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When Your Kid’s Marriage Is On the Rocks

The times to get involved, the times to steer clear


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

The fighting, the constant sarcasm, the dirty looks — all marriages hit turbulence, but when it’s your adult children and grandchildren involved, it can be painful to watch.

Your heart aches at the thought of your grandchildren being shuffled back and forth between two different households if a divorce is in the future. You can’t stand the way your daughter and son-in-law argue in front of your grandchildren. Do you let them know? What to do?

And no matter what, you need to be careful what you say because the bickering pair may patch things up, and in the end, you could be left out in the cold.

(MORE: The 6 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Adult Child)

“As a parent, a mother-in-law and grandmother, I usually believe the key to success is biting your tongue,” says Sandy*, a mother of two and grandmother of six. “But when you see a lack of respect that’s hurting them and their kids, it’s time to speak up.”

Sandy isn’t afraid to tell her daughter and son-in-law to stop arguing in front of her grandkids.

“I’ve tried to explain that proving you’re right and having the last word isn’t as important as their children’s emotional wellbeing,” she says.

If you’re like Sandy, your instincts are right on in wanting to speak up or help your adult kids tame their tempers. “When children see their parents yell and scream there can be repercussions in the moment but often the consequences can affect relationships far in the future,” says Erik A. Fisher, psychologist and author of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With. “The stress of being in the middle of parents yelling can result in physical and emotional consequences for kids like anxiety, depression, stomach pain, headaches. Children also learn to model this behavior towards others.”

In addition to arguing, if one partner is being silent or ignoring the other or if one is being disrespectful, the children will not learn how to have a healthy relationship.

“Parents need to take responsibility for the language their kids learn and grandparents can also be part of that education process by modeling healthy communication patterns or by communicating with their adult children about what they are seeing,” says Fisher.

(MORE: How to Heal a Rift With Your Adult Child)

The most important message to get across to your adult kids is that you’ve learned through the years that there are many skills — like listening to your partner’s point of view or understanding that just because a man jumps to fix things doesn’t mean he wants to shut you down — that make the difference between a successful marriage and one that falls apart,” says Dr. Scott Haltzman, a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and author of The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment.

Your life experience can help guide your adult kids. By making the point to recognize the positives that each partner brings to the table and helping the couple minimize the negative aspects of the relationship, you might be able to push the scales in favor of the couple staying together and finding ways to improve the relationship over time, says Haltzman.

“Encourage your kids to empathize with their partner and try to gain a better understanding of where the other person is coming from,” he adds. Anger doesn’t have to be automatic — it’s a choice — the biggest trigger to anger is feelings of resentment. “If a partner feels heard, he’ll begin to relax and allow productive dialogue to take place.”

5 Things You Can Say and Do

1. Open up. Your kids may perceive your feedback as an attack rather than an effort to help, says Fisher. If you’ve had your own marital issues, you can use your personal experience to open a conversation with your kids.

2. Stick to a script. For example, “We’ve started seeing some patterns such as [fill in the pattern you see] and we’re not sure if you see how it’s affecting you. We’re not asking you to talk to us about it, but please consider talking to someone either together or by yourself. Our intent is not to criticize but to help you and your family.”

3. Ask a question. People don’t often want to accept advice, says Haltzman, so rather than suggest your kids go for help, point out that you notice problems and ask what they think they might be able to do about them.

You gently steer them in the direction of getting some help, and they may feel like it was their idea — a win-win. 
Be a model. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is an example of a positive marriage so they can remain hopeful that they, too, can strive for a solid relationship.

4. Point out the positives. Whenever you catch your children engaging in loving interactions or positive emotions, point them out. Say things like, “I love watching you two when you joke about college,” or “It’s so sweet when you sit down to watch Mad Men together.”

5. Suggest a time out. Encourage your children to take time to think about their disagreements and fights so they can cool off and reconnect.

(MORE: The Bill of Rights for Parents of Adult Children)

Other Tips to Help You Navigate

  • Don’t attack your child or his or her spouse. If the parents are behaving like children, someone has to take an objective adult role. Resist the urge to take a side and promote the need to model healthy patterns for the parents and the kids.
  • Don’t side with your child. Even if the negatives are true, what your child is telling you is only part of the picture. “When you side with your child and vilify her spouse, you aren’t doing a service to your child,” says Haltzman. If you continue to support the validity of both parties, it reminds your kids to treat his or her partner with respect and dignity.
  • Be supportive but not intrusive. Let the parent know that you’re there to help and you’ll respect their boundaries. It’s fine to ask how things are going, but if they don’t respond, don’t keep asking and don’t keep offering information. Letting them come to you often leads to a better outcome than forcing the situation, which often shuts communication down, says Fisher.
  • Don’t try to rescue the grandkids, but let the parents know that you’re there to support the family through this difficult time. Instead of whisking the grandkids off in the middle of an argument their parents are having, Fisher says bring attention to the parents and let them know that their kids are in the middle of their struggles.
  • Be willing to seek your own counseling if you’re having a tough time knowing what to do. “Sometimes you’ll find yourself reliving your past through your kids or realizing some of your own flaws with your kids and feeling that you’ve failed them,” says Fisher. “When this happens, it’s hard to remain objective and the stress can evoke feelings of anxiety and depression.”
  • Encourage your kids to try to work things out. Too many people see marriages as disposable, says Fisher. “Just because people fall out of love doesn’t mean that they can’t fall back in love even deeper once they learn to understand each other.” Good therapy, reading relationship books together, going on a marriage encounter weekend, working on exercises to improve communication can help but working through issues takes time. Grandparents can help by taking the kids for a weekend, offering a listening ear and being encouraging.

One More Thing

If you’re still not sure whether to intervene, keep this in mind: “You should definitely step in when no one is looking out for your grandkids and things can become out of control, like when both parents are screaming at each other, one parent is avoiding conflict or neither are talking and the silence is deafening,” says Fisher.

And, of course, says Haltzman, you must step in if there is physical or verbal violence in the household or substance abuse.

* Sandy’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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