Help! I’ve Become My Parents’ Relationship Therapist

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
"Right you two, let's sit down and talk this through."

It might sound like I’m a patient mum dressing down squabbling siblings but alas, I am a daughter, doing whatever I can to help fix my parents' marriage.
They’ve gotten on each other’s nerves for as long as I can remember but it’s escalated recently, induced by my dad working from home and my mum’s retirement. They’re on top of each other, without the welcome reprieve of going to work for the day and returning fresh, positive, adjusted. If distance makes the heart grow fonder, the pandemic made these hearts bang into each other like a Newton's cradle.
Picture this: it's a typical Friday evening, a bottle of wine has been drained and slammed down on the counter (my parents can't be the only boomers who drink like fish, right?). I can feel the tension tightening between them. In moments like this I am well practised in the art of disappearing: I make myself small and glassy as a piercing look gets sold for an over-the-top eye roll. Across the table, eyes half-hidden behind hands wobble with angry tears. For the second time this month, an argument is about to ricochet off the dinner plates and ruin their weekend (and mine).
As usual, I listen passively to them banging about and bickering, busying myself on my phone, before having the brainwave to google 'relationship therapy'. An ad pops up, words flashing across the screen: "What are you willing to do to fix your relationship?" I repeat it out loud like a broken Alexa.
To my surprise, the question punctures the tension that is ballooning over the table. Confusion followed by calm consideration descends and so my de facto therapy sessions begin, my parents oblivious while I just feel pleased to be of service. I have been acting as an informal, impartial medium between them ever since — and it appears to be helpful. If nothing else, it has prevented a few thrown plates and plenty of tears.
We discuss everything from money to everyday aggravations to why they first fell in love. I ask questions and let them talk to each other, and interject whenever I sense things are about to spiral in an unhelpful direction.
Of course, reading it back, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. I recently asked a professional relationship counsellor if it was ever okay to assume the position of therapist for someone you love. Hard yikes, was the tonality of the response. "This is a loaded question!" says Counselling Directory member and psychotherapist Beverley Blackman. "Even if you are a qualified psychotherapist or counsellor, adopting the position of therapist to someone you love is difficult. You will have your own opinions on how they live their life and inevitably, because they are close to you, you will have biases, both conscious and unconscious."

Consider whether what you are doing is healthy for both your parents but also for yourself.

Beverley Blackman
She continues: "It's doable but it is incredibly difficult. It's much better to be supportive and caring, providing a shoulder to cry on. If you adopt the position of therapist, you may well unintentionally come across as critical or judgemental to someone who is feeling vulnerable."
I have sidestepped such judgement and criticality in my own situation by rarely — if ever — giving concrete advice, focusing on listening instead. "This can sometimes work if you are experienced enough to put your own thoughts, feelings and biases to one side and you can concentrate completely on your parents sharing the experience of the relationship they are in," says Blackman. "But consider — exactly how much do you want to know about your parents' relationship? They are people that created you, brought you into the world and raised you. It will have an impact on you to listen to what they have to say about each other — and this can feel quite uncomfortable once you've had time to process it."
Blackman’s advice? "Get out of the therapist position as soon as possible." I expected as much. "You can also soften the blow by saying that you can help them find a couples therapist who would be much better placed to help them move forward with their relationship."
This is where we hit a snag. Like many baby boomers, both my parents have a natural inclination to avoid therapy altogether. Where it is more common for people my age (late 20s) to access therapy — millennials have long been monikered the 'therapy generation' — for 'normal' people in their early 60s (like my parents), going to therapy is sometimes seen as embarrassing or as admitting weakness. A 2019 study by the Open University on 14,726 couples who received counselling through a third-sector organisation in England and Wales concluded that "age was found to have a small, yet significant, effect on some presenting issues, with younger clients generally identifying more relationship problems than older clients." When it comes to accessing therapy in general, data published by Age UK in 2020 revealed that "more than six in 10 people in the UK aged 65 or over have experienced depression and anxiety. Of these, more than half did not seek help as they thought 'they should just get on with it' and nearly a quarter relied on support from friends or family."
My traditional dad, master of stoicism, would not be seen dead on a therapist's couch. Even if we managed to get him through the door, there's no guarantee that he would buy into whatever was said. This is another reason I have stepped in and tried to help. I have cloaked my DIY therapy under the guise of familial concern and dear father has been none the wiser.

Just because you can give your parents therapy, it does not necessarily mean that you should!

Beverley Blackman
Part of me has actually quite enjoyed it — and I think I’m pretty good at it! I have managed to remain objective, compassionate and, I believe, fair. "It might be worth considering what it is that you enjoy about it," says Blackman. "Some people naturally lean towards helping and supporting, and can mediate very well, knowing each parent's personality well and understanding what they have to do to keep a conversation between parents moving somewhere productive."
"For others, it may be a sensation of power over their parents that they won't have experienced before, and it can lean towards manipulation. Consider whether what you are doing is healthy for both your parents but also for yourself." This power dynamic is interesting. I don't think that's necessarily the case for me but I have enjoyed feeling like they're proud of me and that I'm doing a good job of offering advice and being a concerned daughter. At the heart of it, I like being listened to, heard, and not overshadowed by a screaming match.
I’m not the only one who has accidentally found themselves in this position, says Blackman. "Some parents work on the premise that their children are the best observers of the parental relationship, having witnessed it over many years and through ups and downs. But perhaps they don't realise the burden they are placing on their children. If their children are well into adulthood, it's a little more acceptable given that the adult child will have had their own experience of relationships, but for a child or a teen the pressure is enormous as they simply don't have the life experience to be able to make a lasting difference."
Even as an adult with my own relationship experience to draw from, it's tricky to have the impartiality required to be a good therapist when you're already involved in the dynamic, which ultimately wouldn't be good for anyone. But Blackman's advice also prompted me to think about the effect that my parents' arguing had on me, centring myself for perhaps the first time ever.
"To a child or teen, the parental relationship provides their first experience of security and if this starts to crumble, the effect on the child or teen can be significant," she explains. "In working with my adult clients, we spend some time exploring their childhood and their early relationships, and for some of them, recounting arguments or tensions between their parents can still reduce them to tears and evoke a lot of emotion as they think about their much younger self."
The key takeaway? I should probably dive into this in my own therapy sessions before trying to be the therapist myself. Blackman agrees. "Just because you can give your parents therapy, it does not necessarily mean that you should!"
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