perfectionism, I feel that I need to reach out for guidance once again.
I am so sorry to hear all that you have been dealing with at such a young age. It is unfair for you to be put in the middle of your parents’ fighting, but you may want to talk with your mother in a respectful manner about how she treats your father in your presence. You can say something like, “I love you, Mommy, and enjoy visiting with you and Daddy, but it is very painful for me to hear you and Daddy fight. I feel sad when I hear the things you say to each other and I wish things would be different when I come home.” If you are calm and loving you may be able to get through to your mother; however, as you mentioned, it may be difficult for your parents to change their dynamic, as it has been in place for many years. No matter how old you get, it will always be painful for you to see your parents act in this manner. It would be prudent for you to seek help to aid you in navigating this difficult situation. The stronger you are, the easier it will be for you to handle going back home; nevertheless, you cannot expect it to be painless or easy! Thus, make sure to try to pamper yourself and see a therapist before and after a trip home.
Having a sister who is also going through painful changes definitely makes your situation even more difficult. However, you have to remember that your sister will always be your sister, no matter what decisions she makes for herself. If you have the emotional stamina, you can try to be there for her; however, you also have to look out for your own well-being and not let your family destroy your sense of self. Please seek professional help to assist you in getting through these trying times. Hatzlocha!