When a parent has an affair

 

HOW do you react when you discover that one of your parents has been having an affair? Worse, what do you, do when you know about your father's affair and your mother doesn't? Do you tell? Do you hide it? Whose side do you take? And when your mother finds out and your family is swept up in the ensuing emotional chaos, how do you hold it all together?

Such questions may sound like thee plot lines from Neighbours or Brookside but for a growing number of Irish teenagers and young adults in their early 20s this is real life. Fiona Leahy of Accord, the marriage counselling service, recalls teenage boy whose father took him on holiday with his girlfriend and swore him to secrecy. The father had told the mother that the holiday would be a father son bonding session.

It may sound extreme but it is only one of the ways in which parents may thoughtlessly impose their indiscretions on their offspring. "Some people don't seem to have any awareness of the huge damage that can be done to children," says Ms Leahy.

At the Marriage Counselling Service in Grafton Street, Dublin, "Teen Between", a special service for teenagers in the throes of the chaos caused by their parents' extramarital affairs and breakups, has had a steady clientele since it was set up in May 1995. The youngest "teen" to have contacted the service for help was only 12.

The six counsellors involved are hearing disturbing confessions from the young victims of marital infidelity. "I feel so confused in my head. I can't, think of anything else. I can't concentrate. I can't get on with my life." They stop performing in school and they don't trust their own perceptions any more because the one relationship they thought they could rely on their parents' marriage has been revealed as a sham.

Claire Missen, who runs the service, says that "the main emotion we are seeing is a huge amount of anger and often this is projected on to the other man or woman. A lot of the anger comes out of the fact that the child feels abandoned and rejected. They feel that their parent's infidelity is against the whole family - not just the other parent. We try to help them understand that it is not them but the marriage that is being rejected," says Ms Missen.

Teenagers may also feel anger at what they see as their parents' immoral behaviour. "Parents often don't realise that adolescents can be incredibly judgmental. At that age, a normal part of the separate process from your parents is to be able to see yourself as you and your parents as somebody else. There is a struggle for identity where the adolescent says, `I'm doing this because you told me not to'. But if the tables are turned and it is not they but their parents who are misbehaving, adolescents can get very, very angry. It's as if they are saying, `we are the ones who are", entitled to misbehave - not, you.

TOO often, young people are caught in the middle as they attempt to cope with their parents' behaviour. The abandoned mother may ask the young person not to see Dad when he is with his new woman. The father may get extremely angry with the son or daughter who refuses to befriend his girlfriend. As Ms Missen says, he may not understand why his nearly grown children refuse to see how marvellous the new woman is. He might say, "didn't you know it was over with your mother? I haven't loved your mother for years."

The crisis for the child then is, "if my father didn't love my mother - then what is love?" Their whole sense of what marriage is and, indeed, what reality is, is demolished overnight.

Parents of young children tend to be more protective but once their children are in their teens and early 20s, many parents feel they can break free of this responsibility. "The parents don't realise what they are putting their kids through. There's often a view, you've got your life, why shouldn't I have thine?" says Ms Missen.

Deirdre Flynn, counsellor with Trinity College Dublin Student Health

Services, says that "there is an assumption by parents and other adults that once young people come to college, that they are less vulnerable than when they were at home. In fact, young people entering university are relying on home to be stable while they separate from home. Instead they find themselves in a situation where the security they need is totally disrupted and there's no home to separate from.

"Some end up assuming the kind of responsibility that their peers don't have to assume. Parenting the parent that's, left behind can be a huge burden when, you are very conscious of exam results" and the competitive jobs market."

At UCD, parental infidelity and consequent marital break up is regarded as a crisis so severe that the psychological service treats it as seriously as they do a bereavement, says Ursula Bates, counsellor With UCD's student health service.

She sees students experiencing difficulty concentrating and a lack of energy because they are being drained by their parents' problems. They may sacrifice their own social development in order to become their parents' parents and in a university the size of UCD with 16,000 students, they can fall through the net and become isolated very, very fast.

"University should be a time when students are developing separately into their own world and instead they are being pulled back into the insecurity of a home that is in crisis. They don't have steady ground to stand and so they cannot develop," says Ms Bates.

