Dear Dr. Peirano,
I (25, f) study medicine. The course is very demanding and I notice that I have less and less energy for it. My parents separated two years ago. My father has had a drinking problem for years (I don't know exactly how long) and lost his job in management as a result. After that, my mother was the stronger one in the relationship and did everything: she earned money, looked after the house and tried to support my father. But the atmosphere at home was very tense, and at some point my mother asked my father to move out.
At first I was relieved, but then both parents felt really bad. I'll start with my father: he blamed everyone else for his problems: his boss, politics, his friends who let him down, his doctor who didn't treat his knee problems properly, and my mother who didn't had sympathy for him. My father has had a new girlfriend for a year, but she's no support either because she has so many problems of her own. I think she's with him because she can't be alone. My father is now 58 and has lost quite a bit. He often sits at home, watches TV and leaves the apartment no more than twice a week.
My mother had a kind of mental breakdown after the breakup, even though the marriage was so stressful for her. She says she is left with nothing after 30 years of relationship and can now grow old alone because she can no longer find a partner at 60. She used to be very elegant and took care of her appearance, exercised and ate healthily. For about ten years, and especially after the breakup, she has lost a lot of weight, is skin and bones, and is very neglectful of clothes.
And I stand between my parents. Both expect me to take care of them. I listen to them a lot, but they never do what I tell them to do. Just a few examples: I advised my mother to do yoga again and to meet her friends more often or to go away for a weekend. I have cooked with or for my mother and visit her about once or twice a week so that she is not alone. Afterwards I am very exhausted, because my mother is very negative and has many fears of being alone in old age.
It's also complicated with my father. To be honest, I don't particularly like his new girlfriend. She smokes a lot (also in the apartment), has hardly any depth and gives so many generalities in the sense of: "You can't do anything about it, life is just hard." Or she scolds that she has so little money and can't do anything. My dad and she pull each other down. I tidy up for them more often, try to get my father to go outside and also cook. But I'm glad when I'm out the door again, and I'm so exhausted after the visits that it sometimes takes me days to get back to normal studying.
I know that I should set myself apart. All my friends tell me that. Even my sister, who is three years younger and has become very distant from all of us.
But it's so hard for me to just leave a parent alone in their misery.
Do you have any tips or food for thought for me?
Dear Eva E,
As I read your message and put myself in your shoes, I felt like I had a very heavy weight on my shoulders.
On the one hand, you are already responsible for your own life: studying medicine is demanding and requires a lot of time and commitment from the students. Then there are the issues that most young patients deal with in my experience: How do I earn enough money to study? Where do I draw strength from for my studies? Now that I'm young and don't have a family, how can I make some of my dreams and wishes come true (e.g. travel, go abroad, be sporty or creative)? How do I organize my day and my weeks so that I struggle to make time for these precious things? How do I want to find a partner and how do we shape our partnership with the increasing expectations that are placed on a relationship today?
And then there are the big issues: How bad is the climate crisis? How will we live in 20, 50 or 70 years? Will there still be the world we are used to or are we heading for an apocalypse?
I work as a behavioral therapist and love coach in private practice in Hamburg-Blankenese and St. Pauli. In my PhD, I researched the connection between relationship personality and happiness in love and then wrote two books about love.
Information about my therapeutic work can be found at www.julia-peirano.info.
Do you have questions, problems or lovesickness? Please write to me (maximum one A4 page). I would like to point out that inquiries and answers can be published anonymously on stern.de.
I find all these topics really, really demanding, and I notice that many students today are much more stressed and structured than I know from my own student days, for example. And that creates stress for many young people.
I have briefly listed the requirements of your situation so that you are aware of what you already have to do. That's a pretty big mental load.
And although that's all a lot, it sounds to me as if your parents are then pushing your own problems onto your plate. Was it always the case that you had to play the role of the strong problem solver and comforter in your family? And how is it that your sister can escape so seemingly effortlessly? Is this such an unfair family law that is condoned because it has always been like this?
I can urgently advise you to think about it longer and pause before you simply take on tasks. Make a precise order clarification. That means: What does my mother want from me - and which tasks do I accept and which not? What does my father want from me - and which tasks do I accept and which not?
You seem very attached to your childhood patterns and the feelings you arouse from them - for example, I read in your narrative guilt and fear of not being enough. Especially when you have strong feelings in a situation, it can help to consciously turn on your head and become very analytical.
As a therapist, I also clarify openly which orders I receive and which do not. I let my patients show me short-, medium- and long-term goals and check whether they are at all suitable for my area of responsibility. I ask exactly what help someone needs from me to achieve their goals. And if something does not fall within my area of responsibility (e.g. legal advice or a medical examination), then I refer to lawyers or doctors.
If a patient does not cooperate enough, I motivate them to take more initiative. I offer log sheets asking what insights the last session brought and what steps he or she would like to take to continue working on his or her issues. That means: If someone is very passive or does not follow the topics they have worked on themselves, then I should sit back and not become active for the patient. Ultimately, the patient becomes more and more passive and helpless as a result of my commitment, and I exhaust myself more and more. Many patients become more active during therapy and shape their lives.
But to be honest, there are also some who just want to complain and don't want to change anything. And I can refer to the goals and say: Without goals, nothing will happen here.
For example, after clarifying the task, you could think about what you like to do with your mother/father and what you don't. Maybe you like to go to the cinema (and then please to films that you like!) and don't like to cook. Then this is exactly what you should offer! Try to evaluate which of your pieces of advice helped your parents and which just petered out.
You could also name that, because that brings the eye level back. For example, you might say, "Mom, I've told you a thousand times to get back into yoga. You've decided not to do it. So let's talk about something else." Or: "Dad, I cleaned up your apartment last week. Now everything is a mess again. Then I won't have to do it anymore. I'd like to go for a walk with you."
Through these announcements, you and your parents will also regain the eye level that has apparently been lost in recent years. I can recommend another technique: serve something on a silver platter and clear the platter. This is recommended if you expect resistance.
And it goes like this: You mention that it would be important for your father to have a medical examination. Or they tell you about a wonderful restaurant nearby that has just opened. Then pull away the silver platter and say nothing more about it. You can simply see whether your parents are bringing up the subject again or not.
And then bite your tongue and leave the subject as it is. Tray gone, but you've shown it to your parents and it's THEIR responsibility what they put on it. The tray technology is excellent for testing personal initiative.
I would also recommend getting a few sessions of therapeutic support to set yourself apart. Even if you don't like hearing it, I'll serve you my reality on a silver platter here: Your parents' situation will probably become more difficult rather than better. Their parents do little to improve the situation, and as is well known, many things become more difficult with age and patterns are harder to change.
Therefore, you would have to change if you want to have a future in which you are the center of attention.
I wish you a lot of strength!