How to confront parents?
January 9, 2013 2:50 PM   Subscribe

How to confront parents about an event which really hurt when I was younger and continues to plague my life/our relationship now (over ten years later)?

When I was 7 I was told by my older sister that my dad was having an affair, and I basically stopped talking to him and acted out and gained weight and cried a lot and acted really aggressive for a long time. I was told sternly by my mother to never tell anyone and after a while she started being angry at me for ignoring my dad while my older sister continued to act normal around him and developed better relationships with both parents. I am 20 now and I still haven't confronted them about this, but my dad used to be one of my best friends when I was small and now I can't talk to him at all, and both my parents seem to like spending time with my sister a lot more than with me, and I can't help but feel bitter about this episode (even though I know far worse things have happened to other people) and blame the episode for my weight gain (I started emotional eating then). I am also not close to either parent anymore, but would like to be, and my sister suggested that I glaze over the episode and just start acting normal again... But I know intuitively that I need to confront them. If nottoget closure then at least to explain why I acted like how I did because honestly I don't think they understand,or have given it serious thought--probably just attributed it to grumpiness or teenager syndrome, and maybe it was in part, but mostly it was about this, and i need them to know that and maybe take some responsibility for it!

I feel like how I'm acting at home has infected the rest of my life and made me feel like a rotten peach in every other arena. Please help me detox this episode from my life, get closure and get closer to my parents again!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How old was your sister when she told you this? Probably a child herself. It's unfortunate, but you have nothing to "confront" your parents with. They made a decision to stay together, which is their decision and not yours. If you want a good relationship with them, move on. Regardless, it's time to take responsibility for your own life.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 2:53 PM on January 9, 2013 [18 favorites]

You can tell them how you feel and have felt, but you can't make them acknowledge responsibility for anything. That is and will inevitably remain up to them.
posted by jon1270 at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's difficult to move past family problems that occurred at such a young age, but with that being said, it's not impossible.

There are a lot of intricacies when it comes to family history. I don't see how confronting your family will lead to positive results at this point. It might lead to a negative set of responses, more tension, and/or conflict.

Instead, strongly consider therapy. Talking to someone (especially a trusted professional) outside of the family is helpful for a lot of people in this type of situation. Together, you and your therapist can work on the healing process, developing positive coping mechanisms, and learning how to navigate your relationship with your parents.
posted by livinglearning at 3:02 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents got divorced in a crummy fashion when I was a kid, and I felt like it always messed with me, and there were lingering unresolved issues that would change my life if we only ever talked about them. It was kind of this albatross that I carried around--I always thought I would talk with them about it and never did. At one point I had to promise myself that I would confront them about it before they died so I could have some resolution.

Then I got divorced myself, and in the throes of everything that was going on in my life, I pressed them on their divorce.

It was exhilarating at the moment (moments, since I confronted each parent separately), but it really wasn't the incredible resolution I thought it would be.

I think the media tell us that there are these incredible watersheds with tears and hugging and then everything's amazing, but it's not like that at all.

By all means, talk to your parents about how you feel; communication is healthy. But be prepared for it not to change you at all or, worse, make your parents defensive and more distant.

At this point (it seems to me) the issue isn't so much that your parents let you down at age 7, it's that your parents let you down at age seven and you've been alienated from each other for the last XX years. That's not something that will change from a conversation.

Therapy helps; don't count on a conversation with your folks helping though. Instead, be the change you want to see in your relationship with your parents.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:06 PM on January 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

If you must force this confrontation, be aware they're likely happy with their decision and there's not going to be whatever big emotional resolution you expect, considering they've stayed together. So you do this and they don't take responsibility and they, say, blame you for not getting over something that happened when you were 7 and wasn't any of your business (I am not saying that is the case, but that may be their perspective). What then? Make sure you've planned for that contingency.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:12 PM on January 9, 2013

They already know. Your mother told you sternly not to tell anyone, right? So they already know that you knew and were upset. You broke the code of silence. Your sister pretended not to, so it's easier for them with her.

Confrontation will not fix this. Likely they will be defensive, rather than finally supportive and healing.

What kind of relationship do you want with them? Do you want to talk more frequently? Then start calling or visiting more. Fake it until you make it. Break the ice. Take it slowly though; this is going to open up old wounds for you, so take it at the pace that is feasible for you.
posted by heatherann at 3:17 PM on January 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

You're not going to get any resolution here wherein they take responsibility for the effect your dad's affair (if there was one - I doubt your sister had the whole picture) had on you as a child. It wasn't something either of them did TO you; they don't owe you an apology for staying together, and your dad wasn't cheating on you. I don't think picking at the past is going to help you at all.

