“Brady, I’m torn. I’ve recently found out from my dad that my mom had an affair. I’ve always been close to my mom, and I know I’ve put her on a pedestal, but this hurts and keeping this secret is killing me. It is hard to look at her, and even though I’m an adult, the thought of them divorcing, the secrecy… I don’t know what to do. I’m lost.”
Hello. I want to say, first of all, that I am deeply sorry that you are going through this. I believe that parental conflict and betrayal doesn’t simply occur between parents, because the betrayal extends to children as well, so your own feelings of betrayal and hurt are completely valid. While most people would say that parental conflict, whether arguments or infidelity, affects younger children the hardest, I disagree; parents can betray each other, and thereby betray their children, with devastating results, at any age. I would say that the hurt, confusion, shock, and pain that you are going through are absolutely real and valid; it would make sense that you are lost.
As most of us do, you probably grew up with that concrete “All-American” ideal of a married, monogamous, stable, family as the foundation of your healthy and productive life. That ideal can easily be desecrated by divorce, affairs and betrayal; even large or small hostilities can start to erode that foundation of the “All-American” household. I say this, not to trash that ideal or belittle those that want it, but to acknowledge how fragile the “All-American” dream actually is, and how easily that ground can shift. The breaking of that ideal, for children, more than questions our notions of relationships, for it also sends us out into the world without a map or a direction.
When our parents betray each other, the shock disorients us and hits us as children on a cellular level. It is felt with the searing reality that the people that created you and the love that brought you into the world, is broken. It is right for children to be attached to that “All-American” ideal of their parents staying together, of their parents’ love for each other remaining for their, and our, entire lives. It is also fully natural to be scared and lost when that union seems to be fading into darkness.
If I were to give you any advice for where you are right now, any help on what direction to take with knowing that your parents are grappling with an affair, secrecy, and mistrust, would be to have an open conversation with your mother. You put her on a pedestal for a reason, which tells me that there is a lot of love between you and her, and a relationship that might be salvaged. Gently opening a conversation can be as simple as checking in with her, asking her how she is doing, and acknowledging that you don’t know what exactly is happening between her and dad (and you don’t know exactly because you don’t have both sides of the situation), but you want to know. You needn’t force that conversation, only to accuse, yell, or demand answers, so a gentle approach might yield the answers you want to hear. Even with a gentle approach, she may or may not answer; she won’t say anything, however, if she isn’t asked.
You as a child can be terrified of that conversation, but you as an adult can start that conversation.
When we put people on pedestals, if they betray us, we want to mercilessly kick them off, and keep kicking them down. What we can do, for the benefit of everyone, is offer a hand to those on a pedestal so that they can step off, stand on their own feet, and so that we can look each other in the eyes as fellow human beings.
(Originally written February 16, 2013)