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Caught in the Middle of My Fighting Parents
Dear Emuna

Caught in the Middle of My Fighting Parents

I am sick of holding my parents’ failing marriage on my shoulders.


Dear Emuna,

My father recently revealed to me that he's thinking about leaving my mother, who can be abusive toward him (and was toward me as well growing up). He's been complaining that she's kept him from pursuing his dreams in life, that she provides him with no emotional support, that she leans on him financially and refuses to go out, work, or do any of the housework, and that she "exploits" and "controls" him.

I know that some of what he says is objectively true. But despite everything, I love my mother and she genuinely loves him. She has her problems and is actively seeking help, but the two of them simply don't know how to communicate. I also have concerns that she may not be able to take care of herself on her own.

Meanwhile, I am (happily) married with a young child, and I am sick of being my parents' sounding board and keeping their secrets from each other. I have been holding their failing marriage on my shoulders since I was a teenager and I believe that I have the right to have the space to focus on my own family. I'm a full-time working mom supporting my husband through school right now and I don't have the emotional space to deal with this. I have asked both of my parents over the years to leave me alone and "grow up" and handle their emotions like adults. They blatantly ignore me, or hold the mitzvah to "honor your parents" over my head. I also am worried about exposing my child to their behavior. They are great with her for now, but what happens when she gets older? I feel like the entire responsibility for my parents' well-being is on my shoulders! What can/should I do?


Dear Torn,

I think you know what you should do; it’s just a question of getting up the nerve to take the stand you need to take. As you correctly recognize, it is not your job to be your parents’ sounding board. Not only are you not responsible for the state of their marriage, you are not responsible for the state of their collective or individual mental health either.

Additionally, even with all the good will in the world, you can’t force them to change. It may even be that in having you to turn to, they can avoid dealing with each other. It has clearly not been enough for you to just ask them to leave you alone. This is a bad habit that has just gone on too long and it’s up to you to break this destructive cycle.

At the moment, I only see one way out. Whenever your parents begin to criticize each other or complain to you about the other, you say to them very politely, “I love you very much but I refuse to listen to this and I’m hanging up the phone/leaving the room right now.”

This is not heartless. It is not in their best interests to keep harping on the negative qualities of their spouse. Complaining often takes the place of the real effort required to change. In additionally let me add that, while one should always consult a Rabbi to discuss the parameters of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, listening to one of them denigrate the other is definitely NOT a part of it. In fact the opposite may be much truer since we have prohibition of listening to and/or believing negative information we are told about others.

You are also correct that your primary focus right now is your own family and that you need to marshal your resources to deal with that demanding task and can’t waste or deplete them on the unending negative cycle taking place between your parents, a situation they are not taking ownership of or responsibility for.

Finally, with respect to your daughter. In general I believe that most children are not hurt by contact with their grandparents. They are able to benefit from the love and ignore the more destructive patterns of behavior because they are not dependent on their grandparents for their sense of emotional safety and security. You will, of course, have to use your own judgment. You seem to believe it’s okay for now and you will have to watch and see if there is a significant deterioration (I certainly hope not) as your daughter gets older. It should go without saying that if there is ever any physical risk to your daughter (or serious emotional risk) then you need to prevent that relationship as well. However, from your description that does not seem to be the case. You should stay far back from your parents but let your daughter continue to spend time with her grandparents who, with all their flaws, may genuinely love her and be able to lift up out of their own misery to be kind to her.

Controlling Sister-in-Law

Hey Emuna,

My husband and I share an amazing relationship; we both love each other a lot and he's my blessing. My relationship is perfect! All my husband’s friends tell him that he's very lucky and we're the perfect couple. The only problem is my sister-in-law; she's 2 years younger than my husband and the youngest in the family. She never liked me.

My husband and I have been together for almost 5 years and we've been married for almost 3 years now. We also have a 9-month-old son. But her behavior towards me hasn't changed. She's always rude to me and ignores me. Now we have a son and she wants to do everything with him and my husband but she wants nothing to do with me. She doesn't even say hi to me; she acts like I don't even exist.