If you want a better relationship with them, relate to them as peer adults whose feelings you value. Children rarely realize how badly they can hurt their parents; and as an adult you can go ahead and stop doing it. 20 is a good time actually since it's a natural milestone. If you're living at home, take a moment when you're alone with one of them to say something like "it's nice to have a moment like this. The teen years were hard but I feel like as I get older I feel closer to you." And act like it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:22 PM on January 9, 2013 [13 favorites]

Yeah I don't think confronting them is going to be as usefull as you think either. It may be something you need to do, but I would start by getting help yourself. If you look at it your problem is in you, it is eating you and thus you need to change. Not saying this is 'all your fault' but your Dad cannot go back and not have the affair. Pretty much all he can do is say 'sorry'. So get some help first, then talk to your folks.

Good luck
posted by d4nj450n at 3:23 PM on January 9, 2013

but my dad used to be one of my best friends when I was small and now I can't talk to him at all, and both my parents seem to like spending time with my sister a lot more than with me, and I can't help but feel bitter about this episode

I think one of the things you need to come to terms with is your own participation in this distancing. I don't think that's something your parents can help you with.

Another thing: your parents made a decision about how to handle their own relationship. No matter how old you are, that's really not a thing you get a say in. You can have all the feelings you want about it, but they are your feelings - your anger at your dad, and your sense of betrayal are yours and not your mother's.

Usual askme advice: therapy.
posted by rtha at 3:25 PM on January 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yes, this is something to have therapy to figure out.

If you go in well prepared, you have the best possible chance of having any conversation turn out well and of coping with whatever disappointment may ensue.

You may also find ways of giving to yourself what you needed them to give to you as a child, so that by the time you do confront them, your happiness won't be as dependent on what you wish they had done or would do now.

Don't get me wrong, I hope you do sort it out with them, but it isn't the kind of thing you can do on your own with one conversation. This is one of those complex things that a professional is best suited to help you figure out.
posted by tel3path at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

i need them to know that and maybe take some responsibility for it

Hey there, I feel for you, but I think blaming one particular event for years' and a whole lifestyle's worth of stuff is both a big stretch, and also extremely unlikely to get you the catharsis you are looking for.

This is not to absolve your parents of responsibility for things, but how much responsibility are you going to take for how things turned out? At what age do you think a person can stop blaming their parents for how they are, and say, "Whelp, I chose to be like this and struggle to be not like this. Didn't get the help I needed and not getting it now."

Nothing your parents will say to you is going to change how you feel about your past and who you are. And also, your parents - even if they're good - are going to struggle with the narrative you want to present to them for a couple of different - and totally understandable - reasons.

Firstly, parents hate being confronted with the fact they dropped the ball at some point. They will jump through the most contorted hoops to avoid acknowledging it. Secondly, they will say, "Well, your sister was fine. We are fine with it, and we're the ones who had the affair.". Thirdly they will feel if not say, "So every bad thing that's happened to you since you were seven has been a result of this one thing? And nothing else? Your weight gain over a ten year (or whatever) period is solely due to this one event?"

I'm not saying those objections are right, but they are reasonable and your parents will most likely give voice to some of them. How would that make you feel?

My brother is like you, in some respects. There are four of us kids, and he is the most unhappiest I feel. He - 35 years old, now, with kids of his own - continues to blame our parents for his disappointments in life. He is bitter and frequently angry about them, and - in a very close-knit family - he spends little to no time with anyone, never calls back etc. He nearly missed saying goodbye to our dying grandmother because he doesn't respond to messages from family.

It's true, my parents didn't give him support he needed at times in his life - just as they didn't for all four of us at different points. But you know what? They are and were only human. Flawed people, with struggles and emotional turmoil of their own, juggling parenting with jobs, trying to pay down a mortgage, a whole panoply of stresses and in the main they were doing the best they were capable of doing.

Me, my brother, my other siblings, we are adults now. Our own people. We have to take responsibility for our lives, and if there are aspects we are unhappy with we need to change them or accept them; no one's gonna do it for us.

I get the sense your "intuition" tells you that you want a confrontation because you want your parents - through validating your narrative - to validate your feelings. But the thing is, they are not going to validate that narrative - it is subjective and they are not part of its experience. If you want acknowledgment for your feelings, you will need to approach them in a very different way.

Indeed, you may find that, by taking your sister's advice, the feelings of gratitude and love they evince at your increased role in their lives will give you the kind of validation you are looking for. And I'm sure they will show those feelings. Be sure to set up connections that are framed to produce the best result - i.e. don't stay with them 1-1 for a week if you think that won't go well. Do phone calls instead, or catch up for lunch, or whatever is most likely to go well for everyone.

There is tonnes of shit I could call my parents out on at this very moment. I don't because I've mostly let it go, and it wouldn't make them love me any more than they do now, or vice versa, and it would only upset them and me. I love for them flaws and all, and as a parent myself now, I can tell you there's no switch that suddenly makes you objective and wise and in control. You're still the same, just trying your best. Let them love you, and let yourself love them.

Maxwell Maltz said, "The past is gone; the future is unknown - but the present is real, and your opportunities are now." Take it to heart, I think you will be happier for it.
posted by smoke at 3:34 PM on January 9, 2013 [33 favorites]

I do not know what you seek to accomplish. There is nothing about which to "confront" your parents. Everyone knows that there was an affair, including your mother. Obviously, your parents decided to stay together and move past it, which I find admirable. Your older sister has moved past it. You're the only one who is agitating over something that happened over ten years ago.

Right now, it appears your whole family thinks you're a pain in the ass. According to your question, it sounds like they are right. (you acted out, were sullen, etc). If you blurt out to them, "the affair made me moody and fat", how do you expect them to react?

Here is how you detox and get closer to your parents: stop being toxic, let go of this grievance, and accept responsibility for the eating that you (and no one else) did. I am very sorry that you had to see your father's fallen nature at such a young age, but the affair is not your business and your mother decided to stay. Leave it in the past and be close with your parents again.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:42 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Having a confrontation with parents who do not favor emotionally open and honest communication is not going to get you much. You say you want to have the confrontation because you want to have a close relationship with your parents again. Well... I don't think that the one will lead to the other. Something something about necessary and sufficient clauses is vaguely coming to mind, but basically, just because you would not be able to have close relationship without the confrontation doesn't mean that you will be able to have a close relationship with it.

If that means that you choose to move away from a relationship with your parents altogether, then maybe that's what it means. Sometimes people choose to do that. I know that at twenty years old that can be hard to consider as an option. But weigh how much it would hurt you to suck it up and pretend everything's fine like your sister does against the rewards, if any, that you'd get from maintaining a relationship that way.

And FWIW, I am coming from a non–we-all-love-each-other-anyway family.
posted by thebazilist at 3:43 PM on January 9, 2013

I'm sorry this is messing with you- but confronting them isn't going to fix you. They can't fix you. you need to go to therapy all on your own to fix you.

you also might want to cut them a bit of a break- they clearly had some rough going and maybe they didn't know how to handle it. you are blaming them for your weight gain and your crappy relationship with them, but that's not really how it works any more, sweetheart. You are an adult and you know you have an eating issue. It's now your problem to fix. You also know you have a crap relationship with your parents. this is also at least half your doing. Look at yourself as an adult and figure out what you can do to improve your adult relationship with your parents rather than chase them looking for them to grovel for very very old mistakes.
posted by Blisterlips at 3:53 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing therapy, it's what has helped me a lot in a similar "unspoken things between me and my mum" situation.
I can also assure you with 90% certainty that confronting your parents is going to be less liberating than you think and probably quite frustrating. They will NOT react as you want them to; as someone said above, they're likely to get defensive and the distance between you will increase.

I've recently confronted my mum about something she still does NOW that upsets me (I've long given up on the idea of digging up the past - I've learnt that this is something I have to work through my end). Her reaction was disappointing, but I'd pretty much expected that so was ok with it - I'd said my piece and set my boundaries.
IF you can go into the confrontation/discussion with those expectations, you might get something out of it. But you sound like you expect some big resolution and I can almost guarantee you that isn't going to happen. Sorry!
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:02 PM on January 9, 2013

Firstly, parents hate being confronted with the fact they dropped the ball at some point.

This is huge. I am very close to my mother now (in my late 20s), but there are certain things she did and certain things she let happen as I was growing up that really fucked with my head. One thing that's helped me to become closer with her is to get her to admit to these -- but the key is to mention them jokingly and without any implication that I am currently still damaged.

For example: "Geez, Mom, I can't believe it took me until I was 24 to figure out that the way to get you to stop giving me the silent treatment* was for me to start crying!" "Yeah, haha, I guess you can be a little slow** sometimes..."

* Often for hours or days with the smallest provocation, because she was not comfortable expressing anger to anyone else in her life...
** She does not think I'm slow; that's just a difficult thing to respond to, you know? All I wanted from her was acknowledgment and she gave it.

posted by ecsh at 4:02 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm also here to chime in that you're probably not going to get the result you want. Say they did take responsibility (which they won't and shouldn't, since it was your actions), how would that change anything? Will your past magically be rosy in which everyone is close and you never gained weight or got angry? Will your present be rosy? Confrontation and blame won't do a thing to mend your relationships. Unless you're Gandhi, people just don't react kindly to confrontation.

