I am 29. When I was nine, I found a letter addressed to a man’s name I didn’t recognise. My parents were married. When I was 11, my dad told me my mum was having an affair that had begun before their marriage. He told me how she wouldn’t be there when he came home, and would disappear at weekends. Throughout my adolescence, this man would call the house and hang up, and send cards to my mum. My dad said she was a bad person and that her morals were all mixed up.
I tried to speak to her about it as I got older, but she would angrily deny it. After my parents divorced, she thought she would be with the other man, but this never happened. Twenty years later, she still refuses to admit anything is going on. But over the years, I have seen many messages showing her wanting to be with him.
I think this man has selfishly strung her along her whole life. I also believe he could be my father, which she has denied. I’m sad that she cannot let go and enjoy the last chapter of her life. My relationship with my dad is good but involves a lot of bad talk about my mum.
I do not trust her and find physical affection with her uncomfortable. She believes her private life has nothing to do with my brother and me, and doesn’t understand how it could affect us. I have been in therapy twice to work on this. My brother has removed himself from dealing with it, and I feel unsupported.
My partner thinks I should accept the situation and move on. I seem unable to articulate how I feel or why it affects me. How can I move forward? I feel out of answers.
You feel out of answers because you’re trying to get those around you to change, and they don’t want to. That’s hard to accept. It’s not a case of you working out how to say the same thing to your parents in a different way, it’s about them not wanting to listen.
In terms of who your father is, if you want to pursue this you can get DNA from your dad (the man who raised you). I covered how to do this in my column on 28 February 2020 , but it’s imperative you get counselling first.
It’s hard to trust someone when they’ve lied to you, and physical affection is virtually impossible where there’s no trust, because intimacy is born out of making yourself vulnerable. When we don’t trust someone, we seek to establish a distance – physical or emotional, sometimes both – as a buffer against hurt. It’s a natural protective mechanism and not something you should blame yourself for.
Your father should not have told you the things he did. I feel angry for you that no one was protecting you from this situation.
I consulted psychotherapist Jane Hetherington (psychotherapy.org.uk). She said, “You describe what must have been a very difficult childhood: your mother was unreliable, and physically and emotionally absent with her own needs, not those of her children. Your father, meanwhile, was focused on the dysfunctional marital relationship. The atmosphere for you and your brother must have been toxic and confusing.”
Your brother has chosen to detach himself from this situation, and it’s common for siblings to take opposite approaches: one often tries to fix things, the other withdraws.
We thought you had to be really honest with yourself about what you want and what’s possible. Tell your father you will no longer listen to him talking about your mother and, if he does, end the conversation. As for your mother, as long as you expect her to be a different sort of mother, I fear you will get hurt. Hetherington says: “You need to keep your expectations of the maternal relationship realistic – your mother seems unlikely or unwilling to change.” (Did the therapy help at all? Sometimes you need it at different stages of your life.)
Get some distance from your parents; don’t talk about the affairs/boyfriend; stop the conversation when it moves on to these subjects; and try to find a common ground that is about something else. That’s all you can do. Your parents’ lives are theirs: their choices, their turns in the road, their mistakes. You can’t save them; you can’t change them. And most importantly: it’s not your job.
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