Dear Lauren,

My parents have a horrible marriage but they are both too stubborn to divorce. They haven't had a "date night" since before they were married. They have absolutely NO idea about how couples should treat each other. It always strikes me as so pathetic when I read the awesome marriage articles on Aish.com and they do every single thing it says to never do. They constantly have the most stupid and pointless arguments that a 2-year-old would be able to resolve. Sometimes they don't understand each other so much I wonder if they're speaking a different language. They have zero physical attraction for each other and they make it obvious they hate each other. The problem is that it's affecting my whole family.

My father's moods have grown progressively worse over the years and he can be really nasty to us. I just can't stand it. Then to everyone else he acts like a nice guy even though he's just torn our family apart. My mother can be a nice mother but her weakness is that she is also too stubborn to leave an argument or admit she's wrong when she's only hurting herself. I'm 15 and I'm embarrassed to invite friends over because I'm scared my parents will be screaming at each other. And I'm not a little kid who can say so sweetly, "Mom and Dad, it hurts me when you fight." They're impossible to approach because, as I said, they are WAY too stubborn, and it would only agitate my mother and get her really mad at me. What should I do? I'm kind of stuck here.

Sincerely hoping you can help,

Jason

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

There are two parts to my answer: one part is for you, and one part is for your parents.

In terms of your parents’ part, it’s important for you to realize that they most probably will (a) never read this article, nor any other article like it, and (b) they most probably will never actually change.

People only change when they decide to change, not when you want them to change.

You all know I’m usually an optimist. So why this pessimism? I’ll tell you why, and the reason will save you lots and lots of pain and heartache and frustration and tearing your hair out. Ready? Because people only change when they decide to change, not when you want them to change. This is a corollary of the really important idea: You can’t change anyone else except yourself.

So I will write a part aimed at your parents, but I’m warning you: don’t get your hopes up. People change on their own timetable and on their own volition, not on anyone else’s.

There’s probably nothing you can do about your parents’ behavior. So there’s the pressure off you, for sure, right there. Of course, you can try talking to them, but it probably won’t help (again, until they decide they want to change, on their own timetable and on their own volition). If you want to try talking to them, as you said in your question, you would say: “Mom and Dad, it really is bad for us kids when you disrespect each other. If you can find a way to create a loving and harmonious relationship, that would really help us have a good model for our own lives and relationships and marriages.”

You should make sure to say it to them after everyone and everything has calmed down, not right in the middle of a conflagration. And be prepared for defensive answers. They’ll probably say: “I wasn’t the one who started it. It was your father/mother, not me. If he/she weren’t so awful, we wouldn’t have these problems.” When that happens, just calmly and quietly repeat, “Well, it really is bad for us kids when you disrespect each other. If you can find a way to create a loving and harmonious relationship, that would really help us have a good model for our own lives and relationships and marriages.” Keep gently saying that in response to their insistence that they can’t change.

Also, in terms of the part of the article for you, you can (1) make sure not to learn from your parents’ bad behavior, and (2) seek out positive role models you can learn from. Not learning from your parents’ bad behavior involves being really aware of what they’re doing and making a conscious decision, “I will not speak that way to my siblings/friends/teachers/future spouse/future kids.” Sort of say it to yourself when you see them behaving badly. You can also write down in a journal your observations of their misbehavior and how you would have done it differently. Seeking out positive role models can be done at school, at a synagogue, at your local Jewish community center…. Be on the lookout for people whose way in relationships you admire. Notice how they interact, what they do, how they speak, their tone of voice, what they say, how they make eye contact, when they apologize and how they do it….

Now for the part for your parents. I’m really writing this for you, Jason, so you’ll know how to do your relationships better, and for any couples out there who are actually reading this column with the intention of trying to change their relationship for the better. Unfortunately, your parents probably will never see it, and even if they do, they probably won’t change…again, unless it’s their desire to do so.

That being said, you can definitely print this out and put a copy on each of your parents’ pillows. And on their bathroom counter…and next to the coffee…and on the driver’s seat of their car….

Here goes.

I had a couple in my office this week, and I told this particular husband: “All you need to do is show your wife love, respect, friendship, and don’t raise your voice.” I told this particular wife: “All you need to do is show your husband how much you adore and cherish him and treat him lovingly, gently, and kindly.” And we went through lots of specific examples of their interactions and how they could have each done it better, and why each of them was responding negatively instead.

Here’s the kicker: do you know what their response was? The wife said: “No. I won’t do it. I won’t do it until he does his part.” And, separately, the husband said: “No. I won’t do it. I won’t do it until she does her part.” I told them: “It’s your choice. You can live a miserable existence, and keep coming here every week for a long, long time, and pay me lots and lots of your money. OR you can each do your part, live a happy, lovely, wonderful life, never have to come here again, and keep all that money for yourselves! Hmmm…which should you choose?”

By the way, they chose the stubborn and miserable way. So far. I’ll keep working on them. But I’m happy they chose the stubborn and miserable way this week for one reason: so that people reading this article can say to themselves, “That is so stupid! No, no! Don’t do that!” And maybe learn for themselves in their own lives to bite the bullet and put down their defenses and take off their armor and let themselves be vulnerable and let themselves love.

It’s like in the movies when they hear a noise down in the basement. We know it’s the monster, lurking down there. But they don’t. And they blithely say, “Oh, gee, I think I’ll go down to the basement to check it out.” We’re sitting there at home yelling at the screen, “No, no!! Don’t go there!” But they just keep walking down the hall, turning the knob on the basement door…opening the door….

Don’t do that. Don’t go there. Don’t ruin your own life.

I promise you, dear readers, you can have a happy, wonderful marriage if you each show your spouse sincere sweetness, love, kindness with no expectation of anything in return, deep respect and friendship, and if, when you hurt your spouse’s feelings, you say: “I see I hurt you. I’m so sorry I hurt you. Can you tell me more about how I hurt you so that I won’t do it again?” And then sincerely listen to what you did that hurt their feelings, then say, “I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. I’m going to try hard not to do that anymore. I love you.”

And if that doesn’t work to create a harmonious marriage, then get thee to a marriage therapist who can help you figure out what the deeper issues are and how you can address them and resolve them.

Take a look at the question at the beginning of this article. Written by a real kid in a real home with real strife. Don’t do that to your kids. Be strong and do the right thing.