Go work out your issues with therapy and soul searching. You can't do a thing about their actions and mistakes, but you can take responsibility for your own. Then learn some compassion. Learn to forgive yourself as well as others.
posted by Neekee at 4:08 PM on January 9, 2013

Oh sweetie. This sounds like a rough and painful place to be. Hugs to you.

Life as an adult is mostly about the actions we take, not the things that happen to us. Unfortunately, something happened to you as a kid that you couldn't take action for. A big scary thing, abandonment, followed by denial, was thrust at you without asking for it. It was too big a responsibility for a child of that age.

You know in your heart that you are the only one now who can soothe these feelings inside of you. But to do that, you have to name them, describe them, trace their influence on your life today. Helping you do this is the job of a therapist. A good therapist will listen, ask for clarification, validate your experience and then help you transform and soothe these rough and painful feelings into smaller, less influential memories of feelings.

Smoke insightfully said "I've mostly let it go and it wouldn't make them love me any more than they do now". Confronting your parents will do nothing to help your situation. Confronting them will damage you because you will get the opposite reaction to the one you want: resolution.

Working out and letting go of your pain with a therapist will help you get resolution. Only then will talking to your parents lovingly about them, yourself and your life will get you what you need from them.

Good luck. It could be painful when you come to the realisation that you are responsible for yourself, your thoughts and your feelings that you have as an adult. Accept that pain then let it go and enjoy the liberation. You will be free to finally be yourself.
posted by Kerasia at 4:11 PM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

For the record, I don't think it's enough to say it's your problem to work through and let go of, totally on your own.

You have to be prepared for the fact that your parents may disappoint you if you confront them. Also, after figuring it out in therapy you might decide not to confront them. You might come to the conclusion that confronting them wouldn't lead to anything good.

But right now, it's your belief that your parents let you down in a big way when you were seven and that this has negatively affected your relationship with them ever since. I think it is, in principle, worth confronting people over issues like this and trying to resolve them. Relationships with others should be an absolute priority in our lives. In individual cases we might decide that confronting people and working through stuff with them might do more harm than good. But this is something you really want to at least try to do. Also, the thing you want to talk about is (effectively) having been told to shut up. So telling you to keep it to yourself and work it out completely on your own, all over again, isn't really good enough at this stage.

tl;dr it's okay to go into therapy with the goal of figuring out whether, and how, to confront your parents about a perceived betrayal that you think damaged your relationship with them for years.
posted by tel3path at 4:41 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of people spend the years of about 19-24 wrestling a lot with the past behavior and choices of their parents. It's part of becoming an adult yourself, and there's often a big shock as you realize they are fallible people. It also comes from the "kicking and screaming" part of entering adulthood, where the burden of your own agency in your life is terrifying and you don't wanna. It's so much easier and safer for someone else to be responsible.

You have to deal with you. Confronting them in the way you want to is not only not going to fix anything (it can't), you'll spend the second half of your 20s facepalming about it.

There is no apology or explanation in the world that's going to fix you. You have to do that work by and for yourself. If you want a better relationship with your parents now, you'll have to try to forge it with them rather than be wounded about how they won't act like you want them to.

My advice, from my experience of therapy for similar purposes when I was 20: buy a notebook (or open a text file) and write it allllll out. The blames and the hurts and the entire narrative of your life so far from your point of view. Write hard, get it all out. Then engage in therapy, after you've done this exercise, so that you are beginning from a point of actual introspection and you can make the goal of your therapy to improve your skills in introspection and self-analysis. I didn't go in like that, I just went in with "THE WORLD MAKES ME FEEL BAD" and I think I wasted a lot of early flailing on trying to articulate what that meant.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:45 PM on January 9, 2013

Ok, i'm going to go out on a limb here, but jeez people, these are her parents she's talking about, not just a friend who she is thinking about confronting hurting her feelings a long time ago. Anon, these are your parents, you are their daughter. This situation severely impacted you for years.

Idea #1 - Do you think you could approach them (or each one, separately)as an adult that you are simply curious and would like to understand what happened because it IS something that you are working through? And kindly, gently, non-accusing kind of way, explain that it is something that you haven't been able to get out of your mind for years. And if they could help you get it sorted out.

I mean, not necessarily probe for specifics about an affair, but any clarification would help, wouldn't it? You are a part of that family, too, and if there was something that went on that deeply impacted you, I honestly can't believe that your parents wouldn't/couldn't be at least a LITTLE bit helpful in that You're given this "rumor" that clearly traumatized you; then you're expected to just "live with it" and keep it shut. And if they choose to get offended or defensive, maybe then you may need to realize you need to go ahead and get to a therapist and then start tackling it without any help from them (like you are being advised to do in the first place). And I personally think that your sister is being mean and minimizing the impact that she made on you - even after you've talked to her about it.

