August 9, 2022
Est. Reading: 7 minutes

My parents are unfaithful, now it's affecting me what should I do?

What do you do when you are aware of your father's affair but your mother is not? Do you reveal anything? Do you keep it hidden? Which side are you on? And how do you keep it together when your mother finds out and your entire family is engulfed in the accompanying emotional chaos?

Such inquiries may seem like storylines from Neighbours or Brookside, but they are real-life for an increasing number of Irish teens and young people in their early twenties. Fiona Leahy of the marriage counseling agency Accord recalls a teenage lad whose father took him on vacation with his girlfriend and swore him to secrecy. The father had assured the mother that the holiday would be a time for father and son bonding.

It may appear severe, yet it is only one of the ways in which parents might unthinkingly impose their transgressions on their children. "Some individuals don't seem to understand the enormous harm that may be done to children," Ms. Leahy adds.

Since its inception in May 1995, "Teen Between," a unique program for teens in the throes of the upheaval produced by their parents' extramarital affairs and breakups, has maintained a consistent clientele at the Marriage Counselling Service on Grafton Street in Dublin. The service's youngest "teen" to seek assistance was only 12 years old.

The young victims of marital infidelity are making alarming confessions to the six counselors involved. "In my thoughts, I'm completely perplexed. I can't come up with anything else. I'm having difficulty concentrating. I'm unable to go on with my life." They cease functioning well in school and no longer trust their own observations since the one connection on which they felt they could rely, their parents' marriage, has been exposed as a farce.

Claire Missen, the service's manager, claims that "The major feeling we are witnessing is a great deal of rage, which is frequently focused onto the other guy or woman. Much of the child's rage stems from the fact that he or she feels abandoned and rejected. They believe that their parent's adultery is a betrayal of the entire family, not just the other parent. We attempt to help them understand that it is not them who are being rejected, but the marriage "Ms. Missen explains.

Teenagers may also be enraged by what they perceive to be their parents' unethical behavior." Parents frequently fail to recognize that adolescents may be quite judgemental. At that age, being able to imagine yourself as you and your parents as someone else is a typical aspect of the separation process from your parents. There is an identity crisis in which the teenager claims, 'I'm doing this because you told me not to.' However, if the tables are reversed and it is their parents who are misbehaving, teenagers might become quite enraged. It's as if they're screaming, 'We are the ones who are suffering.' "You are not allowed to misbehave.

Very often, young people get caught in the crossfire as they try to deal with their parents' behavior. When Dad is with his new partner, the abandoned mother may beg the young person not to see him. The parent may become enraged if his kid or daughter refuses to befriend his partner. As Ms. Missen points out, he may be perplexed as to why his practically grown children fail to realize how wonderful the new woman is. He may remark, "Didn't you realize your relationship with your mother was over? For years, I haven't liked your mother."

The child's problem, therefore, is, "If my father didn't love my mother, what is love?" Their entire understanding of marriage, and indeed, reality, is shattered in an instant.

Parents of young children are more protective, but once their children reach their teens and early twenties, many parents believe they may relinquish this obligation. "The parents have no idea what they are putting their children through. There's a common belief that if you've got your life, why shouldn't I have mine? "Ms. Missen explains.

Services, according to "Parents and other adults believe that once a child enters college, he or she is less susceptible than while they are at home. In truth, young people starting university rely on their parents to keep them steady while they are away from home. Instead, they find themselves in a position in which the security they require has been completely shattered and there is no home from which to separate.

"Some wind up taking on responsibilities that their peers do not have to. When you are extremely concerned about test grades" and the competitive job market," parenting the parent who has been left behind may be a great strain."

According to Ursula Bates, a therapist at UCD's student health service, parental adultery, and subsequent marriage breakdown are considered a crisis so severe that the psychological service considers it as seriously as a bereavement.

She observes pupils who are having difficulties concentrating and have a lack of energy as a result of their parents' problems. They may forego their own social development in order to become their parents' parents, and in a university the size of UCD with 16,000 students, they might quickly fall through the net and become isolated.

"University should be a period when students develop independently into their own world, but instead they are drawn back into the instability of a household in turmoil. They lack stable footing on which to stand and hence cannot develop "Ms. Bates explains.

