Writer and broadcaster

Dad had an affair. I can’t forgive him. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I’m 17 and sitting my A-level exams. A year and a half ago, it came out that my dad was having an affair and since then things have been confusing – I’m not sure what to do now. 

When my mum found out that my dad was having an affair with a woman from work, she decided to split up with him. We moved out very quickly and after staying in two different places, now have a new house. My dad lives in my old house with his new partner and has a dog – so he’s nicely settling in. I developed an eating disorder soon after the split and am now, thankfully, some way through recovery.

Some mornings I wake up and feel a ball of anger stuck in my stomach. I’ve become much more irritable and less able to control my emotions. I hate him for causing this negative change in me and for the emotions he has made me feel. I have tortured myself and felt lows I did not know possible. My brother is at university and sees Dad for dinner once or twice when he’s home in the holidays but I didn’t speak to my dad – bar a couple of “I hate you” texts – until last Tuesday. When I did eventually manage to go and speak to him at his house, which was very hard, he didn’t really have anything new to say but reiterated how sorry he was and how much he loved me (which I find hard to believe). 

My mum and I are tremendously close and I am grateful in a strange way for what has happened as my relationship with her and my brother has developed into one of closeness and care I didn’t know possible. What I’m stuck with is that people keep saying things about rebuilding the relationship with my dad and moving on from it. But the truth is, I don’t recognise him any more, don’t respect him and can’t fathom why I would endure the hard work I imagine it would be to rebuild any sort of relationship. I miss who he used to be. We had great adventures together, and he was intelligent and interesting, but as I don’t recognise any of these qualities in him now, I can’t work out whether it’s worth the effort. 

This must be really difficult. I can sense the conflict in you. You’ve seen a different side to your dad. He’s let you down – you feel – big time.

 When we are faced with our parents’ fallibilities it can be incredibly destabilising. If we don’t know who they are any more, then who are we? Who can we rely on? And unfaithful parents can be really hard to make sense of. Even adults with a lifetime’s experience struggle with it. So it’s not surprising that you are struggling too.

I contacted John Morgan, professor of psychiatry at the University of London and an authority on eating disorders (rcpsych.ac.uk). He said: “Your anger is justified and valid. You do not have to ‘move on’, as that would imply your feelings are inauthentic. Rather, it is a question of channelling those emotions into a more fruitful direction than your eating disorder. You have every right to your anger – and anger can be a positive force. Unfortunately, yours is directed towards yourself in the self-destructive presence of your eating disorder and needs a better focus.

“Psychological therapy might help you better articulate your complex feelings of grief and anger, helping you put those mixed emotions in to words rather than behaviours,” said Morgan.

It sounds as if you have help for your eating disorder. If not please ask your GP to refer you. Morgan explained that an eating disorder is a “maladaptive coping strategy and your experiences are akin to a bereavement – the loss of your ‘old’ father – but with the lost object still ever present”.

Eating disorders are not usually about food, per se, but trying to control the uncontrollable and to deal with emotions that feel too big. By controlling what they eat, the person feels they have some control over their life.

Eventually, Morgan said, you might “form a ‘new’ relationship with a ‘new’ version of your father, if you choose to”. I hope that, in time, you can come to learn that there’s more to your dad than his infidelity.

I know it feels as if your father has also been unfaithful to you, but that isn’t the case. He may have left your mum, but he hasn’t left you. When he started the affair with his colleague, his role as a father would not have been in question in his own mind. While Morgan felt it was “quite natural and healthy that you identify with and protect your mother”, I would add: don’t over-identify with your mother and don’t feel that you can’t like your dad again because he’s done this (because it would seem as if you are being disloyal to your mother).

I know this is hard to believe, but all marriages have two sides to them and two stories to tell. I hope your mother, too, has someone to talk to and offload on – and that person should not be you.


This article was first published in The Guardian Family section on 20th June 2014.