But yes, I do agree with everyone that ulitmately you are responsible for what you do afterwards, regardless of the outcome if you decide to talk with your parents about this, as well as work on forgiveness, especially if you are met with defensiveness. You're going to need professional help with this ( should seek professional help for this) even if you DO get anywhere near a result that you are hoping for.

Idea #2 - Or, maybe put all this out to a therapist first, talk about how you may discuss and talk about expectations, etc. - then bring it up to them if you then so decide to do it. That actually may make you more prepared if you bring it up to your parents. I just don't think that bringing it up to your parents should be completely off the table. It may be a matter of preparing yourself for any possible outcome or reaction from them.

I've been there, too. Best to you.

(also second what tel3path said)
posted by foxhat10 at 5:22 PM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

When you were 7, you found out your Dad was human. That's really all that happened, if you look back. Your sister (not your parents) disillusioned you when you were still a child, and it sucks. Eventually, though, all kids have to learn that their parents are not perfect. You just found out when you were too young to deal with it.

It's interesting that you blame your Dad more than your sister. Your Mom apparently knew your Dad was having an affair, and accepted it, as did your sister. I think you feel your Dad was letting you down, essentially cheating on you, because the two of your were so close and you didn't know about the affair.

Realistically, though, would it have helped if you had found out from your Dad, instead? You were seven years old. You're an adult now. Can you imagine sitting down with a second-grader and saying, "Yeah, I'm having sex with someone other than your parent"? Of course not!

What you would like, your Dad not to have even had an affair, is not an option here. It happened, it's done. Maybe you feel like he should have divorced your Mom. Does your Mom feel that way? Seems like the two of them decided to stay together, so she must not.

Your sister telling you--why did she do that? Maybe because she needed to share with someone, rather then keeping up the culture of silence. As an adult, can you understand that and accept it? You seem to get along with her and forgive her for her part in all this...but not your parents?

Again, they were human. They made mistakes, for sure. They handled their mistakes badly, for sure. But they didn't do any of that on purpose, just to hurt you.

You can be mad at your Mom for not letting you talk about the affair and get it all out in the open. You can be mad at your Dad for having the affair. You can be mad at your sister for spilling the beans. But all that gets you is mad. They are going on with their lives, dealing with what happened.

Which is what you need to do. I know that sounds tough, and like I don't empathize. But I think you've been so centered on what happened to you, what this did to you, how you felt, that you've actually been less than empathetic to everyone else in your family.

This was not all about you. It had to be hard on them, too. Yes, all of them, even your Dad. No one goes into a marriage hoping it will fail, believe me, and no one feels good when it does. He loved you, and he let you down, and he must have known that, too, when you started ignoring him. As a parent, I know I would feel awful if I, however inadvertently, did something that hurt my kids in any way, no matter how small. And your Mom, telling you not to talk about the affair? That might have been the way she dealt with it herself, her own self defense mechanism. Is that really so terrible?

A therapist can help you work through your depression and take control of those emotions, fill that hole you used to stuff through eating. You can certainly still confront your parents, if you really think it will help.

But if you want any kind of relationship with them, dealing with them as an adult confronting other adults, rather than the hurt 7 year-old you no longer are will, I suspect, be far more empowering for you.
posted by misha at 5:25 PM on January 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

My experience has been that talking to my parents about how they let me down didn't help anywhere near as much as I thought it would. While your experience certainly could vary, I really think that a better way to approach your parents is to tell them that you love them and that you'd like to have a closer relationship with them, and ask what can you do to facilitate that. And tell them what they can do on their side (beyond excavating that affair and dissecting it with you, because even if they were willing to talk to you about it, I think it'd be more fruitful, if such a discussion came about in a non-confrontational way), and go from there. This might be where a therapist's guidance could be helpful.

True closure comes from within. No one can give it to you. It's a gift you give to yourself.
posted by sm1tten at 5:35 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

People seem to be assuming something that is not at all clear to me:

Did your father have an affair?

In fact, it goes beyond that; what you wrote is, to me, compatible with the possibility that you (now) know he didn't have an affair. Or that you (now) know he did. Or that you're simply assuming he did, based on what your sister said. Or that you (now) don't think he did, but you don't know one way or the other. Or many other possibilities.

Strictly speaking, all I can see from what you wrote is that a little girl was told by another (presumably) little girl that this was so. To me, that's not rock solid proof.

Of course, there's also that your mother said not to tell anyone that he did, but to me, at least, that doesn't imply that he actually did, or even that your mother knew or believed that he did. If you brought it up, it would be understandable for her to direct you to never say that to anyone even if she somehow magically knew for a fact that he was totally 100% faithful.