It hurts me that my husband has talked to her about her behavior towards me many times but she's still the same. Now my husband just doesn't bother and he tells me that, "You don't have to be nice to her but just be civil." All these years that she's been mean and rude to me I've never been rude or mean in return. Instead I've always been the bigger person and I've always been nice to her. But she's still mean and rude, nothing has changed.

I just can't do it anymore. Sometimes I want to leave my husband because of his sister. I feel that it's his job to fix his family and the fact that nothing has changed in almost 3 years of marriage. I feel like he failed me as a husband. As a husband it's his responsibility to get me my respect and place in his family. I'm always stressed because of her. I'm always thinking about the stuff she says to me, the way she stares me down from my head to toe, how she completely blocks me and if I know that there's a party/event coming up I get so stressed that I'll be bumping into her. She is the only thing my husband and I argue about. He doesn't take her side but he's just too nonchalant about everything she does just to keep peace.

She's a very bitter, controlling and know-it-all kind of person. She's very social awkward but she thinks she's very smart. I can't deal with this issue anymore!


Dear Finished,

There are two ways to make this situation better and, unfortunately, they both depend on you. It is crucial for you and your marriage to recognize that no one can change another person. No matter how hard your husband tries, no matter how important it is to him, no matter how many times he approaches her, your sister will only change if she wants to change. So stop blaming your husband and stop threatening to leave your marriage. If you truly recognize how lucky you are, I don’t know why you would even consider this! Blaming your husband for his sister’s behavior which is totally out of his control is just plain wrong, and unfair. That’s the first important point.

Yes, your sister-in-law sounds like an unpleasant human being. But your husband has not failed you because he couldn’t get her to change her perspective.

Secondly if she’s the only thing you argue about you are very lucky. Stop telling yourself that you can’t deal with this. Of course you can deal with it. It’s frustrating and annoying but life has much greater challenges. Pass this one and you’ll be in a much stronger, healthier, and, may I suggest, more mature place when the next one comes along.

February 18, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 29

(22) Anonymous, February 25, 2017 5:27 AM

Wow. Been there, done that. I stayed, kids paid. Leave?

For the woman with the stressful sister-in-law. Of course when we marry, we still love the families we came from. And of course we can't change others. But a spouse with good character and that truly loves his family would not invite into his home or life, or want to hang out with someone that usually hurts or causes stress for his new family. We can't change another, but we can change our behavior & choices. He can tell his sister he loves her, but her coldness to you is hurtful to his marriage. And that when she can be kind to his entire family, and stop causing stress in his family, then she is welcomed; until then, not. If your spouse doesn't want to, that is not a good spouse to have, or a good relationship example for a child. One can't make a person have good character or care. But you can at least love and protect yourself and your child. The real problem is not your sister-in-law or someone being disrespectful & hurtful to you; it's that your spouse is being disrespectful & hurtful to you. It's that your spouse is choosing to be with someone who chooses to be unkind to his family, and that he's okay with his family being treated this way, hurt. It's not healthy or loving for him, you, your child, or for his sister. It's better your child see's each parent alone, then one poisonous relationship together. Daughters learn to stay where not treated with dignity & respect; sons learn how to disrespect females, even their own mother. I choose to stay, in my mind blaming the inlaw, and hoping my husband would change. 2 months after my mother's passing, my husband & I made a small party for my husband's uncle's birthday. The uncle made a toast, wishing ... "his nephew's wife (my) dad die soon, so my husband could be wealthy". Your inlaw may not be that bad, but either way, your children learn how to have unhealthy, unloving relationships. Maybe if I left, my children would have had a better chance at healthy families themselves.

