I’m fed up with my elderly parents bickering – I wish they’d just split up

'We think they should break up and enjoy the years they've got left without the arguments and the criticism'
'We think they should break up and enjoy the years they've got left without the arguments and the criticism' - Jason Ford

Dear A&E,

My parents are in their 70s and I wish they’d just split up. They have always bickered all the time when they’re together and bitch about each other (mostly to me and my brother, as far as I can tell) when they are apart. It’s just so wearing and so boring. We think they should break up and enjoy the years they’ve got left without the arguments and the criticism. They’ve been like this for as long as we can remember and we’ve had enough of awkward Chistmasses and birthdays where they are just getting at each other all the time. How can I persuade them that they don’t need to stay together for us and that they might have a lot more fun were they to separate?

– Love, Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

The mystery of other people’s relationships, eh? You are watching your parents cut strips off each other; listening to them complaining and moaning about each other’s deficiencies, and you wonder, “Why would you live like this?” Not least because it is exhausting to be in the vicinity of bickering couples. Emilie has some experience with feuding families as a child, and it is terrifying when you are young and people are shouting: to feel that cord of tension suddenly snap tight at the dinner table. As adults, we’ve all been out with a couple in full-throttle discord, whose confrontations or micro-aggressions suck the oxygen from the evening.

So, we understand your predicament. You can’t gently excise your parents from your list of people, and worse, you have to step into the war zone every time there’s cause for celebration: “Oh good, another cross Christmas.” Perhaps you fantasise about saying that you want a divorce this year for your birthday, instead of having to blow out candles during another verbal brawl.

None of this, however, means that you are truly right about what is going on between them. Just because the tension between them crackles, it does not necessarily mean that they are unhappy in their marriage. It is possible that this quarrelling has become their love language to each other; the way they express and define their places in their marriage. Perhaps they communicate through rupture and repair, breaking and building their relationship over and over again. Their moaning and complaining might be some sort of relationship foreplay. Because you never know what goes on behind closed doors… or behind closed hearts. Other people’s choices are unknowable. And, dear Fed Up, as boring and pernicious as their love of conflict might be, it can’t be your idea that they break up. We know of a couple whose son, aged 21, said: “Enough. Enough fighting, enough bickering, enough marriage.” The parents were shocked into separating, and now everyone is miserable. Tread carefully: you may find that you end up with two still-moaning, lonely seventy-somethings, with no one looking out for the other, leaving you with twice the parental maintenance. And it probably won’t fix the Christmas and birthday situation either.

But that doesn’t mean you have to completely accept this feud-ridden fate. Life is too short to feel as if you are entering The Hunger Games arena every time you step into your childhood home. We think it is worth having a quiet conversation with your parents, separately, next time a flood of grievances descends down the phone at you or your brother. Something along the lines of, “Listen, should we be worried about you two? Are you unhappy? Because, so much of the time, you sound unhappy. And we will be there for you no matter what. Is there anything we can do?” Your parents might be shocked to find out how you view their relationship. It may give pause for thought.

You might also consider performing a quiet intervention in the run up to the next family gathering. It is absolutely okay to sit them down and ask them to rein in the skirmishing for the sake of their children, and their grandchildren. You could say something like: “When you fight it makes me feel incredibly tense and it’s not an environment I enjoy being in. So, for the sake of the grandchildren, I would be incredibly grateful if you could press pause on the hostilities just while we are around. I absolutely do not want to police you in any way, but when you bicker it makes me feel so seasick and unsure.”

Perhaps they will listen; perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they will coincide with each other again, and find some harmony or perhaps fighting is their foundation and resistance is futile. It is most important, though, that you, dear Fed Up, continue to confidently build your unit the way you want, not informed by the hostilities of your home. It might be the backdrop to your childhood but that early pain doesn’t have to be the wallpaper to your life now. Boundaries, Fed Up. Annoying word. Incredibly useful tool.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.