What do you do when someone you love in turn is in love with a married man? When someone you love is making the biggest mistake of her life?
Every Monday I like to post a reader question and take a stab at answering it. Unfortunately, this question isn’t as rare as you would hope. This week I want to talk to the single women who read this blog about how to move towards marriage, and I thought I’d start with this question, because it’s a serious one that does need to be answered.
A dad writes,
I am soliciting advice and perspective for a 20 year old daughter in love with a married father of 2. Both were preparing for ministry. The continuum of recommended responses is overwhelming. Hard to have fellowship without forgiveness. Impossible to have forgiveness without repentance. Very little recognition of the pain being caused to everyone involved. Her first love now involves the emotion and bonding that happens through sex. Logic and reason have left the building. Would be interested in your perspective. Mountains of dysfunction becoming known about his current marriage.
Isn’t that sad?
First, before I give any advice, let me just say that I felt sick for this man and his wife in reading this email. I can just imagine the heartache they’re going through. They didn’t raise a daughter to make these kinds of decisions. The future they pictured for her looked nothing like this. It’s as if all their dreams for her are dying.
And on top of that, they’re worried about her because this guy does not sound like a good guy at all (what kind of married man would have an affair with a 20-year-old anyway? And like the writer says, his marriage has lots of dsyfunction).
I’m going to just say a few words of what I think, but then I’m going to turn this over to my daughter Rebecca, who is 22, and who can maybe shed some light on what sorts of parental actions could best get through to this lost woman.
Let your actions be guided by what is happening NOW, not by what you’re scared may happen in the future
It doesn’t sound like this couple is married right now, though it does sound like the story is out and this man’s wife knows about the affair.
Okay, so what we have is a girl who is in love with a man and sleeping with a man–but right now, that’s all. They may have plans to marry, but they are not married yet.
I think sometimes in our fear we let our minds race into the future, and that makes us panic even more. If she gets married, do you have to honour the marriage, especially since it’s illegitimate (since he was married already and had an affair?). Do you have to disown your daughter? Will he now be at Christmas meals, or do you not invite them? Do you go to the wedding?
I know if it were me those are the thoughts I’d be having.
And I guess I’d just say–stop. I know it’s a different situation, but when my son was sick, all I could think of were all the possible scenarios that could happen, and how I would deal with each one. And in the end, only one scenario ended up happening. But I robbed myself of a lot of the time I could have had enjoying him because I was so worried about the future.
Let your actions be determined by what is happening now.
How you treat her and this guy if she ever marries him you can deal with later (and God will give you the strength and the wisdom at THAT time to deal with it).
Today, what do you do?
Let yourself grieve. Find someone important and wise to talk to for counsel, but don’t talk to everyone about it. Make it clear to her, as calmly as you can, that you love her and that you believe that she will make the right choice, because God is with her and she knows God’s voice. Remind her of that fact. And make it clear to him, when you have the chance to talk to him, that you are angry with him for using your daughter this way, and that he needs to man up.
But now I’m going to let Rebecca chime in on what could help a 20-year-old girl come to her senses:
Rebecca here. And honestly, reading this letter I’m not really sure where to start, either.
But I’m going to be focusing here on how parents can talk to their adult children about the mistakes they’re making and be heard. By putting myself in the daughter’s shoes, here are some suggestions:
1. Focus on your emotions, not your judgments
Often when we see people we love making bad decisions our first instinct is to try and save them. We try to change their behaviour, make them do the things we want them to do and stop doing the things we know are dysfunctional or sinful.
But the problem with that is that you can not change how someone else acts. And any attempts at such will simply feel controlling and like you’re telling her, “you are a disappointment to me–you need to prove yourself because you’ve messed up, big time.” The girl in the letter is already going to be on the defensive–she knows that no one agrees with her decisions, she feels deeply in love, and she likely feels misunderstood by everyone except her married boyfriend. Telling her how horrible she is acting or how disappointed you are in her is going to help nothing. She’s an adult. She’ll simply cut you out of her life. And she’s allowed to do that.
