Coping with my parents’ crumbling marriage

We chat at 1 today.

Dear Meredith,

I'm writing to you and the LL readers about a bit of a different issue today: my parents' marriage. For some background, my parents have been married for more than 20 years and have my little sister, who's in her teens, and me (I'm in my 20s).

My parents have never had a particularly happy marriage due in large part to their different personalities and communication styles. My mom is Type A and has a "my way or the highway" approach to communication. My dad is much more laissez-faire but completely lacks the capacity to communicate. I do not think they love one another.

In the past, my parents would go through ups and downs but generally it was mostly peaceful in our house. Recently, however, my younger sister has experienced some serious psychological issues, and this has sent my parents over the edge. They can't have a conversation about my sister or her treatment (she's in therapy, meds, the whole nine yards) without it turning into a power struggle over who's at fault for the recent situation. I no longer live at home but have been put in the position of playing the moderator between my parents because they can no longer communicate with each other.

The constant fighting is driving me crazy and I believe it gets in the way of what is most important: my sister's health. I'm fairly certain that my mom at least wants to get a divorce but doesn't want to rock the boat until my sister is better. Counseling is also not an option -- my dad doesn't believe in the "mental health system" and getting my sister into treatment was hard enough.

I guess my question is this: How can I best mediate the situation so that my sister is the focus? I'm not looking to "fix" my parents' relationship; I'm only looking to help them tolerate each other until my sister is better and off to college. I have voiced my feelings/opinions to both parents numerous times without much success.

Any insight would be much appreciated.

– My Parents Need to Get Along, Boston

You're right, MPNTGA, this isn't a typical love letter. In fact, it barely fits under our LL umbrella. But I want to discuss it because for whatever reason, I'm getting a lot of letters from readers coping with other people's messy relationships. In your case, you're the kid so it's extra complicated.

My advice is to stop trying to mediate. You can't. All you can do is tell your parents how you feel in the moment. As in, "I understand that you're upset right now, but this arguing is making me anxious. Can we move on to the next topic of conversation?" Or, "Mom, I understand that you want me to call Dad on your behalf, but I'm not comfortable with that."

Spend your energy being there for your sister by making her laugh, visiting as much as you can, and helping her define what she sees happening in front of her. You can say, "Yes, they're fighting, but as we both know, this tension predates us. They just want you to feel better."

Of course, I'd love it if they went to therapy, separately and together. I'd love it if they found a support group for parents dealing with the same issues. But ... they're not going to, right? They're not asking you what they can do to get along and cope with this mess.

Your parents might actually learn something by watching how you deal with the situation. So focus on your sister. Focus on you. No one (not even me) has the ability to fix a couple's communication problems, especially if the couple isn't asking for help. All we can do is set boundaries about what we'll put up with as spectators.

Readers? Should she be trying to mediate? How can she help her parents help her sister? Can you help a couple get along (or break up) if no one is asking for guidance? Help.

– Meredith