As a licensed marriage, family, and child therapist, I regularly hear my clients say, “my parents should have gotten divorced.” This is usually followed by statements like, “They fought all the time”; “there was always a lot of yelling when I was growing up”; “I don’t know why they ever got together, they have nothing in common”; and “they don’t like any of the same things.”
I can empathize with these sentiments. My own parents almost divorced when I was an adult. It didn’t come as a surprise because it never seemed like they had much in common and they were yelling at each other all the time. I remember that, when I was younger, my brothers and I would wonder why they didn’t get divorced.
Continuous friction in a home creates constant tension, which leads many children to wish their parents would just split. But if parents choose to live in this tension, they unknowingly model an unhealthy view of marriage as being a constant battle.
Reasons You Might Want Your Parents To Get A Divorce
We’ve heard plenty of reasons why children might want their parents to get a divorce, but they generally fall into one of three broader buckets.
They Argue Or Fight A Lot
Constant fighting in a home is stressful and takes a toll on everyone involved. Most strong marriages don’t have constant arguing or fighting. There generally need to be times of mutual understanding and caring of each other’s thoughts, feelings and ideas. Or the potential for a peaceful evening or even a couple of days together.
If you’re a child who is constantly having to listen to arguing, or if anytime you expect to have a nice vacation or a nice dinner with the family and it turns into a huge fight over something ridiculous, it is very understandable you might want to see if your parents would be better off on their own, or with someone who they connect with more strongly.
Fighting is not abnormal in marriages, but constant fighting is something that can’t, or more appropriately, probably should go on forever and an amicable divorce might be the best solution.
There Is Abuse
If either or both of your parents are physically abusive to each other, you must address it. When deciding when, if, or how to talk with your parents about physical abuse, you need to consider several factors. Has the abuse been a long standing issue, or is it a new development? Have other family members witnessed it? Have you tried talking to them before, and if so, what were the results? Your answers can guide you about how or whether to confront your parents.
If abuse just started recently, what underlying physical or mental health issues could have caused the change? For example, chronic health or pain conditions can create impulse control difficulties and other mental health problems. Perhaps there are cognitive impairments or a reaction to certain medications. We recommend a consultation with a physician to rule out these possibilities.
Whatever the case, you should call local abuse helplines in your community for guidance and help. Physical abuse is never acceptable. Do not underestimate the problem. We also encourage you to consult with an experienced family therapist for help, since long term intervention is necessary to stop the abuse.
They Don’t Talk At All
There can be several reasons why your parents don’t talk to each other any more.
First, some parents handle their discord by simply not talking at all. Perhaps they do not know how to discuss problems, opting instead to shut down to avoid confrontations. But avoiding problems won’t make them go away.
Instead, these unspoken conflicts stay suppressed just below the surface, constantly threatening to erupt. This unabating tension makes everyone involved feel as though they are constantly walking on eggshells, which creates a feeling of isolation among all family members. Endless avoidance becomes the family norm.
Unfortunately, when parents model this type of behavior, they teach their children to use avoidance as the primary way to deal with conflict, which in turn will set them up for unsatisfying relationships in adulthood.
Second, it may be that they no longer share similar interests or simply learned over time they don’t have much to talk about because of personal differences or changes. Your parents might not necessarily have conflict, but being in a family where the parents have nothing in common and exude a general disregard for each other also isn’t a healthy environment to be in.
Most children want to be in families where parents visibly care about each other’s hobbies, thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. And when you find yourself in a home where there’s little regard or care for that matter about any of that, you might understandably wish for a different or better life for your parents.
Talk To Your Parents
Your parents’ marriage is their business, but, as their child, you are still impacted by their relationship. Although it may feel uncomfortable to discuss how their relationship affects you, it’s an essential step to take for the sake of your entire family’s well-being.
Approach them with compassion and concern for how their discord is affecting you. Avoid blame or anger, which will cause them to become defensive and will limit your ability to be heard. Don’t use “you” statements such as, “You two are always fighting,” and, “You need to stop doing _X__,” and anything else that sounds like some version of, “You are so bad.”
It is also a good idea to avoid words like “never” and “always,” because they tend to evoke defensive reactions instead of receptive attitudes. When people feel they are being attacked, they get caught in their automatic fight, flight, freeze response.
