What I Learnt from Watching My Parents’ Relationship Fall Apart

Modern Family

What I Learnt from Watching My Parents’ Relationship Fall Apart

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“I

wish you’d died before fucking everything up!” My mother’s scream reverberated through the hall. That was the worst thing I’ve heard anyone say to a person they supposedly love. Immediately, I rushed out of my room to check if everything was okay. It wasn’t. My father was staring at her in disbelief, looking shocked, soaking in the blame. After a moment, he looked mom straight in the eye and said, “Never talk to me again, I want nothing to do with you.” I closed my door, slid down, and burst into tears. They were unhappy together. And the thought of them not being happy together broke by heart.

I used to look at my parents as a team that’s in it to win it. They took care of things that seemed incomprehensible to me, possessing God-like powers to make anything I asked of them happen. I was happy in my bubble, enjoying the 19-season-long show called The Parents are Alright for so many years that I forgot another realm existed behind the scenes. And now when the show was over, and the actors tired of pretending, I finally saw the other side of the stage and no, my parents weren’t alright.

When mum and dad first started quarrelling, a year ago, I would intervene and mediate their fights. I’d try to be the grown-up who would suggest that they should talk about why they were hurting and remember the good times — just things I had picked up from books and movies. I’d imagine they’d slip into flashbacks of the time they fell in love and would kiss and make up. Reality, of course, is no rom-com.  

The day my dad said that he needed to move out, I thought it was over. And I was mad that my mother was not doing anything to stop him. She had taken a vow of silence, looking visibly spaced out and only talking to me about my meals.

Were my parents going to get a divorce? Would I have to navigate a tricky relationship with a step-parent in a few years? Aren’t children of divorced parents messed up? How would I survive this?

When dad left home, it felt strange to not have him around, but it was also necessary. I now call it necessary because after he left I saw this magical relief come over my mother the next day. And dad, I guess, must have got what he needed: A good night’s sleep.

But neither was I relieved nor was I sleeping. In fact, I was just angry at the unfairness of it all, hypothetical scenarios haunting my thoughts. Were my parents going to get a divorce? Would I have to navigate a tricky relationship with a step-parent in a few years? Aren’t children of divorced parents messed up? How would I survive this? And how could I have let this happen?

All along I kept thinking about myself and my bleak future, sparing little thought for my parents and how they were coping. In my version of the story, I was the only victim. I kept to myself, brooding and mourning, as if the loss was only mine, until my younger brother shook me up.  

“Wouldn’t you rather see them be divorced but content, than watch them slowly die, a miserable couple forced to fulfill their marital duties?” he asked me. I knew he was right. “Of course, I want them to be happy,” I said. But the truth was that I had not thought about mum and dad much.

“I’m sure you know that they stayed together all these years for us, right? You know that mom cries in her room when dad leaves for work, right? You know that dad’s business is barely staying afloat, right?” my teenage brother said, in a terrifying litany. Suddenly, I realised that all along I was being selfish; the empathy that I had reserved for myself was something that my parents deserved.

I stopped blaming them for everything that was going wrong in my life, I stopped expecting them to fix it.

Mum and dad had spent days pretending that all was well in their marriage, so that my brother and I didn’t have to bear the burden of a family falling apart. And now was the time for me to act – to look at their decision as something that would eventually benefit them. That’s when I started seeing my parents with agency and not just flawed human beings. I decided to adult and give my mother and father a patient ear. I stopped blaming them for everything that was going wrong in my life, I stopped expecting them to fix it. And most importantly, I stopped playing marriage counselor (I sucked at it anyway) and started being an empathetic daughter that I should have been in the first place.

When my brother and I would meet our dad during the separation phase, initially we did not know what to talk about. But slowly the awkwardness disappeared and dad opened up, telling us about the time he skipped math class for a semester in college and how when he first started work he only knew a handful of English words. Back home, I asked my mom why we could not have long conversations, and she said I was the one always keeping it blunt. So I decided not to cut her off each time she asked me about college or how my day was. Today, mum and I are not the best of buddies, but when we sit in a room we don’t pretend to check our phones.

In the four months that my parents stayed apart, my relationship with mum and dad improved. As a family, we all – even mum and dad – started talking to each other more, we let go of our prejudices and decided to be more honest with each other. This metamorphosis of our relationships — mine with them and their own — created new boundaries. We had seen the darkest sides of each other, spewed the worst insults, and felt immensely insecure in our relationship, but gradually, the dust was settling.

My parents got back to doing the everyday things that couples do – going on trips to the grocery store, watching a movie together, and ganging up against my brother and I. It looked like they were starting to let go of the past.

Eventually, mom and dad reconciled. A year on, they are still together. But I know that if they change their mind again, I would be in the bleachers supporting them and not shutting them out.

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