My younger sister and I are in our mid 20s. My mother, aged 50, has dropped a bombshell: she is leaving my father after 27 years of marriage. She added that she had been seeing someone for a few weeks (she did this before when I was about eight – she ran off with a waiter we met on holiday and my dad forgave her).
My father is absolutely devastated. He is devoted to her and doesn’t have any other family members or friends to help him through this.
The main problem is that my dad is very antisocial, negative and angry. He has two other children from a previous marriage who he does not see and I have not had a great relationship with him (his good qualities are that he is hilariously funny and very generous).
My mother is sociable and likable with a large network of friends and family who she sees regularly. I understand why she has left him but cannot help feeling angry that she has gone about this the wrong way (by meeting someone else), and I’m worried about my dad as he is prone to bouts of depression and drinks a lot, something from which I have also suffered and so feel an affinity to my father.
My sister lives nearby and can visit but she is very emotional whereas I am too far away to visit and am the calmer, wiser sibling. I don’t know how I can help in this situation. I don’t know how to advise Dad as he does not have any hobbies or friends – nothing he can put his life into – and I am concerned that he will end up a lonely alcoholic.
M, via email
That perennial mix of guilt and love, of squaring duty with what you think you should do. Put simply, your mum has left your dad. You haven’t. Your relationship with both of them is the same as it ever was. I think part of you is angry with your mum because you perceive her as having left a situation you would also like to leave behind, but you feel you cannot. But you are not responsible for your father or your mother and certainly not for their actions.
The unsavoury truth about affairs, the one that is so easy to ignore, is that if one person strays outside a marriage or relationship, it’s not just a one-sided fault. In other words, your father played a part, as I think you see. It sounds, from what you’ve told me, that your mother has probably propped up your dad for a long time, and been not entirely happy for some years. It’s a wonder she lasted so long.
Of course you shouldn’t abandon your dad, you can still be there for him, but you need to realise that you are his daughter, not his partner, and he needs to help himself a bit. I found it interesting that you, like him, have suffered from bouts of depression and alcohol problems. I wonder what you’ve done about that? It’s not uncommon when we see certain things we recognise in others, that we want to help them – it’s a way of trying to save ourselves. But you really need to be careful; this is a difficult enough situation if you are emotionally resilient at all times (and who is?), but if you suffer from depression/drinking, you need to ringfence yourself a little bit.
Perhaps if you make sure he has a bit of help, it would not only make you feel like you’re doing your bit without drowning in the situation but also help him too, and stop things from spiralling out of control. What about organising a cleaner once a week (which he pays for), doing an online shop (ditto on payment) for him regularly and giving him details of local support groups?
Let’s talk about your sister. It’s common in families for people to be labelled: the capable one, the silly one, etc. I see you’ve done it here already. Your sister is emotional and you are calmer, wiser. That may be so, but it doesn’t mean you have to be the one who fixes everything. Perhaps you and your sister could divide certain tasks, playing to your individual strengths?
Your job is not to advise your dad in this situation because that’s a tall order and one I think that may lead to frustration, for both of you. I find a good strategy in an emotional situation is to have a plan of practical help. Of course, sit down with him to have a talk, either in person or on the phone. But be careful because negative people can suck all the life force out of you.
This isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. You don’t have to move in with your dad, for example, and look after him; neither do you have to leave him to his own devices completely. There are lots of scenarios in-between.
And in all of this, don’t forget your mum. She may, on paper, be living the better, jollier life, but I bet this will have had an impact on her, too.
First published in The Guardian Family section on 8 November 2013.