At that moment, they begin thinking about their own counter-arguments and defenses instead of trying to understand the point you are trying to make. Instead, communicate to them that you all care about each other and want the highest and best outcomes for all of you.
Don’t Suggest They Get A Divorce
When you talk with your parents, it’s not up to you to suggest they divorce. Doing so could shut down the conversation or divert it away from letting them know how the current situation affects you. Rather, you are there to talk about what you are feeling and how it impacts you. If you have siblings, it might help all of you to talk with your parents together.
They Might Fix The Problem
If you can speak compassionately with your parents about how their marriage is negatively impacting you, and you elicit a response of genuine concern and a willingness to change from both parties, then there is hope.
If both of your parents want to work on their relationship for their and your sake – and are willing to go to counseling to find a better way to communicate – then they will take the first step towards a happier and more harmonious relationship.
They Might Get Divorced
If your parents are so calcified in their way of dealing with each other that they are not interested in having a better marriage, then divorce may be their only option. If parents go from a high conflict marriage to a high conflict divorce, it can be even worse for their children and for them.
So, while we never recommend that couples divorce, if they don’t want to do the work to save their marriage, they should help their whole family by investigating non-adversarial divorce processes such as mediation, collaborative, or co-operative divorce options. Those processes offer the possibility of a more peaceful, respectful family-focused divorce that can protect them and their children from the worst aspects of divorce.
Whether this happens or not, remember that they get to make their own choices. Your responsibility is only to share your thoughts and experiences and to deliver your message with as much caring and compassion as you can muster.
Talk To A Counselor
In some families, trying to have this conversation on your own leads to more conflict, denial, or unproductive discussions that go nowhere. If this happens to you, you may need to consult a trained family therapist.
A skilled, experienced counselor can help you decide if, when, and how to approach your parents in a way that could help your family. It can be surprising how a family therapist can come up with helpful ideas that you hadn’t thought of. A counselor can also help you cope with your own pain, anger, and sadness.
Your Parents Think Being Together Is Better For You
Your parents may have discovered long ago that they were fated to disappoint each other but may have felt obligated to stay together until their children were away safely on their own. Or maybe they felt that divorce was not an option for religious reasons.
For this reason, letting them know you think they should potentially consider divorce might alleviate some of the pressure they’re navigating to try and keep the marriage together.
The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists surveyed the research on how much divorce hurts children versus what happens if the parents stay together. The general findings were that if parents are in a low conflict marriage – even if the parents are dissatisfied and unhappy – the children might be better off if the family stays intact. So, if your parents can co-exist, even if the union is not the most fulfilling, they may choose to do so for the sake of the family’s well-being.
However, if their relationship is a high conflict or abusive one, the whole family will suffer. In this case, if the couple cannot resolve their contentious relationship, they must seek out a low conflict divorce. The worst situations for the family are when the parents have a high conflict or abusive marriage followed by a high conflict divorce.
Your Parents Are Stressed Out Too
If you are in a family with high conflict parents, you already know how stressful it is. You might think that the conflict is normal because that is all you have ever known. You might also think that the situation is hopeless and that nothing can be done.
In my experience, having helped many families with similar problems, I know that hope is often realistic, help is available, and healing is possible. I can also say that most likely your parents are also feeling pain, confusion, anger, sadness, disappointment, and stress. But with a little encouragement, delivered in a caring manner, they might be receptive to finding out for themselves how much better their lives can become with guidance from a skilled professional.
Carol Hughes, PhD, LMFT, holds her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology and her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, achieving both summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors. She is also a two-time Fulbright Scholar. Carol served for ten years as an Associate Professor of Human Services at Saddleback College. In her practice in Laguna Hills, CA, as a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and family-focused divorce professional, for more than thirty years, she has assisted hundreds of divorcing families, as a therapist, child and co-parenting specialist, divorce coach, and mediator.
Bruce Fredenburg, MS, LMFT, has been a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for more than 30 years and is Board Certified in Clinical Hypnosis. He was a college instructor in Human Services at Saddleback College and at the National Medical Review School in Southern California. He also created and taught parenting classes for adoptive and foster parents. Trained and experienced in chronic pain management, trauma, addictions, mediation, and collaborative divorce, in his practice in Laguna Hills, CA, Bruce helps families as a therapist, divorce coach, co-parenting specialist, and mediator.