Divorce: When You’re Forced to Take Sides
By Keith Ablow, MD
Q: My parents are in the middle of a very contentious divorce. Turns out my father had a girlfriend on the side. Needless to say, my mom is devastated. She is turning to me and my sister for support, and we’re both there for her. However, she insists that neither of us talk to Dad, and while I’m very angry at him, I don’t think that cutting him out of my life is something I can do. But if I tell Mom that, it will break her heart. My sister is already threatening to disown me. What would you do? — Valerie P., Denver, CO
A: You’re right to resist your mother’s edict that you stop communicating with your father. I’ve been a psychiatrist for 16 years and know that many marriages end up including complicated and disheartening chapters like infidelity. I have learned that even that breach of trust can be understood by husbands and wives who remain committed to one another and continue to love one another. I would bet that your parents’ divorce was fueled by more than your father straying.
The central questions for you have to be these: What sort of father has my dad been for me? Have I felt loved? Do we have communication I continue to value, despite his less laudable behavior?
I’d start by telling your mother that you have to be able to vent your anger toward your dad directly, and that that process alone could mean being in touch with him for quite a while. Tell her that you can’t face the emotional toll of your parents’ divorce and complete estrangement from your father at the same time. And tell her that there happen to be children who visit their fathers in jail, after acts much more reprehensible that the one he committed. They continue to love them, despite their terrible flaws.
I also hope you’ll wonder about the quality of love shown you by your mother, who is asking you to abandon your relationship with your dad because she is hurt, disappointed or angry. Her stance puts her feelings ahead of yours and doesn’t seem consistent with valuing you fully as an individual.
With the powerful and opposing forces tugging at you, you should consider having a counselor or therapist of your own as your parents work through their issues. That’s something your parents should be willing to provide for you, if you can’t afford it yourself.
Your sister may be going along with you mother because she feels loyal to her and not to your dad. Or she may be sincerely outraged by his behavior and find it simply unforgivable. Ask her why she feels this way. And tell her that you’re worried that if you continue to speak with your father and see him that she might actually abandon you. Tell her how sad that would be and how you hope it isn’t true. Ask for her reassurance that she’ll let you make an independent judgment about how to proceed with your dad. And if she really does mean that she’d cut you off for staying in contact with your father, so be it.
This is one of those character-building moments in life when you have to follow your heart, do what you believe is right and deal with the fallout. I congratulate you for thinking so deeply about what path to take and for asking for a little help as you take the first steps.
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