Mum and dad are fighting – what should I do?



This is a republish of the blog

Resolving conflict with your partner in front of children can be a harrowing business. My parents were happy to have a domestic in front of my sister and I. When the dust settled, my parents would inevitably deny they had been fighting at all.

It was only a discussion” my mother would say.

They sure as hell didn’t look like discussions to me, but perhaps they were – my parents never did get divorced. My husband and I are very different. On the rare occasion we have a difference of opinion, we try to do it in private – especially if the difference of opinion is about Newburn Jnr.

Sometimes we disagree on what the best course of action is regarding things like appropriate bedtimes on school nights and how long video game rights will be suspended for breakage of iPads. When we disagree profoundly the only thing to do is argue it out have a discussion to hammer out a compromise position.

Usually this position is not what either of us would have done left to our own devices, but once we have a united position that’s the end of the matter. The deal is that each of us has to hold the line in the absence of the other. This parenting logic works for us pretty well most of the time. Newburn Jnr doesn’t get conflicting messages and he knows that he can’t play one of us off against the other.

The only time it doesn’t work is if we have not had the argument discussion in advance and one of us makes a unilateral decision that the other disagrees with.

Yeah… then it can get a bit ugly.

You are probably wondering why this long digression on parenting tactics. Well, it was prompted by what feels like the 1000th time I’ve had a discussion with a PhD student about conflict with a supervisor (thankfully not an ANU student, so I could be all care and no responsibility). This particular conversation touched on one of the little discussed, but most common problems in research management: supervisory panel members who don’t get along.

Most students these days will have a primary supervisor and a secondary supervisor to act as sounding boards and advisors. Some at ANU even have a panel of up to 5 other people who regularly look at their work. It can be a good learning experience, not to mention invigorating, to watch your supervisors argue about things like method, content and writing style. It shows you how much everyday academic practice can boil down to subjective individual taste and gives you a range of opinions on possible ways forward.

But there comes a point when inter-supervisor arguments are just not productive. I’ve sat in on at least one meeting where there was awkward silence after yet another intense bout of scholarly fisticuffs. As Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, so wisely said: “the ways of academics wizards are subtle and they are quick to anger’. J.R.R Tolkien, who wrote those words, was a life long academic and I’m sure he drew on his experiences. Especially the fight between Gandalf and Saruman, where Gandalf has NO idea that Saruman has gone over to the dark side and gets his ass handed to him before enlisting the eagles to rescue him.

Then, when Saruman creates the Orcs …

OK, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away with this analogy.

My point is Anger, when left to fester, can create deep divisions in departments and faculties. Sometimes it seems to me that academics go out of their way to avoid difficult conversations about feelings – conversations that might have done a lot to clear the air. Certainly it is a bad sign when supervisors stop arguing with each other and seek alternative, passive aggressive, ways to resolve disputes.

Sometimes one supervisor will declare they can’t work like this and retire from the field, leaving you and your remaining supervisors the problem of finding someone new. Even worse, one or both of the supervisors will try to enrol you in support their individual position. This can take the form of pressure for you to drop the other person, or one supervisor telling the other to leave on your behalf. In either case you are looking at hurt feelings all around.

Once the break up happens, the question then becomes, who are you going to live with after the divorce? Sometimes there is no good answer to that and you end up losing valuable input into your degree. The students who find themselves in this position often fear long standing career damage as a result of taking sides. Senior academics tell me that these fears are usually more imaginary than real. I’d like to believe this is true, but I have seen enough rubbishy behaviour in my time. I’m sceptical about your average academic’s ability to rise above previous conflict. I would advise any student to be careful how they handle themselves in this situation.

The way I see it, in a supervisor you only have a few choices when a break up seems imminent: pick a side or try to maintain neutral stance. I always advise students attempt, wherever possible, to take a neutral stance. If someone has to go because of conflict, try to make sure that the break up is negotiated by the supervisors themselves without your direct involvement. This enables you to remain on friendly terms with the ejected supervisor, which is definitely in your long term interest.

If the fighting just seems to be going on and on, and you are stuck in the middle, it can be difficult to know what to do. Recognising the limits of your ability to change the situation is important, but you do need to ensure that your needs are being taken into consideration. It may be that your supervisors do not realise how their fighting heated discussion is affecting you.

It is your supervisors’ responsibility to keep everything civil and productive. This is where I have to come back to the parenting analogy. Sometimes it’s helpful for students if supervisors thrash out deep differences in private so they don’t keep sending conflicting messages. You may have to suggest this strategy to them. Assertive language can help. I have a flyer on my wall breaks being assertive into 5 steps:

  • Describe the situation that bothers you, being as specific as you can (for instance: “When you two disagree I go back to my desk confused about what to do next”).
  • Express your feelings about the situation (“When I am confused I get stressed I find it difficult to write anything”).
  • Empathize with the position the other person is in (“I realise you both have strong views and want to give me your best advice”).
  • Explain the consequences (“But if I stay this stressed and confused I am going to get behind in my work”)
  • Specify what you want from your supervisors (“It would be very helpful if you could agree in advance on the options which are possible and then explain their advantages and disadvantages in a way that helps us all make a collective decision on what to do”).

Are you experiencing this problem – or have you experienced it? Are you a supervisor who has had to deal with troublesome wizards colleagues while trying to help a student out? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments.