Tell Me About It

Dad left my mom for a much younger woman after 35 years of marriage

Tell Me About It: ‘Mom was jobless in a new city. He dumped looking after her on me’

PROBLEM: I am 33 years old. My parents were married for 35 years. Last year my dad left my mom. He had been carrying on an affair with a much younger woman. He claims my mom drove him to it by being annoying, and alienating affection. He lied to me and my mom and set her up to completely depend on me by moving them as a family to the city where I have been living and pulling her away from a great job that she had. Only after she moved with him did he reveal his plans to leave her.

She ended up without employment, six years before retirement, alone except for me, in a new city away from her job and friends. He set me up to be the only one to whom my mom could turn. Dumping the burden of resurrecting her life. I am shocked to my core as my father presented as someone who is most reliable. He said that keeping promises is the most important thing. Keeping your word.

I don’t know how to feel and how to interact with him. My family is gone and my relationship with him is ambiguous. It’s hard to talk to him knowing he doesn’t love my mom and plans to marry another woman.

How do I cope? I don’t stand on either side. I don’t want to hate anyone. Yet I feel a tremendous sadness and grief. I don’t know where and how to move.

ADVICE: It sounds as though you are in shock, as no doubt, is your mother and you are both dealing with huge grief, loss and betrayal. However, it seems as if you and your dad both feel that your mother is someone that has to be passed around from one person to another as she is unable to make decisions or care for herself.

Yet you say she had a great job and a life with friends in her home city so I doubt she is as without capacity. Grief and betrayal can derail anyone and after 35 years of marriage, your mum’s confidence and faith in her judgment has probably taken a huge hit. This response is completely reasonable in the circumstances, but it does not mean that she won’t recover her sense of self, or her sense of choice, when she begins to heal, though this is likely to take some time.

Suffer

You describe a sense of burden and this may be because there is little you can do to “fix” things for your mum and it is very hard to watch someone you love to suffer so much. However, she is an adult and can be spoken to as someone who is capable of making decisions for herself and perhaps now is the time to establish this pattern between the two of you – talk to her honestly and sympathetically but allow her to be the author of her own life.

If she is open to the notion of support, she might try psychotherapy or even a course or volunteering in her area. Community is very healing for us, and it may be that her need for connection is not being filled at this time. You are not the answer to all her needs, but she will need your help to reach out and expand her life when her fear of rejection is very high. This you can offer with good grace but only if you become aware of your own sense of abandonment and deal with your own feeling of unfairness that your parent’s separation has “dumped” on you.

As adult children, we expect to be the ones whose lives are expanding and challenging and in an ideal world, our parent’s home is always available to us if we need a place to retreat to when the world gets too much for us. But this is the ideal and is often very far from the reality as our parents become vulnerable before their time, suffer from setbacks, or display qualities that disappoint and dismay us.

Your father’s choice to separate from your mother is not of your making and yet you are in the thick of the consequences so you must find a way to cope with the complex emotions that arise from this situation and these can range from sadness to rage and despair. You will need to find someone you trust to speak to (good friend, counsellor or relative) and this will require courage and vulnerability, but this will bode well for your future. If your father had some self-awareness, he might have had the courage and foresight to deal with the separation prior moving to a new city where your mum would be alone.

So do what you wish your parents had done: take responsibility for yourself and your emotions, seek support for yourself and when you know how to meet your own needs, you will have the wherewithal to help your mum make choices that will enhance her life.

With time, you may be able to have a discussion with your mum about where she wants to live and if she would like to return to her previous friends and life but be conscious of her sensitivity to rejection, so only do this when it feels right. Your relationship with your father cannot be based on silence and if it is to be a relationship worth having, you will need to face him with your feelings, hurt and questions – contrary to creating more distance, this will demonstrate your commitment to a future relationship with him.

The caveat to this is that engaging in this way may also signal the end to your relationship with your father if he proves to be careless and insensitive so ensure that you are supported before engaging with him.