Q. I'm in my mid-20s and I have moved back to my parents' house for a few months before graduate school in the fall.
My parents have been married 30 years. They have numerous understandable stressors (including my terminally ill younger brother), but the way the two of them communicate (or don't) has been going on since well before I was old enough to notice.
My mother doesn't know how to be proactive about her "me time," and she resents my father when he takes his. My father doesn't listen, and Mom learned long ago that the only way to get anything she wants is to nag, which she does with the gusto of 30 years of experience.
My father also doesn't respect her ideas (or anyone else's in the family), and often makes disparaging remarks about others' thoughts. My father is inconsiderate of anyone else's needs, particularly my mother's.
My mother doesn't know how to pick her battles and screaming matches have begun over stupid stuff, like my dad serving a guest from a dish and then just handing the bowl to Mom, leading to screaming matches in front of said guest.
Both of them complain to me about each other but don't listen to my response, which always includes "seek marital counseling." Mom won't do it because Dad won't, and Dad won't because he's in the Glenn Beck-esque mindset that all psychologists are liberals, yet going through the Catholic marriage counseling service as I suggested is also unacceptable.
Their problems are their own, but how do I address their putting me in the middle of all this?
Not my parents' therapist
A. Setting limits is hard enough without a dad who sets them to the point of imposing himself on others and a mom who fears setting them to the point where she's backed into a corner with no recourse but shouts, nags and resentment.
But there is a calm, centered place between these extremes, and your parents are actually showing you where it is by their complete failure to occupy it. It's where you accept situations as they are and adapt to them instead of insisting that someone else change.
Your dad won't budge because everything's Mom's fault, right? And your mom won't budge because it's Dad's fault? The lesson in that is, being right doesn't constitute permission to dig in, unless festering stasis is your Holy Grail.
You regard being in the middle as your parents' fault, so here's where you can shatter family tradition: Be right and be willing to change, instead of just waiting for them.
Specifically, stop treating them as people who want more and are open to reason. Instead, treat them as people who are choosing dysfunction by refusing to choose something else, and reflect that truth back to them. When they complain, repeat as needed, gently: "If you don't like it, then do something about it. Complaining doesn't count." Then, excuse yourself from those conversations.
They're simple actions toward a difficult mission, so focus on your goal: not to change your parents, but to reclaim what you've lost in their muck, your rightful place as daughter vs. parental chaperon/shoulder/enabler, and your priorities.
Your brother is dying, and you're worried about your parents? All the energy you have for your family belongs with him.
• Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.
$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$© 2011 The Washington Post $PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$