October 13, 2019

Feeling Guilty

Dear Therapists,

I am a 20 year old female and my parents have been divorced for over 5 years. My mom has been remarried for the past three. I feel close to her husband when I am around him and he has become another father figure in my life. However, when occasion’s and events bring us together and my biological dad is also present, I feel bad giving my step dad any attention or love in front of my dad. Even though he never says anything about my relationship with my stepfather and I don’t think he is angry of the fact that I have a relationship with him I still feel guilty and I am afraid of being disloyal. How can I bring these two worlds together without hurting either them? I care about them both in different ways.

Feeling Guilty

Dear Feeling Guilty,

Your position of feeling responsible to keep everyone comfortable may need a closer evaluation. You seem to be concerned for the emotional well being of your dad, and believe that if you show affection to your step father, your biological father would feel hurt. All this is despite the fact that your father has not mentioned anything to you, and has not expressed any anger to you. It may be worth considering that some of the feelings that you worry about with your dad may stem from your own unfinished or unattended emotions related to your parent’s divorce in general and specifically to his loss, and having to adjust to a new father figure and family dynamic into your life.
Have you stopped to think about the effect of your parent’s divorce, and the adoption of a new father figure at the tender age of 15, and how ultimately it all might have impacted your understanding of family?
My concern is that you may not have had the forum or the opportunity to evaluate your feelings about this. It is wonderful that you like your step-father, but have you ever allowed yourself to feel your own hurt as a result of this divorce? Did you have to pretend that everything was o.k. because you did not want your parents to tolerate further pain, or that you did not want to rock the boat further?  Feeling guilty is extremely powerful; sometimes guilt also covers other feelings like disappointment, anger, etc. Think about it, why should you feel guilty for liking your step dad? Where does this feeling guilty stem from? What did YOU do wrong?  Your parents should feel relieved that you get along with him. Why is it your responsibility to integrate the two worlds, and to keep everyone safe and pain free? Don’t you trust that your father can actually take care of himself?  Do you see him as fragile?
It is not unusual for children,  to take on the emotional responsibility of the well being of their parents in the case of divorce, and physical separation from one parent. They are so scared of losing their parents (especially the more absent one), that they take on the task of making them happy. Look at your other relationships. Does the “guilt” come up in other aspects of your life as well? Does “caring” to you means responding out of guilt, or taking on other people’s emotional hurt? Is it possible for you to care about others in different ways?
It may be a great idea to share your feelings with your father. It sounds like he may be approachable. Sometimes what we think in our head, turns out to be much bigger than it is in reality.
In the end, it’s a great opportunity for you to reflect upon your tendency to carry on the load of your parent’s well being, and to feel their pain for them. It is very important to spend the time to really think about and understand where your feelings of guilt come from. Finding ways to gain insight into your feelings, and behavior, might release some of the intensity of this guilt.

Good luck,
Ask your therapists team