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Worried about my parents - how to help them?

(12 Posts)
leonina Fri 06-Jan-17 12:26:15

Long time lurker, first time poster...

My parents' relationship has never been an amazing one but after spending this Christmas with them, I'm feeling sad and worried about them both. They seem to hate each other, have little patience with anything the other says, lots of sniping, swearing, short fuses. Both seem very unhappy, but unwilling to do anything to change the situation or communicate with each other about their issues/relationship.

Background: they are in their 60s, been together 30 + years, both successful careers, raised (mostly) happy, independent children, live in a lovely house. DM still working part time, DF retired for a couple of years now. Comfortably off/financially secure.

Since retirement, DF has made the most of his time - volunteering, went back to academic study, took up hobbies again etc. He is not perfect and has always found it hard to talk about emotions etc but is a caring, thoughtful person who has supported the whole family beyond measure in different ways.

DM is still working, very flexibly and very part time and not because she needs to but mostly because she doesn't know what else to do/doesn't want to do anything else. The area they live in has so many different activities/opportunities but she says she can't do any of them because of self-esteem, lack of confidence (has always been an issue, but has got worse in recent years). She seems to be becoming more anxious about everything (including postponing long-talked about holidays because she has become anxious about travelling) and her world seems to be becoming smaller and more anxiety-ridden (about politics, other people, state of world etc). She is a kind, thoughtful, generous and loving person, and gives so much support to my siblings and I in many ways, and looks after an elderly neighbour and her parents very thoughtfully and with a lot of commitment. She is very bright but I think her confidence has held her back in many ways - it feels like she takes this frustration out on other people/things. She thinks moving house will make things better. The other thing she thinks would help is me and my siblings having kids (none yet) > all her solutions involve other people doing things, not her making any effort to change/start to do things.

This results in her being extremely negative about everything that my DF does - she undermines, criticises, belittles him, which has resulted in him dropping some of his activities. To a certain extent she has always been like this and my dad has put up with it quietly, but has now got to the point where he (understandably) can't take it anymore and has started responding to it, either through dropping his interests, or by being short with her back, resulting in a horrible, tense atmosphere.

Both DM and DF have had to deal with very stressful care issues relating to their own parents in the last few years, and I think this has added to the general feeling of anxiety/stress/sadness and perhaps feelings of mortality.

DF has talked to me and my siblings about how he can't take it any more, discussed leaving, and DM has apparently threatened to leave too. They do not communicate at all about how they would like things to be/how to move forward in the future, what they each want, or at least can't without things becoming horribly accusatory/guilt-ridden and emotional. Each has suggested that somehow me and my siblings should try to pass information on these issues on to the other (infuriating! Just talk to each other!!). Siblings and I have talked to both separately, gently asking if everything is ok, that we are worried about them, that they seem very unhappy, if they want to talk about anything, what they would like to do, whether they've thought about counselling, going to the GP (think DM could do with some medication, - I am currently taking anti-anxiety/anti-depressant medication, and feel it would benefit her so much). All (gentle) suggestions are met with despondency - nothing would work, neither would consider counselling, there's nothing they can do, they just have to carry on as they are, everything will be ok, etc, don't worry about us, we're fine! But things are definitely not ok, and nothing will change unless they start talking, even if that does lead to them splitting.

I understand that really, there is not much I can do apart from listen and try to support them but I would like to help them move forward somehow! It is heart-breaking to see them both so unhappy and negative when they are at a point in their life that theoretically should be a bit more happy and relaxed (no financial worries, kids doing ok, etc.). Does anyone have any suggestions? I do admit that I do tend to feel other's unhappiness quite strongly, so I may be being oversensitive to all of this somehow. Honest responses telling me to keep my nose out of their relationship also welcome!

Sorry so long, thanks for reading.

TLDR: DM and DF both basically decent people but very unhappy together, what can I do to help?!

justawoman Fri 06-Jan-17 12:43:00

It's really hard. In the end I think you can't help them if they're not willing to help themselves at all. You've made sensible suggestions, like counselling, and if they won't take them up you can't do any more. I would just say that you and your siblings need to set firm boundaries; I'd suggest refusing to relay messages and trying never to get drawn in to taking sides.

Lots of older couples seem to live like this, unfortunately. I'm going through something similar with my parents, though I don't have the affection for them that you obviously do for yours. Mine are frailer than yours sound,both mentally and physically, and my siblings and I are in despair because after nearly 50 years of marriage we can't imagine how they'd cope without each other, but they just wind up and abuse each other together. It's very hard.

leonina Fri 06-Jan-17 12:52:34

justawoman I'm sorry to hear you're going through similar, and with frailer parents, that sounds very upsetting. And I think you're right, it's probably (depressingly) not an unusual situation and there's probably not much more we can do except detach a bit/leave them to it (difficult!). I think in cases like these it probably helps to have siblings to vent with, and hope you and yours are able to support each other. Thank you for your kind reply.

FATEdestiny Fri 06-Jan-17 13:16:31

My husband's parents for got to this stage about 2 or 3 years ago. The only difference was they weren't well off financially. They were ok, but not well off and that matters because it was the start point of resolving things.

