You are still carrying the scars from your upbringing, says Mariella Frostrup. Now your focus should be on yourself and how not to repeat the behaviours of your parents.
The dilemma I’m 22 years old and for as long as I can remember my parents have constantly had arguments in which they would be abusive to one another – mostly verbally, occasionally physically. As a teenager I struggled with my sexuality and coming out, and I had depression until I got treatment at university. Home didn’t provide respite and the constant rows made it worse.
I’d often get involved to try and make them stop, whereas my brother would retreat into his room to escape. In general, I’m happy, however I feel my ability to deal with conflict is damaged. I’m very passive and feel the need to please people. I worry about repeating these patterns when I have my own relationship. My brother also has mental health issues. Whenever I come home, they still argue and it never seems to improve. I feel angry at how selfish they were bringing up children through that, and I used to wish they’d get divorced, for all of our happiness. If I can’t change this, then what else can I do?
Mariella replies First, pity them. That’s three whole decades of dysfunctional partnership they’ve battled though. I appreciate that the reason you’ve written is to seek advice on how to escape the burden you continue to bear. It may sound over-optimistic, but shrugging off personal responsibility and learning from your parents’ mistakes rather than inheriting their predilection for pain are both entirely achievable goals.
Imagine how many missives I receive about bad parenting. As I said recently, I could quote Philip Larkin into next century and he’d still be the perennially appropriate choice. When it comes to parenting there are not only amateurs out there, but truly committed purveyors of discord with not a thought for those navigating the turbulent waters left in their stormy wake. The best you can hope for is that you can survive and thrive once you are liberated by honing your ability to learn from their flaws.
I used to elaborate on my damaged childhood until I heard stories that made my own experiences seem like kindergarten politics. It goes without saying that if the physical abuse was sustained or recurs, or the mental anguish continues to wreak havoc on either parent, then you must think about professional intervention.
The big mistake we all make is assuming that “professional” parents exist, that our experience is substantially different or that an idyllic segue from dependence into independence is a reasonable expectation. You and your sibling may well need to augment your coping skills as a result of your experiences. Your insecurities about coming out and your brother’s struggle with mental health issues are very likely to be connected (for help, refer him to Mind or the charity Family Lives on 0808 800 2222).
True emotional freedom is only possible once you banish any sense of culpability for your parents’ behavioural shortcomings and allow yourself the emotional space to become a distant and dispassionate observer. You can’t erase the damage they’ve already done, but you can certainly come to understand the emotional triggers that their warring created and manage them like you would any dysfunctional tendencies of your own.
The sins of our parents may seem as inescapable as our own, but I’ve never accepted the notion that what you are born into, or are subjected to in childhood should forever shape your experience of the world. We are all individuals with a unique opportunity to shape our lives as we desire, so learning from damage, rather than simply shouldering the burden, is incredibly important. Personal responsibility is something we don’t talk about enough in our blame-seeking society, as I’ve learned through travels to places where the hardships we experience still look like luxury.
Your letter provides further proof, however unnecessary, that the environment we are brought up in can have serious implications on how we go about our adult lives. It’s a responsibility that no budding parent can possibly imagine when the product of their physical passion turns into a living, breathing, vulnerable, judgmental human being.
As children we are dependent on our parents in a way we never will be again. We rely entirely on them to feed and clothe us, to love us, guide us, help us and hide us. What’s harder to imagine and certainly worth bearing in mind is that they are never perfect and often far from it.
Ponder on all the years they’ve squandered in a state of perpetual strife and then endeavour to ensure that you don’t repeat their behavioural patterns or let the legacy continue to impact on you in the way it has historically. It’s a tall order, but with focus and determination there’s very little we can’t overcome.
You might also want to copy them in on your beautifully articulate letter, or indeed this whole column, to ensure they know exactly what the toll of their indulgent skirmishes has been. If the damage is already done, you’ve nothing to lose.
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1