Dear Dr. Wallace:
My parents are very strict, and they both have high moral standards — at least that’s what they always told me when I was a young kid growing up.
Now that I’m older, I take it personally that I know my dad cheats, and then my mom always finds a reason to take him back after he apologizes for his “off the grid” behavior. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I know this can’t be normal, “high moral standard” behavior.
I don’t think it happens in other families, but it happens in mine seemingly all the time. I know it’s not my choice. It’s my mom’s choice on how to handle her relationship with my father, but I don’t like that my dad cheats on my mom. I find his actions to be embarrassing, disrespectful and deviant behavior.
Should I stay out of their personal life, or should I talk directly to my dad about why he cheats now, after all the years of him claiming to have such high moral standards?
I’ve also thought about talking to my mom about going to counseling to talk about her situation, but I’ve never actually gotten up the nerve to start this type of conversation with her. We are close, but we’ve always kept the details of our personal relationship at a respectful distance, so getting into this topic would be awkward on multiple levels. Instead, I’ve just silently stewed in silence, even though I don’t like what I see going on right in front of my eyes.
— Disgusted Daughter, via email
Dear Disgusted Daughter: First of all, I want to make sure you know that none of this is your fault. Your letter did not mention this, but children of parents who struggle with their marriages can often even subconsciously feel bad or partially to blame. Your case may be void of this entirely, but it’s important to mention this point up front nonetheless.
It can definitely feel like an emotional roller coaster when a parent cheats,
especially because you naturally are emotionally invested, and at your core, you do care for both your parents. In fact, your disgust exists because you want your father to again be the person you had looked up to for so many years during your childhood.
This is not your decision or your battle, but unfortunately, you’ve been placed in the middle of it.
Your father’s behavior sounds unacceptable on many levels, but neither you nor I have all of the facts. Your mother is making her own decision of what she feels is best by taking him back, and her reasons might not be as transparent as you think they are.
No human being is perfect, not even your parents. I would not recommend you confronting your father in a hostile way. I’d suggest you root for family harmony and do your best to promote it in whatever small ways you can.
If you’d like to make your voice heard, tell your father calmly when the time is right that you’d really like to see him and your mom get along well and be respectful of each other, just the way that you respect each of them. If you can communicate this effectively at the right time, you might well strike a harmonious chord with him that causes him to think again about the standards he valued and taught to you.
And as for your mother, don’t engage her directly either in a confrontational or condescending manner, for the reasons you’ve already outlined. You might only now be privy to part of the logic she is using to formulate her decisions on the matter of your father remaining in the family home.
Be as kind and respectful as you can to each parent, even though you have your own feelings about the situation.
Drop subtle hints about how much you value your family harmony to each parent — both individually and when both are present — whenever you get the opportunity to do so in a manner that is congruent with the conversation at hand.