Maybe you could write into the mods to add some more details to clarify?
posted by Flunkie at 5:44 PM on January 9, 2013

Maybe do some reading on codependency. You might think it doesn't pertain but you might be surprised.
posted by notned at 6:28 PM on January 9, 2013

Is the problem really that your dad had an affair, or is it that traumatizing information was dumped on you at a young age and then you were forced to carry the trauma/confusion/pain alone and in forced secrecy for X number of years? Basically, were you silenced when you reached out for help?

For me, the issue wouldn't have just been the affair, but that your family refused to communicate with you about the pain and confusion that had been dumped on you. Worse, you weren’t allowed to talk to anyone else about it and therefore weren't taught any coping strategies, so you handled it in unhealthy ways.

Being forced to silently suffer while putting on a "happy face" solely for your parent's benefit is a horrible fate. I know, I was there for twenty years. I also know how it can really make you yearn to finally let out everything that you have had to choke down and hold for so very long.

If this resonates with you, then here is my advice: don't approach them from the angle of the affair. Approach them from the angle of the silencing, because really, their decision to suppress your cries for help instead of acknowledging and helping you work through your pain/confusion is the real issue.

The problem with the whole "don't ever speak about your father's affair" order is that they effectively said: "Our façade is more important than your pain and suffering." THIS is what you need to discuss with them, or better yet a therapist, because I would be willing to bet that this isn't the last time that you had to silently bury your pain to service them.
posted by Shouraku at 6:56 PM on January 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

But I know intuitively that I need to confront them.

What is the sentence you expect them to respond with which will make this all better?
posted by pompomtom at 7:36 PM on January 9, 2013

Huh. You know what? I think you should talk to your parents about this event in your life. However, I completely do agree with others that you are not likely to get the resolution and healing you want from "confronting" them, and that therapy would be really helpful for you to work through your feelings about the event, your response to it, and your relationships with your mother, sister, and father.

But ... I don't know. I mean, you were 7 when all of this went down, not 17. I suspect at the time your mother had no idea that this could or would become a major turning point of your childhood. If your Dad was having an affair at the time, she probably thought that you were young enough that if she told you not to talk about it you would just forget about it. Either way, I don't think any mother wants to discuss affairs and their ramifications with a kid. You don't say how old your sister was - I assume she is older than you, old enough at the time to know what an affair is, but not old enough to realize that it could potentially freak out a little kid. (Because at age 7, it's not really about disappointment that Mom or Dad are human, but more not understanding the scale of potential damage -- are they going to split up, will I ever see Dad again, do we have to leave our house and our dog? etc) Or maybe she did know, and told you on purpose to scare you? It sounds like it was scary for you. So this is why I think you should talk to your parents about it -- not necessarily to probe for details about what the heck happened, but to clear some of these cobwebs. Maybe they just don't know how much this episode in your family's history threw you for a loop. If I were your parent, I would want to know that you were still carrying this psychic burden. I think if you bring it up as "I was 7, I had no way to process that information or any way of knowing that it was a private matter between Mom and Dad, etc" they will be more receptive to discussing it. (On preview, what Shouraku said above.)

At the same time, you still have to recognize that your folks are human and imperfect. Even if this episode hadn't happened, you might still be the person who, at age 20, doesn't feel close to her parents. (Right after the teen years is not often a high point for child-parent relations.) This is why therapy is helpful, to help you unpack all these things, make sense of them, and move on with your life so that you can have the kind of relationships you want. And to not have everything in your life flow from one ugly episode.
posted by stowaway at 7:37 PM on January 9, 2013

I basically stopped talking to him and acted out and gained weight and cried a lot and acted really aggressive for a long time. . . . blame the episode for my weight gain (I started emotional eating then)

Might I gently suggest that (to a large extent and as a useful and productive way of thinking about what happened*) this episode revealed the tendencies you have for dealing with stressful situations, rather causing those reactions per se?

If those reactions--acting out, crying, silent treatment, aggression, emtional eating, etc.--hadn't been triggered by this, they most likely would have been triggered by some other similarly stressful situation--the illness or death of a family member, a breakup with a friend, difficulties at school, bullying, general teenage angst and emotions, or something else.

Stressful situations happen in life and we deal with them in a variety of ways--some healthy and some not so healthy. Some of your unhealthy ways I have, too, so believe me, I sympathize. But your next stage in life might be figuring out some of the unhealthy ways you deal with stressful situations and how you can, gradually and over the course of years, replace some of those habits with healthier ones.

You may or may not get some closure or answers about this particular episode, but I'll bet that the next time you have a breakup or some stressful event in your life you'll find yourself repeating the same behaviors because those are the ones in your toolkit that you are comfortable using to deal with difficult emotions and stress.

