Dear Verity and Nic,
We have discovered our daughter has been having an affair which is now breaking up her 15-year marriage. There are three young children involved and we are very fond of her husband. This has left us feeling torn and angry. Should we get involved to try and help them sort it out? Or should we leave them to their own devices? Wendy.
We are delighted you have asked this question. In our practice, we see many couples dealing with the impact of an affair on their marriage. We hear from them that the reactions of family and friends frequently adds to the confusion and distress they are already going through. So we think it is very wise you approach this delicate and critical situation with care.
The best course of action for you depends on the nature of your connection with your daughter and spouse. If you don't have a relationship of trust, respect and open communication, your involvement at this point is unlikely to be welcome other than to provide tonnes of practical support and no judgements. Ask them what they need. It may be that the best support you can hope to provide would be to urge them to seek professional guidance from a couples counsellor experienced in the area of affairs, along with an offer to babysit or financially assist with the fees.
If you have a good connection with your daughter and son-in-law, then you may be able to provide some more active assistance and emotional support. Encourage your daughter to look deep within herself to understand what led her into such an emotionally and ethically compromised situation. Discourage your son-in-law from self-righteousness, and guide him towards trying to understand, learn and grow from this crisis. With both of them, encourage a measured approach to the meaning and implications of these events. There is too much at stake for hasty, reactive responses.
However, before you do anything, it is critical you examine and work out how to manage your reactions. You are no good to your loved ones if you come at them full of your own agendas and underlying feelings. Amid their crisis, your reactions and emotions will not be helpful to them. Your daughter and son in law are doubtless in a lot of pain and need all their energy to steady themselves so they can think straight and act wisely at this critical juncture in their marriage.
The wording of your question to us raises a few possible red flags about your reactions. For example, you assume it is the affair breaking up their marriage. Infidelity does not have to break up a marriage. It is how people respond to and process affairs that, in large part, determine whether a marriage breaks up or not.
Sometimes affairs are the making of the marriage – waking up one or both people to neglect or avoidance of important issues and aspects of themselves or the relationship. We are not in any way recommending affairs as the best way to stimulate growth and development. It is just a fact that people are imperfect, and so sometimes a crisis like an infidelity is the way growth has to happen.
While no one but your daughter is responsible for breaking their fidelity agreement and lying to hide an affair, there may be years of neglect, pain or misunderstanding that paved the way for the infidelity. For example, imagine a woman who was ignored for years when she complained of being taken for granted and playing second fiddle to her partner's work or hobbies. She may suddenly get very focused attention from her partner when he discovers she's having another relationship where she feels special and the centre of attention. Again, that doesn't justify the infidelity, but the crisis may allow the couple to address the broader issues in the relationship.
It's unlikely you know what it's like being married to your son in law. His relational limitations and unhelpful patterns of behaviour may not impact you. Appeasement, avoidance, denial and withdrawal might make someone a charming son in law but be very destructive to an intimate relationship.
Whatever level of involvement you have with their situation, assume you don't fully know or understand what has been happening and all the contributing factors to this current crisis. Particularly with your daughter, it may be vital for her to know you are not simplistically judging or blaming her. She is likely to have enough of her own, and you adding to that will undermine her ability to make good decisions at this crucial time.
You mention feeling angry. Frequently there is pain underlying anger. Do you think your daughter's choices reflect on you? Are you feeling the pain of shame? Your misplaced sense of responsibility may make it hard to avoid judgement and even harder to supply the compassionate acceptance your daughter is likely to be needing.
Watch for biases from your own life experiences, particularly if there are distressing experiences of infidelity or relationship break-up either in your own life or with family or friends. It would be very understandable, but not helpful, for those experiences to colour your response to what's happening in your daughter's marriage.
You seem to be leaning toward the idea that this marriage should not break up but instead, things need to be sorted out to keep the family together for the three children. This may or may not be the case. It depends on a lot of important information you likely do not have.
Try and settle your fears for your grandchildren. While it's true separation does have negative consequences for children, the research is clear that if a separated couple behave civilly and co-parent with a focus on the kids' best interest, those long-term consequences can be relatively minor.
So we encourage you to have the humility to accept the possibility that separation may be the best outcome and don't impose your hopes of them staying together on their process. If you care for your grandchildren, make sure you do your best to reduce, not inflame, the kind of blame, denial and judgement that leads to hostile separation.
To sum up, while we encourage you to offer as much support as practical, we advise that you don't add your feelings and reactions to the situations, don't judge, don't take sides and don't push for the outcome you want out of anxiety.
Do urge them to seek expert counselling input as there are significant forces afoot, so thinking straight and making wise calls can be very challenging. The best you can do is to support but not add to the stress and challenge of this situation. The times we have seen family be of most help is when they offer a non-judgemental, steadying presence in this time of crisis.
• Verity & Nic are psychologists and family therapists who have specialised in relationship and sex therapy for more than 25 years. They have been working on their own relationship for more than 40 years and have two adult children.