Adapted from a recent online discussion.
HELLO, CAROLYN: I’m wondering the best way to confront my father about his behavior in respect to women. I’m the 25-year-old eldest of my father’s five children. My sister and I were conceived with my mother, who left him some 20 years ago. His actions precipitated it. He remarried and had a son, now 13, who I love and know well.
In 2015, my father revealed he had a 4-year-old child with a mistress. This was obviously devastating to my stepmother, but she was extremely mature and allowed the child (but not the mistress) to visit and spend time with his sibling. A year later, my father reveals he has a 1-year-old WITH THE SAME MISTRESS, meaning he knew about the second when he revealed the first. This was too much, and now my father and stepmother are careening toward divorce. My stepmother is an intelligent and successful woman who deserves better.
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My worry is that he will simply find another woman and do the same things again. I feel compelled to try and prevent this. How do I help him change?
DEAR ELDEST: Prevention and “help [ing] him change” are different things.
You can help prevent a repeat, if you so choose, by being honest when you meet women he dates. It wouldn’t be a boundary violation to inquire, in friendly get-to-know-you conversation, whether she has met all five of his kids and their three mothers.
Your impulse to “help him change,” though, sets off boundary alarms. Has he said he wants to change? Asked for your help?
You have standing, always, to say how you feel. You can tell your dad you’re embarrassed/disappointed/ [your word here] by his actions. You can tell your stepmother she has your support, and make the effort to be present for your other siblings.
You can also distance yourself from your father based on his lousy behavior.
Again — there are productive, healthy options here. Jumping in to try to fix your father isn’t one of them.
CAROLYN: I know he wants to change because he told me so directly. He went to marriage counseling, but only in an attempt to win back my stepmother, which didn’t work so he stopped immediately. When he originally revealed his infidelities he offered rationalizations that his marriage had been rocky.
Neither of us has a particular liking to therapy/counseling as a solution. What can I do to help him realize the goal of changing?
DEAR ELDEST: Do not make him your project. He is his own project, full stop.
One way you can help appropriately is to call B.S. on his excuses; if he really wants to change, then he needs to own his frailties in full. That means counseling to fix himself versus salvage his status quo. That means saying he cheated because he lacked the courage and maturity to face his failing marriage, and used the estrangement as permission for self-indulgence.
How you feel about therapy is irrelevant. You are you, he is he. If you don’t see the clear border there, then, um, please rethink the aversion to therapy? Furthermore — if a skilled pro can help your father recognize that he is making a child’s decisions with a man’s body, then please don’t stand in the way.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.