Dear Thelma: We are angry and want to leave our cheating dad


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Dear Thelma,

I'm writing this to express my concern regarding the state of my family.

I'm the eldest child in the family and I'm currently pursuing my LLM (full-time). I have two sisters. My father drives a cab to support us and he is the sole breadwinner in our family.

Recently, my sisters and I discovered that my father is cheating on my mother, and we disclosed that information to her.

Besides that, my father hardly respects my mother. He thinks that, as a man of the family, he should "control" the ladies. I'm so sick of his attitude. He has never given my mother or me the liberty to make our own decisions.

My mother and sisters want to break free from the chains of patriarchy. We suggested to our mother that we should leave our father and start a new life somewhere else.

My mother contacted my grandmother regarding this issue and my grandmother told us to be "patient". She told me since my mother is currently suffering from backache problems and none of us are working, it would be difficult to survive. We feel so helpless and broken.

Please advise.

Sarah

Dear Sarah,

I'm sorry that you are unhappy.

Your mum and dad are married, and he's been cheating. They may decide this is a deal-breaker. Or they may see this as an opportunity for change and rebuilding their relationship. Whatever they do, it's their decision.

However, generally speaking it is a bad idea for children to become involved in their parents' marriage. This is because children have a unique relationship with their parents (whether they like them or not).

When we are small, we look up to our parents. They are all powerful, and we look to them to love us unconditionally, to guide us, and to protect us. We have super high standards for them.

When we grow up and discover our parents aren't perfect, we suffer. Emotions range from shock and sadness, to anger and judgement. This happens in every family, to every human being.

Through our teenage years and early adult years, the parent-child relationship changes and develops. By the end of that time, parents learn to see their kids an independent adults and kids learn that their parents are human and fallible. It's a process and it can be painful on all sides.

In a marriage, adults agree to be partners. While their relationship also develops over time, it is significantly different from the parent-child relationship. Most importantly, they don't expect each other to be perfect. Also, while true equality is elusive, each adult has a certain amount of power.

Although marriage is a private relationship between the people who commit, kids typically feel invested in their parents' marriage. They see it as the foundation of their childhood, the source of their security. When that marriage falters, they wonder how it will affect them. So they want to manage it. They want to control what's going on.

However, because they are too invested, they confuse their parents' relationship with their own. Usually, they question if their parents' love was ever genuine. Then they look back on their childhood and re-interpet it through pain and uncertainty.

Also, while the adult part of them understands that relationships run into trouble, and some end, there is that childish ache for mum and dad to be different, perfect and special.

In short, this is just too traumatising. This is why we suggest kids stay out of their parents' relationship.

Having said that, when a marriage ends, adult kids can offer their parents financial support. Practically speaking, that is not within your reach as you have no income. When you finish your studies and get a job, that will hopefully change.

At this point, accept that you have no power. And perhaps that is adding to your anger. But you are not helpless. What you can do is focus on your developing relationships with your parents.

Start with your dad. At the moment, you're angry with him. Step back a bit and think. From your letter, he has worked hard to support you. That is love. Add in that you're pursuing a degree, which suggests he helped teach you the value of education and independence.

But you disagree with your father's behaviour and some of his attitudes. That's OK, not agreeing on everything is natural. But that scathing talk of patriarchy sounds like angry judgement and that's rarely a good place to come from.

You must have friends and acquaintances who disagree with you; how can you bring that same loving respect for differences into the relationship with your dad?

In addition, while the infidelity was in your parents' relationship, not in yours, you may want to consider (without the rage) exactly why and how it has impacted you. Working it through may help you manage your emotions.

As for your mum, she can lean in with her friends, family and support network. But while you cannot manage her marriage for her, you can expect your relationship with your mum to evolve too.

This is not easy, it's top level adulting. If your college has free counselling, it may be useful to sign up and talk it through.

If you don't reach out, consider that this is quite a draining period for you all, so please make sure you look after your own health. Get enough rest, eat properly, and sort out the roller-coaster of emotions as they come along. I'll be thinking of you.

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