Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Still Affected by Parents' Bad Marriage

QUESTION: I've been living alone for the past year and my father has been supporting me financially. My mother keeps commenting that my father is mean and evil. Needless to say, they have a very bad marriage. Until now, I used to get along well with my mother -- at the cost of the relationship with my father. But now, I see that my mother has been terribly mean and selfish and I dislike her. Could you suggest something to help me keep my sanity?

ANSWER: You are clearly becoming independent and can see your mother's contributions to her marital difficulties. But do not jump from the frying pan into the fire! Your parents' "bad" marriage is their responsibility. Siding with your father is no better for you than siding with your mother.

Your parents have triangulated you in their marriage. Your mother has done so actively by soliciting your sympathy in scapegoating your father. But your father has acquiesced passively by refusing to conflict with your mother directly about her inappropriate parenting. Your father's acts of omission support your mother's inappropriate actions. The failing of their marriage no doubt stems from their inability to resolve conflict directly with one another. Instead, their pattern has been to allow the conflict to be vented on you.

Neither of your parents should have allowed this to happen. Had your father stood up to your mother in this regard, you would have been given the message that you should not be caught in the middle of their crossfire. This would have entitled you to separate from their conflict sooner. The reality is likely to be that both of your parents depend on you to absorb their marital stress. In this way, you may actually stabilize their marriage. Your mother vents to you, and your father continues to avoid conflict with his wife.

Get out of the middle! Refuse to be used in their battle with one another. Tell your mother that you do not want to hear about your father from her any longer. Let both of your parents know that you would like a separate relationship with each of them. Your relationship with your mother needs to stand on its own, not by "ganging up against" your father. Let her know that you are open to talking about other subjects of conversation, or doing things together that you both enjoy, but draw a boundary on any talk about her marriage.

If (or, more likely "when") your mother crosses the line, be willing to repeat yourself and withdraw from the conversation if she attempts to engage you in discussions about your father. Eventually, she will get the message.

Reach out to your father and ask that he be available to develop a relationship with you. Too much has been lost between you, and it is time to get reacquainted. Develop a relationship with your father that is not based on his marital difficulties. Get to know your father, but do not jump to his rescue.

Neither he, nor your mother, is the victim here. In fact, it is you who have been victimized by both of your parents in this process. Keep your sanity by refusing to fight their battles. Maintain your relationship with both of them on your terms. This is their war, not yours!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com