Refusing collusion

SPOILER ALERT: this post talks about Sophie’s story line in In Treatment in the first two paragraphs.

In Episode 33 of the compelling In Treatment, therapist Paul and 15-year-old Sophie have a breakthrough session. After fiercely protecting her relationship with her father from criticism, Sophie finally begins to accept that his treatment of her as child was questionable. We know he is a photographer with a home studio photographing nude models; one day 7-year-old Sophie walks in on her father having sex in the marital bed with a model. He doesn’t explicitly ask her not to tell, he simply closes the door and dismisses her, knowing she won’t.

Indeed, Sophie never tells her mother and over time has turned her anger against her mother; she despises her stupidity at not seeing what was going on, while idolizing the father who walked out on his family and barely keeps in touch with her. Paul challenges Sophie to understand that her father made her an accomplice and drove a wedge between her and her mother.

This was a profound episode for me. It catapulted me back to a time when I was the accomplice. My mother had a number of affairs when I was growing up and they first crept into my consciousness when I was about 7.

First there was the young Australian. I didn’t realize it was an affair but I sensed there was something different. He gave me a book on Australia and I did a show and tell at school, which seems quite sad now.

Then there was the married man for whom my mother was going to leave my father. They took me to see the house where we were to live. It had a beautiful spiral staircase and could have been in a home magazine. But it was a secret. He came for lunch one day with my parents and I kept sipping wine out of their glasses until I was suddenly tipsy and bashing out songs on a child’s guitar that I couldn’t play. Eventually the affair came to a head; she didn’t leave and I don’t think my Dad was aware of my complicity. There was some sort of showdown that took place at the beach in North Wales where everyone from my county went for summer holidays, including the man. I remember my friends’ mother whisking me and her kids back to our holiday home, screaming at me about my bloody mother. An interesting choice of behavior towards a bewildered 7-year-old.

When I was 14 the last affair began. My mother confided in me like I was her friend. She had always shared a stream of consciousness that was frequently inappropriate about her sex life (with my father or others), her affairs, the affairs of my friends’ parents etc. (For the record, everyone’s parents were having affairs.)

The lead up to the divorce and the years following were horrendous. But the most painful moment for me was being picked up by my father at the train station after I’d been away for the weekend for a friend’s birthday party. I got into the car and my father told me that they were getting divorced, but he knew that I knew the background and the man concerned.

I was mortified by my betrayal. My mother had made me her accomplice and therefore her ally without my permission. I didn’t know how to respond or take control against the omnipotent, manipulative personality who had set this behavior as the norm all my life. Although I knew my Dad had his faults as a husband, I idolized him for being a nice, straightforward person who had a very open, honest, and caring relationship with me. To be set in opposition to him was my worst nightmare. And maybe that was my mother’s subconscious desire, as she has always resented my unconditional love for him and my extremely mixed emotions for her.

While this was the nadir of that complicity and perceived betrayal, she has persisted over the decades in complaining non-stop about my Dad and in recent months has become inappropriately friendly with his girlfriend … who is supposedly having an affair with a married man. So, all over again, I’m complicit. But now I’m an adult.

I’ve mulled over the options: telling my Dad, talking to his girlfriend, telling his sister. What if my mother is wrong or lying? What if my Dad thinks I’m trying to ruin his relationship and pushes me away? There is no easy answer.

But I think I have come to one conclusion. My mother recently recounted a tale of my father’s unbelievable insensitivity to his girlfriend’s recent health incident. I was surprised, but when I talked to him, he revealed that the girlfriend had never told him about said incident. While I don’t know how to tackle the issue of the affair, I have decided to tell my mother that I don’t want to hear about her conversations with the girlfriend that seem nothing more than a mutual rant about my father. So, here’s to taking another step against collusion.

8 responses to “Refusing collusion”

  1. ssw says:

    It’s too bad that your mom couldn’t contain herself, but, at least she’s consistent! You began to recognize the pattern, and have figured out how to protect yourself which particularly as an adult is perhaps the most important step. You may or may not have a need to process it further with her, but I’m glad to see that you were able to recognize what was going on (the wounds of childhood, which we all have) and make sense of it (the most powerful step towards self-acceptance and healing). I’m sorry you had to go through this Stella, but I think you’re making great strides in understanding yourself better, and good for you for avoiding what is unconsciously (probably) more of your mom’s ongoing lack of boundaries and propriety. It’s critical to understand which figures in our life supported us, or we perceived receiving support from–they’re bedrocks for “what works” and can help us ask for those things from our partners, friends, etc. xoxo

  2. LT says:

    Stella, I love In Treatment and this post’s honesty is like us getting to be the Paul character– except without the professional advice. You story reminded me of a humorous twist on the same adultrous scene: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon is very contemporary and very British.

    Congratulations on steps toward non-collusiveness.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    At the risk of responding on the same day as my sister-
    Sounds like life was difficult and painful for you growing up. Unfortunately, many parents are selfish, and don’t base their actions on how it will affect their children. Yet, we can always rise up from our past, and live life to the fullest. Make today the best day it can be! We appreciate you sharing.

  4. Adriana says:

    On reading this I thought first of my parents — how my mother enlisted all five of us to confront my father for cheating on her because, apparently, he hadn’t just betrayed her but us as well (though three of us were already out of the house by then). We should have refused but we were blindsided and just stumbled into it, the alternative of abandoning her to her grief and shame seeming much worse.

    Mine were very different circumstances from yours, of course — “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I just bring it up to say this is somewhat familiar territory.

    Obviously it’s cruel and unfair for parents to manipulate their children into collusion. And yet… strong emotional family bonds can so blur a parent’s judgement. Now, as a parent myself, I’m aware of how easy it is to sway a child in your favor. Here I have this adoring little person who needs my approval, will do many things to secure it, depends on me for his emotional well being. How easy to exploit it!

    What stops us from doing that — and how many times do we pave the pathway to collusion with little pebbles of emotional manipulation? No wonder the emotional life of a family is such a minefield.

    Yours is a fascinating story bravely told.

  5. Literacy H. Dogfight says:

    Wow, Stella, this really struck a chord with me – not the specific circumstances of the collusion, but rather the feelings that go along with it. My mother did a similiar trip on us, but it had to do with her abusive boyfriend and the implicit understanding that we weren’t to mention his physical abuse toward her (and emotional abuse toward us) – not to her, or to anyone. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I even realized conciously what was going on – these tacit. unspoken agreements run deep and the shame runs deeper. Thanks for having the guts to dredge up a painful subject.

  6. One point is that you’ve made one decision about one issue happening now. Out of this huge mess. That’s good. That’s a step. I don’t know what the next one would be, and I’m not going to offer an opinion. I don’t want to be Paul. I don’t want to offer unasked-for and unwanted advice. I’m not your hypnotist; I’m just a reader of this therapeutic blog.

  7. Cynthia says:

    great post stella. I went through a simular situation, so I nderstand. Bravo

  8. autumn says:

    I want to give you a props for showing the such decorum and grace in this unfortunate familiar situation.