Marriage and Family — 26 May 2013
Help your senior parents be kinder to each other

Most people assume that age and familiarity help long-term couples develop a kinder, gentler and sweeter communication style. When elderly pairs fight, bicker or argue their adult children often feel uneasy and are bewildered about how to best handle these uncomfortable exchanges.

Part of an acerbic style of conversation between elderly people is a reflection of longtime habits, family modeling, cultural norms or the erroneous belief that challenging each other is a healthy and connected communication style. Traditionally, exhibiting verbal tenderness in public was regarded as weakness, particularly for men. Being feisty, argumentative or sarcastic (even at the expense of the other) was considered a sign of superior intelligence, wit and autonomy.

Our culture has evolved; parenting styles were transformed from disciplinarian to child- centered, marriage is no longer viewed as tolerable or discardable but as repairable. Our gentler, kinder society finds it endearing when longtime married are sweet to one another.

Baby Boomers become distressed when they witness their parents accusatory words, harsh depictions or fights with each other. Dr. Linda Waite, Director of the Center on the Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago asks, “Is it new behavior – or just new to the grown children who are suddenly so deeply enmeshed in their parents’ lives that they are only now noticing that something is amiss?”

If your parents’ agitated speech is new and causes one or both of them obvious distress, you may want to assess the source of this change in order to help alleviate their discomfort.

As some couples age and their external world contracts, “getting a charge” from the mate creates the illusion of excitement and perceived interest. For some, a negative discourse is preferable to silence.

Many aging pairs develop concerns about their worthiness, purpose in life, contributions, health, and the meaning of their existence. Arguing may quell some of these fears and help them feel vital.

Psychology professor, Dr. Nancy Schlossberg of the University of Maryland states, “Fighting may come from a misguided notion that you can regain power by asserting it over your spouse.”

As life gets more restricted, confined and purposeless, even negative communication reduces the feelings of helplessness, loneliness and insignificance and offers the comfort of connection.

What can you do to help your feuding parents?

Listen and validate each of their perspectives and the feelings behind the complaint. Avoid taking sides. Solicit their problem solving skills. Say, “Since you both feel frustrated about your communication style, what can each of you offer to change to ease your partner’s stress?” Persist in getting each to offer one item of behavior change.

Affirm both for their ideas. Your goal is to have both parents validated, supported and respected. Check for signs that they both feel affirmed.

You can help your parents find a reprieve from anxiety, fears, loneliness or feelings of being overwhelmed and unite in a new, joint positive experience that reveals the intimacy they both desire.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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