"At a time when they should be exploring, they are looked to for babysitting by a parent who has started dating again. This can be extra distressing for a young person because at that age you think your parents never have sex. Sex is your issue and a dominant one. It should not be your parents issue," she says.

"I remember one student who said that she felt older than her mother Her mother was dating and dressing in snazzy clothes and acting about 14 years of age. The daughter, who was looking after the younger children, was having to say to the mother, `don't come in late'. The daughter's complaint was these are things my mother should be saying to me, not me saying to her'."

A mother who is flaunting a new relationship may be unable to understand why her children cannot share her bliss and get angry at them, saying things like "I suffered for 10 years with your father. Why don't you understand that?"

Parents must be discreet, urges Ms "Bates. "It appals me that parents bring their lovers home to the family house and shack up with them in front of their children. Even to see one's parent on the sofa holding hands with their lover can be very distressing. Adults don't realise how distressing it is."

Similarly, many parents have no qualms about turning their elder offspring into go betweens who must deal with the "nasty nitty gritty" of taking a spurned parent's telephone calls and even arranging parental visiting for the younger children.

"Generational mix up" is the term Ms Bates uses to describe this world turned on its head, where the adult children of university age find themselves trying to control parents who are reliving their youth. This is especially "unnerving" when the father - and it usually is the father, although mothers too have affairs, Ms Bates hastens to add - is discovered to be dating a woman close to his daughter's own age.

"Young people need to feel there's an older generation and a younger one and that they are separate. In this generational mix up, the young person becomes prematurely aged with the responsibility of looking after their parents and they have not enough time to be carefree with their own friends."

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of parents infidelity is that their children are at greater risk of failed marriages themselves because they have lost their ability to trust. "I'm never getting married" is a common refrain among hurt teens, says Ms Missen. If they do marry, they may be very possessive.

"If your father who made out that he loved you more than anything else in the world walked out on you for another woman, how do you trust anyone else?" asks Ms Leahy. "It can be particularly hard for girls, especially if they were, Daddy's little princess.

Such a woman's destiny may be to take up dysfunctional relationships with men who inevitably let her down. Her attitude will be expect?"

If they enter functional relationships, they may sabotage them. They may themselves be unfaithful or so possessive that they drive the other person crazy," adds Ms Leahy. "Or else they'd are so shut off that they drive the other person away.

A son may model himself on his unfaithful father, especially if his mother is emotionally weak and conveniently denies her husband's extramarital affairs against all the evidence because she is afraid of marriage break up or financial ruin. The son learns that a man's extramarital affairs need not disrupt his life.

Sons may also carry through life tremendous anger at the father for leaving them to mind their mother. Or they may, eel angry at their mothers because they perceive that if their mothers had done the job properly, their lathers would not have gone off with someone else in the first place.

A mother's infidelity can be much so damaging in the long term because betrayed fathers tend to nurture their children's anger much more than mothers do in that situation, in Ms Missen's experience. "He'll say things like, `Any proper mother who had any consideration for her children would not have done that'." The child then feels that if they never had a proper mother, they were never properly loved and are thus unlovable by anyone.

THERE is no doubt that counselling for teenagers and young adults in these situations can make all the difference. In counselling, young people are encouraged to separate their parents' problems from their own and to realise that the infidelity was not a rejection of them. They also learn how to refuse to be "caught in the middle".

At TCD, Deirdre Flynn tries to encourage students to develop relationships with their parents as individuals rather than as a couple so that they do not become "triangulated". "This means developing the kind of adult to adult relationship they would develop naturally with their parents eventually but much quicker than they normally would."

The vision of Claire Missen and others, in the Marriage Counselling Service is that by helping these young, people to understand and deal with the crisis, they can become stronger and so someday have healthier relationships than their parents did, thereby preventing at least some of the marriage breakdowns of the future.

"The pattern of infidelity can be multi generational if it is not stopped," says Ms Missen. "The rewarding part of what we do is that we help the teens to review their future lives. We help them get to the point where they can say, `It's not, going to happen to me'."