I always held s pro-marriage stance but they seems to be so nasty and unkind to each other. She came up with a plan that she would move out and rent a small retirement property and would continue the relationship but in the form of pre-arranged "dates" and not living together.

(they never went through with this plan)

What I did was inject some reality to this idea. I talked MIL through some of the financial hardship she would face if of living alone. We looked into benefits she might get and how many extra hours she would need to do at work. The turning point came with the harsh reality:

Me: you realise you'll be almost in poverty if you leave?

MIL: hmm. I can't stay in an unhappy marriage just because of money though.

Me: of course not, but you need to be realistic. You may need to find another tenent to share with so you can split the costs. Or significantly change your lifestyle.

MIL: hmm

Me: You can do this, we will help you. But you need to understand that life will be a lot harder for you if you leave. Is it worth it?

MIL had been ranting about FIL for years up to this point. It took DH and I making it real for her to realise the grass wasn't greener. She has got to the point of wanting to leave by this time, so talking though the practical aspects of that made her see that this was such a massive decision.

I realise my post makes it sound like she was trapped in the marriage. It's not like that at all. Realising how hard separation would be made her realise that maybe her marriage was worth saving after all. FIL realised she was genuinely orepared to leave and MIL realised she didn't want to - both these things together meant they started being kind to each other again. Stopped being nasty and worked through their problems.

2 years on, they have never been happier as a couple.

BusterTheBulldog Fri 06-Jan-17 13:22:45

Hi leonina I don't have any answers I'm afraid. My parents sound similar although without either of them having hobbies.

I tell myself that they must rub along better when I am not there, and that my presence heightens things. Christmas was pretty eye opening for us too, it puts me off seeing them too to be honest which is pretty sad.

If either of mine did any activities I would concentrate on them keeping that going-do you think your dad could be encouraged to pick up those that he has left?

I think you are right about siblings, I'm an only child and the pressure to fix / entertain is too much at times.

leonina Fri 06-Jan-17 13:32:35

FATEdestiny thank you for sharing this, that's really interesting, and very happy to read that your PIL managed to work through their situation and find that kindness again! They sound very lucky to have had you helping out with a reality check.

Interestingly, my DM moving out into a flat nearby (but not separating) is something she and I discussed. I'm not sure they're that well off that they could afford that either, but I think a solution where she can develop her own interests/time apart would a good first step. As would be getting them both to think through the reality of separating (financially/emotionally etc) as you say. I think they're both aware it wouldn't be great, but it doesn't yet seem to be enough to get them to change their behaviour...

leonina Fri 06-Jan-17 13:41:31

BusterTheBulldog thank you for your post and I'm sorry to hear you are in the same situation... And facing it as an only child, that must be hard. I really identify with your point about your presence heightening things. I think it might give them more of an audience. And I feel the same - surely they can't be living like this 24/7 when we're not there, it would be intolerable! And yes, I also feel like I don't really want to go back until they've taken steps to sort things out, which as you say is very sad. (I almost mentioned this to them as an ultimatum but then felt it might be too confrontational...)

I'm seeing my dad on his own soon, so will definitely ask about him pursuing his interests again (though will probably open up difficult conversations!)

junebirthdaygirl Fri 06-Jan-17 16:36:20

Sometimes people getting into horrible habits and they don't even realise the effect on others. Could you say to them that you are no longer prepared to listen to them giving out about each other. That when you come to visit you don't want petty squabbling as it upsets you. I presume you don't do that when they visit you. Your dm has a choice to see a doctor as sounds like she needs help but you can say it once and then it's her choice. Sometimes people need to be told to give it over, snapping and sniping. Don't get involved in listening to one side over the other, don't pass messages. Say fight all ye want but not when lm here. Sounds harsh but may shock them into realising they need to quit the habit of sniping.

leonina Fri 06-Jan-17 16:53:26

junebirthdaygirl thank you for your post - I think you might be right. When I mentioned to my mum at Christmas that we found their behaviour towards each other upsetting/worrying, she seemed quite surprised and said they weren't that bad were they? So maybe we do need to be quite direct/blunt with them to get the message across and get them thinking/doing something about it...

junebirthdaygirl Fri 06-Jan-17 18:00:36

Being more aware may knock them out of the habit.

RRic3pud2017 Fri 06-Jan-17 19:02:37

I would look at the positives

Both of your parents seem to be healthy

Your Father is retired and enjoys volunteering and hobbies

Your Mother works part time and helps neighbours and family
The dynamics will change slightly when they both retire, what are their plans ?

I am a great believer in making plans and ensuring that they happen. nothing worse than hearing people say "I wish I had done x, y z"

My best suggestion is that if they are going to do any travelling either locally or abroad, that they do this whilst they are still in good health

Secondly, that they enjoy their retirement, because none of us can predict the future, so make the most of the time that we have

Stop worrying, it is their life to live

leonina Fri 06-Jan-17 20:11:16

RRic3pud2017 thanks for your message, and yes there are a lot of positives, that I wish they could see. My DM doesn't have any plans for retirement, apart from travel, and those seem to be slowly disappearing. I think their day to day activities/plans are generally ok, it's more to do with how they treat each other/their relationship that I wish they could address. But yes, you're right - it is their life, and I think I have to start worrying less!

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