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How My Father's Infidelities Influenced My Relationships With Men

I was wary of men and rarely dated.

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illustration_of_daughter_playing_with_dolls_representing_father_cheating_on_mother_by_María Hergueta_1280x704.jpg
María Hergueta
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The dream was always the same: my father and I were on the beach, my fingers sticky from a cherry lollipop while I played with my dolls in the sand. Then, a young woman wearing a floppy straw hat and enormous sunglasses approached us. My father rose quickly from our beach blanket and greeted her. She was carrying a baby ocelot in her arms. For a wild moment, I thought she was bringing the animal to us as a surprise since Dad wanted to buy one for my mother.

But my excitement evaporated once my father introduced the woman as his special friend and asked whether I could watch her cat while they went for a walk. He squeezed her shoulder affectionately, and the woman gazed up at him with adoration. Finally, they left me on the blanket as they strolled down the shore, their voices muffled by the seagulls screeching overhead. It was years after my father's death before I learned this was not a dream; it was a part of my past.

He had taken me as a child to the beach for some father-and-daughter time together, but it was actually a ruse to visit a lady friend who lived nearby. The exotic cat was his expensive gift to the woman. 

In the early 1970s, I had just turned 11 when Dad moved out of our house for the first time. My mother explained matter-of-factly that he was bored and needed a distraction. I thought I'd done something wrong to drive him away, that I was unworthy of his love and that our family no longer mattered to him. But my mother quickly assured me it was no one's fault — my father was "unwell," she said, battling his inner demons.

None of this made sense to me. Like many little girls, I idolized my father and believed he could do no wrong. A tall, broad-shouldered man with movie star good looks, he oozed self-confidence and power. He was also well-respected in the community, and women drawn to his wealth and sharp wit readily flocked to his side. This didn't bother my mother, so I never suspected anything was wrong. But everything changed after he left. Their marriage became a revolving door that opened and closed according to Dad's moods.

He'd leave for months at a time, see other women, then return home and make himself comfortable again as if he'd never left. Mom continued to cook his favorite dinners, make the bed they slept in each morning, wash his laundry and iron his shirts. I viewed her forgiveness as a sign of weakness and lost all respect for her, even though it was my father who was at fault for their marital instability.

Dad was also very judgmental of physical appearances, and eventually, his harsh criticisms rubbed off on my mother. One day when I was a teenager, my mom poked my belly and mentioned that I was gaining weight. "You have to care about your appearance," she said. "You'll never keep a husband interested if you let your looks go." She then claimed that all men had roving eyes and that it wasn't unusual for them to act upon their "urges."

This seemed ridiculously one-sided, but my mother came from a generation where social equality between the sexes did not exist. Men were free to do as they pleased — including extramarital affairs — while society turned a blind eye. However, if a woman cheated on her husband, she became the neighborhood pariah and the topic of vicious gossip. I looked really hard at my mother and saw her as a woman rather than a mother for the first time.

The realization hit that she was no longer young or glamorous like the females my father found desirable, and it made me incredibly sad for her. She struggled to stifle the town gossip and keep up the appearance of a happy family each time Dad moved out. But I knew better, and deep down, my resentment toward both parents festered, while I vowed never to become any man's doormat. By my teens, my mother's words had been ingrained in me that most men were cheaters, and I couldn't allow myself to get hurt.

So, I breezed in and out of relationships while worrying that I wasn't good enough or pretty enough to keep a boy interested in me for very long. However, my lack of trust and extreme bouts of jealousy drove most of my boyfriends away. I had adopted a different relationship mindset by the time I entered early adulthood. I treated dating more like a game of catch and release — only staying with a man until my feelings intensified and threatened to leave me vulnerable to pain. At that point, I'd end the relationship — usually by cheating on my partner. Of course, I knew this was wrong, but I couldn't deny the exhilaration of being with someone new and having complete control of the relationship.

My secret affairs fed my addiction to needing power over men while simultaneously boosting my self-esteem. Drawing attention from men, sleeping with them, and then letting them go was all part of the game. Strangely, it also brought me closer to my father during those years because I understood the emotional rush of infidelity. And like him, my goal was to steer clear of long-term commitments so that I could remain emotionally impenetrable.

However, it all backfired when I met an incredibly handsome, charming and funny man. We had so much in common, and before I knew it, my guard slipped, and I fell deeply in love. I noticed no red flags until we were six months into the relationship. He was wary about my past and grew increasingly possessive the longer we were together. Soon, his jealous tirades turned from verbal abuse to explosive episodes, including punching walls and shoving me. If I so much as looked at another man, he punished me by locking me in our apartment and taking away the phone. 

One night as I sat in a hospital with my arm in a sling, I wondered what I was doing with my life. I lied to the doctor, telling him my fractured elbow was from a fall in the parking lot. But the truth was that I had been slapped so hard in the face that the force knocked me flat onto the asphalt. My boyfriend stole my car that night, and when I finally tracked him down, he was with another woman. Everything had come full circle at that point. The cheater had been cheated on, and it felt like karmic retribution for the reckless way I had been living. So many people had known my boyfriend was cheating, yet no one warned me. And like my mother, I never suspected a thing.

It was the wake-up call I needed and gave me a better understanding of what my mother experienced all those years when Dad stepped out on her. Oddly, it was my father who rescued me from the abusive relationship. My boyfriend had brainwashed me into believing I was worthless and would never find a better man, but my father quickly removed me from the situation. Together, we made the long trek home, 500 miles south of my college town. He got me into counseling, helped me find a job and persuaded me to connect with old friends for a new social life. However, I was still wary of men and raw from the emotional bruising my boyfriend had left, so I rarely dated. I met my future husband later that year on a blind date and instinctively knew he was a good person. He made me laugh more than I ever had and wasn't afraid to show his emotions. So, the night he got teary-eyed over a Humane Society commercial, I knew I'd found the right man to spend the rest of my life with. We were married two years later, and I couldn't have picked a better man to be my forever partner.

But, of course, there were some bumps in the road — especially early in our marriage when we were still learning to trust each other. We sought marital counseling during one particularly rough patch of frequent arguing over finances, problems at work and opposing opinions on raising our four teens. I learned I still had residual control and trust issues due to my father's infidelities. I was also unaware that I'd been cutting my husband off emotionally and physically to control him whenever I was angry. But together, we worked hard to keep our marriage on track. Sticking it out during the tough times was well worth it to get to the comfortable place we are now in our relationship. We are soulmates and best friends, or, as my husband says, the "dream team."

I understand now why my mother stayed with my father during the tumultuous years of their marriage. She never lost sight of the goodness still in his heart and had faith that one day he would find his way back to her — and he did. I learned from her example that forgiveness was not a weakness, but a more significant part of what love and commitment genuinely mean. And I learned to forgive my father for his infidelities once I stopped projecting his emotional handicap on to other men. My parents spent the last years of their lives together, happy and deeply devoted to one another.

As I watched them walk to their car one evening, my father gently guided my frail mother to her seat, and she leaned in to kiss him. I felt the love and gratitude in his eyes like a palpable thing pulling at my heart. I knew theirs was the relationship I'd always dreamed of — and one I'm now blessed to have.

Has anyone experienced something similar to what this author went through? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships