Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How I Fixed My Parents' Messed-Up Marriage! (Not.)

Dear Viny,

My husband and I opened up our marriage about three years ago with marvelous results. I've talked to my mother about it, and she's been understanding and supportive. I haven't told my father yet because he is conservative, traditionally moral, and would be horrified (bless his Midwestern heart). The problem is, my mom sees how great this relationship model has been for me and has told me she would love to give it a try! My parents married each other when they both had children from previous marriages, and they were great parents together. Since all the little birdies have flown the nest, they haven't been so great at just being spouses together. It kills me to think of my mom being stuck and unfulfilled for the rest of her life. It also kills me to think of them separating because it would crush my dad (he viewed his first divorce as a gross personal failure). I can't quite tell my mom she should just find a little something-something on the side. What to do?

A Dutiful Daughter 


Dear Dutiful,

I'm so glad you wrote in with this question, because your feelings vis a vis your parents' troubled relationship strike a familiar chord: I have been grappling with a similar problem. My parents, like yours, built the kind of relationship dictated by the social norms of their generation. Forty years ago, when my mom and dad got married, they assumed they were aiming for the stasis of “happily ever after.” They viewed every inevitable change as a fall from grace, with the result that they are now stuck in the mire of their separate regrets. They focused almost exclusively on their nuclear family, and neglected to invest in an intimate network of friends, with the result that they are now socially impoverished. They allowed themselves to fall into dependence and co-dependence, probably as a way of guaranteeing that they would always need each other, with the result that neither learned how to honor the other's autonomy.

So I called them up yesterday, and I said, “Hey, I know y'all think my lifestyle is immoral and unethical and all, but you guys are so miserable, I figure you might be open to anything at this point, even relationship advice from me. Why don't you let me tell you about all the stuff I've learned over the last fifteen-plus years, and maybe you could give some of it a try? I'm not saying you have to open your marriage or anything – although, Mom, have you considered how great it would be if you had a partner who was capable of supporting you emotionally? Dad, has it occurred to you that there are women your age who still enjoy having sex?”

And they said, in perfect unison, “Wow, Viny, we are so lucky to have a daughter who can offer us a perspective different from our own. Maybe there is a way we can adapt some of your ideas so that they will work for us. Please, tell us more!”

Yeah, right. April Fool's.

Unfortunately, Dutiful, it's probably too late for our parents to turn their ailing marriages around. My folks will probably limp all the way to their side-by-side graves, squabbling as they go. Yours may split up before death does them part, or they may not, but you will most likely have zero control over which path they choose to take, so you might as well resign yourself to accepting whatever outcome comes. As dutiful daughters, the best thing we can do for our parents is to accept them for who they are, be there for them when we can, and try to model healthy ways of relating. And the best thing we can do for ourselves is to let go of our attachment without letting go of our love.

(All easier said than done, I realize. I can be all lotus-heart enlightened when I'm typing away in my quiet house on a rainy Tuesday morning, but ask me how I'm doing three weeks from now, when my folks will be here for Easter, and I bet I will be singing a scratchier tune!)

Before I sign off, I do have one tiny question for you. You say you have talked to your mother, but not your father, about the fact that you and your husband now have an open marriage. Have you asked your mother to keep this information secret? In other words, is there a meaningful conversation your parents could be having but aren't, simply because your mother is under the impression that you do not want her to share your news? If so, is it possible that you are unwittingly widening the rift between your parents in your efforts to protect them from each other? Just something you might want to consider....

Peace & Parsnips,

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