By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

I’m a 17-year-old girl, and it feels like I’ve been living in a war zone for as far back as I can remember. My parents do not get along. They never have. They are different as day and night and really have nothing in common. But worse than that, they get on each other’s nerves to the point that it seems that any time one of them says anything, the other has a terrible reaction and it leads to a screaming match. I really think they hate each other.

I have one sibling, a younger brother who doesn’t seem to be as tuned in to our home life the way that I am. He’s out of the house a lot. He’s busy with sports during every free minute, and maybe he just lacks my level of sensitivity. When I bring it up to him and ask whether our home atmosphere makes him as sad as it makes me, he acts as though he’s not so sure what I’m talking about. Maybe in general, boys are less tuned in than girls and he’s living in his own little world made up of basketball and football. His response sometimes makes me wonder if I’m overreacting and maybe it’s my problem. But I know that I’m embarrassed to have friends over because I never know when an explosion will happen and I don’t want to be ashamed of my parents’ behavior.

I’m always tense and anxious. When I’m at home, I’m always waiting for an outburst. When I’m away from home, I worry about what’s happening there. It’s hard for me to relax and just be a normal teenager like it seems my friends are. So as a result, for years now, I’ve been fantasizing that my parents will get divorced. Lately, I think about it all the time. I just feel that if they are away from each other, they can be good parents individually and provide calm homes for my brother and me to live in.

Recently, I mustered the courage to ask my mother whether she ever thinks about getting divorced. Her reaction was so weird to me because I have to wonder if she even realizes that I live in the same house with her and am subject to the constant screaming and fights. It’s so obvious that they don’t love or respect one another at all. After much back and forth, my mother finally admitted that she’s sorry that she hasn’t been able to provide a happy home for her children, but that nothing is worse for children than divorce. And for that reason, certainly as long as her children are living at home, she would never consider divorcing my father.

I actually have two friends whose parents got divorced and they both seem to be doing fine. They are both close to both of their parents and they seem a lot calmer than I constantly feel. I always walk around with a pit in my stomach. So I can’t help praying daily that my parents finally recognize that they will never be good together and just end it. Am I crazy to think this way? Do other children/teenagers think the way I do? Obviously, it’s not the kind of question that you feel you can ask anyone else. But what am I missing? Yes, I know that it’s inconvenient, going back and forth between homes, and that holidays get split up, and there are lots of other technicalities that probably come up. But I just can’t help believing that anything is better than hearing doors slam, people yelling, and living with tension that goes through the roof.

What are your thoughts? Is divorce the worst thing that could ever happen to children?

Miserable

Dear Miserable,

The question you ask is complicated, personal, and unique to each case and therefore cannot possibly elicit a straightforward yes-or-no answer. There is so much that goes into a couple’s decision to end a marriage versus sticking with it no matter what. In terms of the children who are ultimately so greatly affected by either decision, each situation reflects a whole host of variables too long to mention.

I have had more than a few grown individuals sit in my office and reflect over their difficult and sad childhoods, wishing, like you, that their parents had simply gotten divorced and spared them all the constant anger and fighting. They desperately craved a peaceful environment and happier parents. Likewise, I’ve spoken to more than a few people who are products of divorced homes who tell of the difficulties they endured dealing with feeling different, no longer being able to celebrate any occasion or holiday with both parents at the same time, being shuffled back and forth from home to home, and experiencing a sort of disconnect from solid roots.

I’ve spoken to individuals who claim that their parents’ divorce did not shape their ability to be happy and was a valuable learning opportunity for them. They felt safer coming from a broken home than living in one. There are those individuals who feel that their parents’ divorce was the single worst thing that ever happened to them; they are still angry at their parents for putting them through such an experience and are presently feeling limited in some ways.

It sounds as though you fall into the category of people who cannot tolerate being around constant fighting and believe anything would be preferable to that. Some of us are not wired to absorb the constant shock of fierce fighting. One’s sensitivity plays a huge rule in one’s ability to handle and be around angry energy. On the flip side, it seems as though your brother may fall into the category of individuals who can tune out the dysfunction that exists all around them and most likely he would prefer being part of an intact family.

You are not crazy to fantasize the way that you do. Fantasies don’t change anything, and it sounds as though divorce is not on your parents’ radar. I would imagine that they are not looking to you for cues regarding how to deal with their damaged marriage. Therefore, your salvation will have to come from different sources — outside sources. A therapist, to be exact. You would certainly benefit from connecting with a therapist of your own to help you deal with your anxiety caused by your parents’ constant fighting and all the other stressors that their strained relationships imposes on you. I would also recommend that you campaign to get your parents to join you in therapy so that they can hear, firsthand, what their inability to control their fighting is doing to you and that it’s unacceptable. You deserve so much better!

In the meantime, you can take a page out of your brother’s playbook. It’s not your responsibility to fix your parents. Seek distractions. Stay out of your home as much as possible. What goes on there when you’re not around is not your responsibility. They are adults and they need to figure things out. If they don’t, it will be their loss and regret someday. But you need to take care of yourself, find the support that you desperately need, and fantasize about the beautiful home that you will someday create for yourself and your family.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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