*I say it is a "useful and productive way of thinking about what happened" because it puts the emphasis on what you can change and control--your reaction to the stressful situation--rather than what you can't change or control. That is a useful and empowering way of looking at things.
posted by flug at 8:11 PM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your parents put you in a really difficult situation and it's festered for a long time. Therapy is really helpful.

A therapist can help you get some perspective. Your Mom shouldn't have given you the responsibility to keep the secret, and should have talked to you about your feelings. Your Dad should not have had an affair, and should have paid enough attention to know it was a big problem for you. But adults aren't perfect, and you may find that your Mom was feeling too much pain, your Dad was ... something.

The outcome you want is for your parents to understand your hurt, and acknowledge that they screwed up. Then what? Another possible outcome is for you to tell your parents that your Dad's affair, and the silence about it, was really hard for you, and you've had a difficult time dealing with it, and asking them how they felt, and maybe asking them to come to a therapist with you to help you resolve this issue. Maybe your longer-term goal can be to form a healthy relationship with your parents. So, instead of confronting them, you can disclose a serious problem, and ask them to help you resolve it.
posted by theora55 at 8:29 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

You're doing it backwards. You say you want to confront them about how they hurt you and then you will all grow closer. I can almost guarantee it won't work that way.

If your goal is to have a better relationship with your parents and sister, then you need to put the hurt and confrontation aside for the time being and focus on re-building trust and affection between you. It will be hard work! It might take a year or more! But then, when you feel loved and trusted by them, when you feel close to your father again, only then should you consider bringing up this hurtful series of events. You may find that you don't want or need to confront them anymore, once you feel close to the family. Or, you may still feel like you have to have the conversation, but instead of having a conversation between people who don't seem to like each other very much, it's one where the people involved love each other and want to be supportive.

Basically, you need to think about what you really want. Do you want a close relationship with your parents like your sister has? Or do you want to punish them for hurting you all those years ago? If it's the former, then work on the relationship. If it's the latter, then just know that confronting parents with all they did wrong is rarely satisfying.

I'm in my forties now, and have been doing some hardcore therapy over the past few years that has raised some issues from my childhood that I, too, was convinced I absolutely had to confront them about. I used ecsh's approach above and made casual mention to my father about what is honestly one of the most traumatic events of my childhood, and he laughed. To him, it was just a funny story from when I was small that he had completely forgotten about. TOTALLY UNSATISFYING but it also made me realize, meh, the past is the past, learn from their mistakes, try not to traumatize my own kid too much, and move on.
posted by looli at 8:35 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

If your parents punished you for being justly angry about your dad's affair, that was shitty parenting and I am so sorry you experienced that. It fucking sucks that sometimes the person with an honest reaction to a family conflict is scapegoated by the people who are playing "let's pretend everything's okay, it's a shame for the neighbors" and so on.

But your healing that wound has to come from inside you. And only when you really understand it and have really learned to sit with it will you be able to talk about it with them. Because I will bet the farm your parents will disappoint you again with their response, particularly their first response.

So therapy first, confrontation later.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:53 PM on January 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm not in any way trying to justify the events that planted this seed or say that they did not hurt you. They did and being hurt is awful. I empathize.

Still: the person you have to settle with is your 7 year old self. And your 9 year old self. And your 14 year old self. And every self that has nurtured the growth of this elaborate crystal of resentment, blame, fear and shame you carry now, seeded so long ago.

There's nothing your current family members can do to relieve you of it; if you demand they take responsibility for it, they are likely to respond with something between misunderstanding and denial.
posted by ead at 8:57 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Please know that while I don't completely understand, I empathize. I'm one of four kids in my family and I was the third daughter. My brother was the fourth and last kid my parents had. My next older sister and I are 15 months apart, so I always felt like I was ... not a mistake but definitely a surprise.

When I was a little girl, some time after my brother was born, for some reason, my mother told me that my dad had wanted me to be a boy. For some reason, this was a devastating thing for me to hear. I hadn't ever really felt wanted and then I felt like, not only was I not wanted, but my family wanted my brother instead of me. I felt jealous and resentful of my brother because I wanted to be wanted but I wasn't and he was.

But ... I got over it. It took a while and it flares up once in a while but I realized that my mom didn't mean it, at least as seriously as I took it. I'm crazy about my brother. I feel like the baggage from this just contributes to who I am as a person. I feel a lot of empathy towards dogs at the animal rescue, for example, because I feel for those who seem unwanted.

Your parents weren't perfect. No one's parents are perfect. I think it's more important and useful to focus on the things they did right. You can confront them or you can focus on making yourself healthier independent of them. You can think about what's behind you or work on moving forward in your life. Your call.
posted by kat518 at 9:18 PM on January 9, 2013

Once when I was 17 and I had something really painful to tell my dad, I wrote a letter to him about it and then I read it to him. It worked out well for us. I was able to tell him how I felt about things that were emotionally painful for both of us and I think he finally understood how I felt.