Sarah, February 26, 2017 10:31 AM

Every experience is different

I'm sorry for what you went through and that you feel you made the wrong decision. Every experience is different and that's why Finished needs proper, unbiased, spiritual minded counsel. You're right when you say children learn what to accept in relationships and how to act in relationships from their parents. In this case, how do you think the little boy will feel about a mother who divorced his father because of one socially awkward family member she keeps on her mind so much and that she blames his father as a failure for not being able to change his aunt's behavior? How do you think he'll feel when he lives with either the mother and not the father for years (he'll probably grow up and choose to be with the father in a court case) or only with the father if he seeks custody ("Yes, judge, Finished wants a divorce because my sister is 'rude and ignoring' and Finished blames me though I can't control someone else's behavior but multiple times spoke to my sister on my wife's behalf but my wife needs everything her way and will do everything but change herself, she's not great to my sister, I had to tell her to be civil, yes, I'm seeking full physical custody because a boy needs his father, we're very close, and Finished needs help, not to consistently show and therefore teach her son such weak and manipulative behavior and blaming, such lack of thought, kindness, compassion and inner strengh, and such a lack of the desire or ability to change for the better. Her thoughts and assumptions about my sister and her blame for me though our marriage is otherwise perfect shows she has no belief in family unity and makes no allowances for people's differences. My son should not be raised this way, though with Finished in therapy, I'd like my son to have a relationship with his mother, beginning with supervised visits so she doesn't speak to him about others or about him in terrible ways.") Finished should look within well before using others' actions to hurt and blame them.

Yael, February 26, 2017 10:59 AM

I totally disagree.

It's very normal for even the most loving, wonderful and fabulous husband to be unable to be as supportive regarding his family as he should be. Is it right? No. Is it as it should be? No. But it's very normal. I definitely think they should go for help regarding this issue, but leave him? Insanity.

Elle, February 26, 2017 11:39 AM

Divorce is serious

Finished is making very quick acting, illogical, emotional based decisions. People have marriages with very real issues, very complicated issues, and try to work on themselves and their marriages. People have had friends, family and others who have done terrible things to them and their loved ones and they learned to forgive, make peace with the situation and the people who did them wrong, and even befriend them. In an extreme case, one man's grandson shot and killed another man's son and the two men, instead of adding to the tragedy, being hateful or taking revenge, formed a friendship and together go around the world giving joint talks about peace and forgiveness. Finished wanting divorce so quick, and others telling her it's right, and her stating and people agreeing - without knowing any specific facts as none were offered - that everything is the husband's fault and the sister-in-law's fault, but not hers at all, and that she should cut out the sister from her life and from the lives of the sister's beloved brother and nephew (who will quickly learn how cruel his mother is to his father, his aunt and to himself, when he learns his mother tried to prevent him from having at least one more person who loves him in his life - not to mention present or future uncle and first cousins), and Finished making more demands on the husband and encouraged to do so, or saying she'll divorce him and is encouraged to do so, based on what, no one really knows, reminds me of a quote I recently read:
"If a rabbit defined intelligence the way man does, then the most intelligent animal would be a rabbit, followed by the animal most willing to obey the commands of a rabbit." Robert Brault

(21) Yiska, February 24, 2017 2:24 PM

I read the question, answer, comments and comments to the comments

Part One: 1. You think your sister-in-law is rude. You don't say how. Proper advice can't be given for vague generalities. 2. You say your sister-in-law ignores you. How is this true if she's rude? Does she go back and forth between behaviors? Or is the alleged ignoring of you rude? You never explain ignoring. Is it not speaking to you if you're in the same room or is it not hanging on to every word you say and not acting in great admiration of you? If someone is so rude to me I can barely think of anything else I'd be glad for her to do her own thing and leave me alone. 3. You say the marriage is wonderful except for your sister in law's behavior to you (do you live in a one room apartment with her? do you even live in the same city or state?) so you might want a divorce. That's extreme and sad, as is how much time you spend thinking about her. Is the rest of your time filled with thoughts of others who might not think you're the most amazing person in the world or of others who spend time with your husband but not with you? 4. You claim your husband's friends say you're the perfect couple. Are they with you 24/7? What do your friends say? Your family? The local news? People's opinions must mean a lot to you. Your'e upset that your rude, socially awkward, thinks she's smart sister-in-law chooses to stay away from you. But your husband's friends say you're doing great. So that must be accurate. And divorce must be logical.

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