Instead, when you must talk about it, make the conversation about you. Starting sentences with “I feel…” or “I’m scared that…” makes it much less confrontational than saying “You are wrong because…”
That doesn’t mean that it is always wrong to tell people when they are doing something sinful. But we’re talking about someone who is in denial. And when you’re in denial, usually yelling doesn’t have that great of an effect.
2. Don’t make it about the sex
They’ve had sex. You can’t change that. And hammering it into her head about how bad it was she had sex isn’t going to do anything except make her feel ashamed and want to withdraw from you more. You don’t want that. Instead, focus on the emotional ramifications for your daughter, talk about how you’ve been seeing her hurting because of this, and literally any other aspect of the relationship other than the fact that they’ve slept together. You don’t want to make your daughter feel she needs to defend herself–and focusing on past actions is not usually helpful in these situations if it makes the person become defensive.
3. Try to understand your daughter’s fear and hurt
Most people, when they engage in something they know is wrong, aren’t doing it with malicious intent. Usually it stems from an inner brokenness–maybe a desperate fear of being alone, or maybe shame and inner turmoil about the fact that she started the relationship in the first place. Maybe she feels trapped, and that if she backs down now, after it’s gone on for so long and so far, everything will come crashing down around her. And that may be really scaring her.
Instead of flying into a fearful rage, really sit down and try to understand where your daughter is coming from. Maybe that means giving her the opportunity to explain where you promise not to say a single word, even after the conversation is over. Maybe ask her to write a letter, if you don’t think you could stay quiet while she was telling you her side of the equation. It doesn’t mean that you need to agree with her choices–but being heard is one of the most healing experiences. And it can give a person enough courage to stop harmful behaviours.
4. Talk about what she wants from life in a realistic sense
Psychology has a term called “cognitive dissonance” that I think needs to be understood better in these kinds of situations. What it means is that we, as humans, have two main functions that tell us what kind of people we are: our thoughts and our actions. If I think, “I’m against listening to raunchy music,” but then listen to a really sexual song that we know isn’t healthy, we start to feel uncomfortable. Our actions aren’t matching our thoughts–we have a mini identity crisis.
The way we fix that is by altering either our thoughts or our actions. And thoughts are a lot easier to change than habits. So we might say, “Well, I know it’s really raunchy, but it’s OK if I listen to it because I’m married so I’ll just think about my husband,” so that we feel less guilty about what we’re doing, even if we know it’s wrong and the sex in the song is very degrading to women.
That’s one of the first things that sprung to mind when I read the letter. This daughter may have convinced herself that this man can give her what she wants in life. Maybe she believed that sex before marriage is wrong, but when she met this man and she wasn’t able to be with him because he was married, she may have begun some major mental acrobatics so that she didn’t feel so guilty about being attracted to a married man.
The way to break this is to create more cognitive dissonance. And it’s uncomfortable. But looking at what you really want in life–your thoughts and values–can help show you where you’ve pulled the wool over your own eyes in the past. For example, maybe she wants a husband who is attentive and dedicated and a real family-man so she can have a lovely family with him. Well, looking at this guy, he was willing to sacrifice his family for her. And he’s torn apart his children’s lives so he could have an affair with a 20-year-old. It may be easier to see the truth when you’re contrasting what you’re convincing yourself is OK now with what it might look like in 10-20 years.
Note: I agree with my mom, that parents shouldn’t be worrying about the future. But I think it’s healthy for the daughter to be thinking about how this is going to affect her long-term. Because she has the power to change the situation.
It breaks my heart that these messages really are not uncommon. And I don’t think there’s a perfect answer–it comes down to knowing your child, humbling yourself before God in prayer, and asking for wisdom so that when you do talk to your child, you are doing so in the best way possible for that situation.