Dear New Shrink,
I am having a terrible family problem that I hope you can advise me on. I can¬ít afford a therapist right now, but really wish that I could.
To give you a somewhat complete picture, I am a Santa Monica College student about to transfer to a university and for now live with my mother. My parents divorced when I was just starting high school and it was and still is ugly. My two older brothers got out of here a while ago; in fact one has already graduated law school.
My problem is that I want to spend Father¬ís Day with my father, but this will really upset my mother. She divorced him when she found out that he was having an affair with a woman on the East Coast during his business travels. He pleaded with her and wanted to go to counseling, but she declined and still has not forgiven him. She wants us, my brothers and I, to hate him the way she does.
My brothers just ignore her, but I can¬ít because I live with her. I don¬ít think what my father did was right, but he has always been a good dad and I think, overall, a good man. My parents were the masters of bickering before the divorce so I always wonder if that was part of the reason for his cheating.
Anyway, I would like to know if there is a way to handle this because Father¬ís Day is approaching and even though he lives nearby, I did not see him last year.
I think this whole thing is very unfair to me and interestingly my one brother wants to go into family law. I know that they both have feelings, but they see both of our parents and ignore her anger.
Dear Unfairly Trapped,
Let me just start by saying that it is clear that your mother feels a very deep sense of betrayal after a good number of years being married. It doesn¬ít sound like she has gotten counseling, but she really should, and if any one of you could help her see this it would not only benefit her but would also help you. A life of resentment is a miserable one and only increases the odds of being bitter in her old age.
There is no question that this is unfair to you. Children should never be brought into the middle of their parents¬í problems or divorce. Often parents in a bitter divorce will use their children to get even, but that is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.
I am sure your brothers still feel it, but, as you say, you are more vulnerable to it.
It is interesting and probably no accident that your one brother wants to practice family law. Just the practice of law is generally a desire for justice.
I wonder if you have actually discussed this problem with your brothers; if not it would probably be a good idea. They might have a better perspective having been away for a while. I also imagine that you father understands the situation so explaining your dilemma to him might help, but on the other hand, if he is vindictive and/or has not moved on it could fuel the fire.
I do advise you to take some time to contemplate the fear you have of your mother¬ís anger. Do you imagine that she will stop loving you or disown you? Or do you think she will just be angry because she feels so hurt and betrayed? Did she disown your brothers or does she simply assume that they go along with her and don¬ít have a relationship with their father? Is she angry with them?
Anger can be a sign of something worse to come, but is sometimes used as a way to control others. Often it is just a cover up for the underlying pain.
Sometimes we get caught up in someone¬ís anger and become afraid of it, unnecessarily so, especially when we are young and dependent on that person. Or actually even not so young people who feel dependent on someone¬ís love and support are often afraid to deal with or confront that person¬ís anger.
So, I think the most important place to start is by taking some quiet time to really think through what you mother is really about and what she will or won¬ít do if you see your father. There is a good chance that she is just really hurt and her anger is a way to control the situation so that she doesn¬ít feel any more pain. In this case, it is definitely something for her to work on but not something that you should allow to control you.
Hope this helps.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Visit her at www.drbarge.com or e-mail your anonymous questions and replies to firstname.lastname@example.org.