"A parent who has resumed dating looks on them for childcare at a time when they could be exploring. This can be especially upsetting for a child since, at that age, you believe your parents never have sex. Sex is a major concern for you. It should not be your parents' problem " she claims.

"I recall one pupil stating that she felt older than her mother. Her mother was dating, wearing fashionable clothing, and acting like she was 14 years old. 'Don't come in late,' the daughter, who was looking after the smaller children, had to tell the mother. The daughter said, 'These are things my mother should say to me, not me speaking to her.'"

A mother who is flaunting a new relationship may be perplexed as to why her children are unable to share her joy and may become enraged with them, stating things like "I went through hell with your father for ten years. Why are you oblivious to this?"

Ms "Bates" advises parents to remain discreet. "It disgusts me when parents bring their lovers home to the family residence and shack up with them in front of their children." Even seeing one's parent on the couch holding hands with their partner might be upsetting. Adults are unaware of how unpleasant it is."

Similarly, many parents have no qualms about turning their older children into go-betweens who must deal with the "ugly nitty-gritty" of answering a disgruntled parent's phone calls and even arranging parental visits for their younger children.

Ms. Bates describes this world flipped upside down as a "generational mix-up," in which adult children of university age find themselves struggling to control parents who are reliving their childhood. This is especially "unsettling" when the father is revealed to be dating a woman close to his daughter's age - and it is generally the father, though moms have indiscretions as well, Ms. Bates adds.

"Young people must believe that there is an elder and a younger generation and that they are distinct. In this generational mix, the young person gets prematurely old because of the obligation of caring for their parents, and they do not have enough time to be free with their own pals."

Perhaps the most terrible result of their parents' infidelity is that their children are more likely to have unsuccessful marriages because they have lost their capacity to trust. According to Ms. Missen, "I'm never getting married" is a typical refrain among wounded youths. If they married, they could be highly possessive.

"How can you trust anybody else if your father, who claimed to love you more than anything else in the world, walked out on you for another woman?" Ms. Leahy inquires. "It may be especially difficult for girls, particularly if they were Daddy's little princess."

Such a woman's fate may be to enter into problematic relationships with men who will ultimately fail her. What can we anticipate from her attitude?"

They may ruin functional relationships if they enter them. "They may be disloyal or so possessive that they drive the other person insane," Ms. Leahy continues. "Otherwise, they'd be so shut off that they drive the other guy away."

A youngster may style himself like his dishonest father, especially if his mother is emotionally weak and simply dismisses her husband's extramarital affairs in the face of overwhelming proof because she is frightened of marriage dissolution or financial loss. The son discovers that a man's extramarital affairs do not have to damage his life.

Sons may harbor resentment at their father for abandoning them to care for their mother throughout their lives. Or they may be upset with their moms because they believe that if their mothers had done their jobs correctly, their lathers would not have gone off with someone in the first place.

In Ms Missen's experience, a mother's adultery may be considerably more devastating in the long run since betrayed dads tend to foster their children's resentment much more than moms do in that scenario. "He'll say things like, 'Any respectable mother with any regard for her children would not have done that.'" The child, therefore, believes that because they never had a decent mother, they were never properly loved and are consequently unlovable by anybody.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that counseling for teens and young adults in these situations may make a significant impact. Counseling encourages young people to separate their parents' troubles from their own and to recognize that their parents' adultery was not a rejection of them. They also learn not to get "caught in the middle."

Deirdre Flynn, a teacher at TCD, encourages pupils to form relationships with their parents as individuals rather than as a pair in order to avoid becoming "triangulated." "This means building the type of adult-to-adult connection they would naturally form with their parents someday, but considerably faster than they would usually."

Claire Missen and others in the Marriage Counselling Service believe that by assisting these young people in understanding and dealing with the crisis, they will be able to become stronger and, as a result, have healthier relationships than their parents did, thus also preventing at least some of the future marriage breakdowns.

"If not halted, the cycle of adultery may be multigenerational," Ms. Missen warns. "The most fulfilling aspect of what we do is assisting kids in planning their future life. We assist them in reaching the point where they can declare, 'It's not going to occur to me.'"

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