I am 16 years old, and I live in New York City. I’m constantly going back and forth from my mom’s place in the Bronx to my dad’s in Washington Heights. From the beginning of 2016 up until now, my parents have been on bad terms and haven’t been communicating. During the year, they’ve gone to court several times and do not communicate well with each other. This has definitely put a toll on me. I love my parents so much, and it hurts to see them fight. It’s also an added weight on my shoulders, being that I’m a junior and I struggle enough with school and my own personal insecurities. How can I fix this or work to improve communication skills on both ends? I’m just extremely terrified that if they don’t hash things out soon, I’m going to be in big trouble my coming senior year. Especially because I need both of their support when applying for college. —Arielle, 16, New York City
Hi, Arielle. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. I have had my share of struggles with my divorced parents going through long periods of refusing, or being flat-out unable, to get along or even communicate properly for the good of their kids. I know firsthand that it’s unsettling, upsetting, and also annoying as fuck. This is a difficult and literally uncontrollable-by-anyone-who-isn’t-them-situation, so whether or not my practical advice is applicable, please know I am sending you a lot of strength and love.
In terms of practical advice, though, I feel that the most crucial thing for you to remember is that this is fundamentally not YOUR problem. I don’t mean that in an invalidating way, because I understand that it wholly FEELS like it is your problem. I just think that it’s very necessary for you to recognize and then remind yourself, constantly, at every opportunity, that on the very most-basic level, you are witnessing a struggle in an interpersonal relationship between two people who—despite being the closest living beings on earth to you, biologically and maybe socially as well (it sounds like you’re close to them and love them both very much)—are not ACTUALLY you. Therefore, you’re outside of it. And THAT means you cannot and should not be expected to control or change it or “fix” it in any way. It sounds super simplistic, but it’s something I had to teach myself to know, like a mantra. Sometimes, when the frustration of not being able to make my parents see how counterproductive and inadvertently damaging their personal beef was to ME got to be too much, it was genuinely helpful to just LET GO, deeply exhale, and tell myself over and over again that this was their shit, and that I essentially had nothing to do with it.
What makes this tricky is that, objectively, when you get down to the bare bones of it, you are dealing with two people who have a context and a history that is way bigger and way older than you and your place within that relationship. No offense, but in this scenario, your existence is basically a byproduct of a relationship between the two of them that existed externally to you, and their role as your parents. I’m only saying that as a way to highlight the fact that no matter how much they undoubtedly love you, and no matter how much you clearly want to help them—and not to mention how much you realistically ARE stuck in the middle of this shit—there’s very little you can do in a situation between people who are not you.
Then again, SUBjectively, there’s no denying that these fighting exes are more than only that: They are also your parents, and their relationship in its current state has begun to negatively affect their child, who is you. This means that, of course, on another level this IS a situation of three people, not just two, and you DO have EVERYTHING to do with it. Everything you’re feeling is more than understandable. I consider this feeling to be one of the most horrible that a person can feel, at least in my experience, if only for the helplessness of being caught between people you love more than any other, who also love you, but for whatever reason are incapable of loving each other.
Above, beyond, and before any practical solutions you could try, I believe that the most important thing you can do to help YOURSELF get through this is to balance feeling/respecting your own totally valid emotions and reactions against the aforementioned hearty and solid understanding that, at the end of the day, this is their shit. I cannot emphasize that enough. The way you will save yourself from suffering at the hands of their conflict might be as simple as just reminding yourself, whenever you feel these feelings, that they will do what they will do within their own two-person private relationship, and that’s that. Sometimes considering your lack of control over a situation affords you the liberty of kind of relaxing about it. You can’t control it, and while you may be privy to it, and be affected by it, and even be LIVING inside it, it is not YOUR problem.
But, again, the paradoxical issue here is that it IS simultaneously your problem, as evidenced by the way it is making you feel, so here is what I suggest: Talk to them. Communicate with them. Set the example. If they are too constrained by whatever is going on between them to be able to communicate adequately with each other, show them how they SHOULD be communicating by simply talking to each of them in a way that they are clearly unable to talk to each other. They are stuck in their two-person mess, but you are not. You can use the individual relationship you have with each of them to appeal to them on an emotional but also RATIONAL level about what this is doing to you. No matter what is going on between them, I would be willing to bet that their top priority is and always has and will be you, no matter how dire things may get between them. So rather than letting them continue to try and apparently fail to communicate between themselves, why not appeal to them directly, in the hopes of inspiring an understanding that they can’t seem to reach between themselves? Maybe they can’t speak to each OTHER without screaming or having to go to court, but again, I’m again willing to bet that that is just THEIR relationship, and that neither of them communicate with YOU that way. Use that to your advantage.