Q: My dad left my mom for another woman fifteen years ago. After a protracted nasty divorce, they have evolved into politely ignoring each other. My brother and I have frequently been asked to choose my mom over my father (clearly, boundaries aren’t her thing) in most matters. My independent relationships with both parents have been functional: I ignore my dad’s past bad behavior toward my mother, and my mom and I grew some polite emotional fences.
Four years ago, my dad married the other woman. I knew about it, and I never said anything to my mother (or brother). I told myself that my brother had been told or realized at some point (they wear wedding rings), but I never asked him to confirm. I actively decided not to share the news; I was afraid of the emotional fallout should my mom find out.
Fast-forward to the present: I asked my dad to tell my mom about his marriage before my wedding, so she wouldn’t find out the day of when he and his wife arrived sporting wedding bands. My mother has hit the roof. She says I have caused a huge rift and betrayed my brother. And surprise, she’s decided she can’t attend my wedding.
I feel terrible, but don’t know why. Is it because I’m in the wrong, or because I’ve been really effectively emotionally conditioned? Did I wreck my family and betray my brother? If so, how do I come to grips with what I did? — Anna
A: Dear Anna,
Let’s take a second, step back, and look at the situation. How many adults do you count involved? Because from where I’m standing, I see five: you, your brother, your mom, your dad, and your stepmother. In other words, that’s five grown-ass people who should be able to handle it without falling apart. And from what I can tell, four of you are… but your mom has a lot of work to do.
I don’t think this is about your brother—not even a little bit. If your dad and stepmom are both wearing wedding rings and he’s been around them, it’s safe to assume that he knows. I mean, it probably came up at least once or twice, right? “Oh hey son, how are you? We got married!” and so on. Also, hey. They’ve been together for fifteen years, so I think it goes without saying that you and your brother aren’t entirely surprised by this turn of events.
I think this is a hundred percent about your mom: her anger, sense of betrayal, and embarrassment. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have your husband (and the father of your children, no less) leave you for someone else, period. I don’t know how it feels to then have him STAY with the “other woman” for over a decade, because that’s got to eat at her. I’m sure it has been no picnic explaining what happened, over and over, to friends and family. I imagine that it would kind of suck to know that it’s all going on still, and that they’re as happy as can be.
But you know what? It’s been fifteen years, and no one grows from clinging to the past. I don’t know the specifics of what did or did not go down between your parents, but I do know that there’s no way it’s healthy for your mom to continue to harbor this much bitterness about the situation. Now she’s opting out of your wedding entirely? Does she also plan to opt out of future holidays and events? What happens if you and your partner have kids and the kids talk to her about their other grandparents? Do they get shut down? In other words, is it ever truly possible, or even realistic, to fully erase an extra partner from your life if kids are involved? Probably not.
If I were you, I wouldn’t make this conversation about your brother, and I wouldn’t cede any power by letting her do so. In no place did you state that your brother has been emotionally devastated or is dealing with any kind of fallout, so I’m assuming he wasn’t nearly as surprised or pissed off about their marriage as your mom was. Instead, I’d frame the conversation around your mom: What is she feeling, and why is she feeling it? And more importantly: Is their marriage really so terrible for her that she’ll miss this singular event in her own child’s life? After all, it’s not like your wedding will happen again.
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