It might work for you too, but if you go that route try sticking to how you feel about things rather than accusing any particular family member of wrongdoing. I think people are more open when you say things like "it hurt me when you did x" rather than saying "you were selfish" even if the reason they hurt you was because they were being selfish.
posted by bananafish at 2:22 AM on January 10, 2013

1. Accept that your parents are human. People, even those who are your parents, do dumb things. They don't have a crystal ball. They don't have a magic wand. They're just people who are a bit older than you who have infinitely more stress in their lives. That's about it. They don't know what they're doing any more than you do, really. And sometimes they behave in ways we don't agree with.

2. Your pain is probably more due to the loss of the close relationship with your father for the last 16 years than the affair itself and the subsequent jealousy about your sister being closer now even though, you feel you are the one who was more morally right in your actions (you shamed him, she accepted his affair) and thus you feel more deserving of love and bitter that this was not the forthcoming response. Therefore:

3. Therapy.

It is very common for people to get stuck at an age where something traumatic happens to them. Yours happened at 7. Now, you can spend your whole life being a version of 7, and many people choose to stay stuck, or you can choose to move beyond it. Even though you feel that a confrontation is in order, life is not a movie. What life is, or at least should be about, is establishing your own internal code of conduct (you make the decision to not have an affair in your life) and you establish boundaries. Part of these boundaries could include: 'i will not allow the actions of others to make me feel like a rotten peach in every other arena of my life'.
posted by heyjude at 4:14 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


But what you went through as a 7 year old was traumatic, and you are mourning the loss of closeness to your family that you had until you were 6. That's completely valid. They didn't handle it well at the time, and even the nicest parents can be bad ones. Even now they could be, as great parents might, try and reach out but it appears they're not. And there's regret in you, because if you had help in processing what happened, you might still have that closeness.

The difference here is that you are now grown up. But the 7 year old in you is ruling your emotions, not the adult. And this is because the 7 year old hasn't been given the chance to grieve or process what's happened. Your parents didn't help you with that. Your desire for a confrontation is perhaps to force them into helping you with that. But as everyone is saying, some more kindly than others, you're unlikely to get the cathartic, healing result you need.

But there is another adult who can help, and that's you. You're in a position now to validate the hurt that 7 year old child went through. Separate yourself from the 7 year old, and with therapy you can listen to the pain she went through. She will be heard, because all the acting out was a message that she wanted to be heard. You're still acting out because you want to be heard, but it's the 7 year old that is controlling you emotionally now.

There's a lot of pain that will be too awkwardly expressed in a confrontation with your parents, that they probably won't react well to. But you are in control of what you do, and once you work it out (with therapy) you'll be in a better position to deal with the other problem which is regaining the closeness you once had with them.

Good luck. Listen to that 7 year old but don't let her rule your emotions.
posted by mooza at 5:39 AM on January 10, 2013

Everybody's parents fucked up in a big way. EVERYBODY'S. My Dad is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest therapists who's ever walked the earth. He's amazing. My Mom, she's always been a bit of a hormonal mess, quick to anger and a bit of a narcisist. It was an interesting combination growing up, and there were quite a few traumatic incidents and issues that affected my adult relationship with my parents.

At some point you have to decide, no matter what, what relationship do I want to have with my family? Then you have to try and have it.

One time I was bitching about something and my Dad said, "Yeah? So? We screwed up. When are you going to get over it?" I realized, he was right. It didn't help me to stay angry about something that had happened a decade earlier, there wasn't anything that would make me feel better about it, and he had made his amends already, what more could be done?

I decided to forgive my parents. They were human, they had their own shit to deal with, and although they were both very smart and had access to lots more resources than most people, they got it wrong sometimes.

Now, I have my boundaries, and I'm good with enforcing them. There's still a bit of crazy there and I don't really want to be all that involved, but I speak with my folks every week, we see each other a few times a year, and we all love each other.

I'm in agreement with your sister. You don't have to confront anyone or make a scene. Just make overtures. Start by calling and talking with your folks regularly. If they're close by, invite them out to dinner. If they live a distance away, go visit for a short time. Eventually, you can nurture a relationship that you're comfortable with.

nth get a therapist. This person can help you take what is essentially just one small part of your 18 year childhood, and put it in perspective. You can understand why you were so angry as a child, you can come to terms with how your parents reacted to your actions and how you feel that you didn't get the love and attention you needed at a critical time. This is about you.

Forgiveness isn't for the people who hurt us, it's for ourselves.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:32 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

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