Double Take: Stuck in the middle of a divorce
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Dear Dr. Wes and Kendra: My parents are divorced. My mom and I moved here a while ago because she got a new job. My dad lives elsewhere. Both of my parents are dating other people but I’m not allowed to tell the either one about the other. I’m being forced to keep a secret between two people I love. I’m worried I’ll either let it slip or it will drive me crazy! What should I do?
Kendra: It’s hard to imagine any parent teaching his or her child to lie. Your parents have no right to make you the “monkey in the middle” of their strange game. But addressing this problem with two people who are in such a state of confusion won’t be easy.
Each believing they married the wrong person, they’re now forcing you into a muddled relationship with each of them. By making you their confidant instead of their offspring, your parents are creating an unhealthy situation between all three of you.
If you want permission to be honest with each of your parents, you need to first be honest about how their requests for confidentiality are harming you. Not many parents would be fond of a child calling them out on such a matter, but, just as you wrote, their secrets are driving you crazy.
Sit your parents down and have a conversation about what you are feeling and make the conversation all about you. Instead of tattling, explain how both parents’ actions have made you feel, and be clear on what you hope will change in the future. Don’t offer anyone an ultimatum like, “If you don’t tell him/her, I will.” Instead say, “If it comes up, I’m going to tell the truth. Please don’t ask me to keep your secrets.”
If I were you, I would ask each of them to tell the other about these romantic endeavors. If they’re unwilling to do the telling themselves, and instead send you with the message, warn them both not to “shoot the messenger.”
Wes: It’s refreshing and a little quaint that Kendra finds this situation hard to imagine. I wish I did. While what you describe is extreme, it’s the kind of thing we find in the world of unhappily divorced parents. I have no idea why your folks insist on keeping their new loves a secret — probably some strategic advantage none of us can picture. But I agree with you that it’s wrong and even a bit ridiculous.
Kendra offers some good, but tough to implement, advice to you, so I’ll address what’s going on with your parents. There are many tips to a successful divorce, nearly all of them falling under the heading COMMON SENSE.
My favorite is to suggest that families “act normal,” as much as is possible after the divorce. In other words, if you wouldn’t do something to your child or spouse while married, don’t do it to them after you’re divorced. Keep things as consistent as possible for kids. That’s harder than it sounds, I realize, but still the correct aspiration.
That might not work in your case, however. I have the sneaking suspicion that your parents did this sort of thing while still married. It may not have been this overt, but I’ll bet they’ve included you in their troubles for some time, ignoring the fact that you’re a young teenager and should instead be worrying about your own exploration of life and love, not theirs.
As marriages pull apart, many adults feel so broken that they seek comfort anywhere they can find it, and too often that’s among their kids.
For parents that didn’t have good boundaries all along, the temptation to confide in children, teens and young adults is difficult to resist.
Any parent finding themselves slipping into this role, relying on their child for emotional support and thereby burdening her as you describe, should make a beeline to the therapist’s office. That’s what we do for a living, allow folks to unburden themselves and learn better ways of coping. It can be hard to accept one’s own need for help, but it’s essential for reaching a healthy divorce and better life for everyone.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.