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Q. I am writing to ask for help for my parents, who are having major marital problems and are acting in strange. Last year, I found out that my mother is having an affair. My father found out, but he will not leave her and she will not leave him. Mother says that she believes her marriage is damaged beyond repair and that's why she had the affair. But I don't believe that -- in many ways, they get along. What can I do? We can't keep on living like this!
New York City-based therapist Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., author of Make Up, Don't Break Up: Finding and Keeping Love for Single and Couples (Adams Publishing), answers:
A. You are in a very difficult position. It is hard for an adult, let alone a child, to deal with other people's relationship problems. A child should never be in the position of mediating between parents' arguments; spying on one parent for the benefit of another; or playing the role of confidante, especially when adultery is the issue.
You must get yourself out of the middle of this unhealthy situation. Tell your parents that you love them both but that you all need to be in counseling. I suggest that you attend sessions with your parents, and that they also seek couples counseling. Ask your father to take a stand. By not doing so, he is condoning the affair -- and in my experience, jeopardizing the marriage. Couples have a greater chance of staying together when one partner can clearly and honestly say, "This is unacceptable. We must get help."
Believe it or not, the way your mother is acting is not strange. Only a very small number -- perhaps 5 percent -- of people who have an affair actually leave their marriage. Clearly, your mother's infidelity is a cry for help. My gut feeling is that on some level, your parents still love each other and feel strong ties to the marriage, but they have either been afraid or unable to tackle the very serious issues that divide them. The best thing you can do for them, and yourself, is to urge them to seek professional help now. If your parents still refuse, elicit the help of your clergyman or school psychologist who can refer you to a therapist in your area.