What’s With Adult Children Turning Against Their Mothers?

For the last three blogs, we’ve been looking at family impact of the secret life of sexual and sexualized activities conducted by a father or step-father. In creating and protecting this secret life as his priority we have seen the devastating consequences to children and teenagers. It is clear that he abuses the whole family, not just the wife or partner. He does this with his deceit, misogyny, lies, blameshifting, gaslighting, denial, abandonment, humiliating behaviors—betraying the family unit as the primary priority for authenticity, intimacy, safety, respect, nurture, honesty and love. He violates the family’s core values multiple ways, multiple times, with multiple destructive consequences to the other members.

This week we are dealing with an outcome that is the second trauma for so many women. This is about adult children who turn on them while protecting and supporting their compulsive-abusive sexual relational disordered fathers. Why does this happen? How does this reveal what is truly at stake for families? And what can wives and partners who are innocent victims of these men do to avoid becoming fresh victims of their misguided adult children? How much loss are wives and partners really absorbing?

These are heart-breaking stories to which I bear witness in my work. But perhaps the most confounding and tragic ones come from women in their 50’s-70’s who suddenly have the rug pulled out from under all their primary family relationships.  Most were traditional homemaker mothers, often giving up their own careers to support a husband in his. Then, when they are most traumatized by discovering their husband’s secret life, their adult children choose to isolate them further in the family. Sometimes this includes outright cruelty towards the mother and blatant favoritism towards the father. Adult children diminish what they know of his behaviors and defend him. They avoid truth and keep the facts at arm’s length. They blame their mother for not “meeting his needs”. They ignore the ongoing revealing of his secret activities and the conflicted values in his life. They mimic his excuses, telling their mother “he wasn’t happy in the marriage for a long time”, “I just want a chance to be happy”, “your mother wasn’t available to me”, blah, blah, blah. They never use her words about her experience against him. They live in denial at the mother’s expense.

It doesn’t seem to matter if the mother is trying to recover from STI’s/STD’s, or has permanent health problems as a result of his secret life when she could not protect herself from diseases. Any diseases of adaptation to the abuse she was enduring are not recognized by her adult children. It doesn’t seem to matter if she becomes critically ill or is diagnosed with terminal illness in the months after discovery. She is never a sympathetic figure to her children. But he is. No matter what he did or continues to do, they are his defenders and champions. She lies in hospital alone. She looks for transplant options by herself. If she tried to tell them what she’s dealing with health-wise children simply refuse to listen to anything about it. She’s just having a double mastectomy in order to get attention, they say. They live in denial at the mother’s expense.

Even years later when the real “love of their father’s life” turns out to have spent most of his money, plunged him into debt and takes them all through a second divorce, even when the next girlfriend turns out to be a meth addict, even when they learn he came on to their friends, all the sympathy is for him. Meanwhile their mother can’t pay her medical bills on the spousal support she gets, and is going into debt for different reasons than their father. They don’t care. They threaten not to allow her to see the grandchildren if she cries around them. When she is triggered by their celebration of their father’s “recovery” that she knows is false, they accuse her of ruining everything. They insist he’s a wonderful father and grandfather. If you raise any caution about his proven interest in 13 and 14 year-olds with respect to the grandchildren and their friends, they are outraged. If she asked to be spared family pictures of him enjoying family time with them all on social media, they just can’t remember to hide those pictures from her, and so she has to not visit their pages. They live in denial at the mother’s expense.

What is going on? (and by the way, I didn’t make any of these stories up)

Navigating discovery for adult children often begins with grand speeches about “being Switzerland” and not taking sides. But many adult children do take sides. They take his side. And if she protests, they have an excuse to dig in further. It is probably the cruelest part of this whole nightmare to end up having invested your entire adult life into raising children as the primary caregiver and cheerleader, and then finding you are their target when you need their compassion. Every family celebration was your gift to them. But you don’t even get invited to them now.

Why? Why do they do this? Are all these women really just horrible people and dreadful mothers? No, they aren’t. They’re just the convenient scapegoat for the family crisis. Dad is permitted to tell “his” version of what happened and extoll his virtues in recovery, but Mom must stay silent. She is not allowed to have a story.

Even children who are adults cannot entertain the truth that their father betrayed them all. They won’t face that he jeopardized their financial security over and over again while his wife surrendered her ability to make a living to support him. They won’t face that he protected his secret life of porn, his secret life of sex trade workers closer to their age than their mother’s, his secret fling with their friend’s mother, his secret blowjob deal with his co-worker who used to send them Christmas gifts, his secret emotional affairs with the women at their church who went to Bible study with their mother, etc. They won’t face that he protected his secret life above all else, including above their family’s security, health, dignity, trust or value. They won’t face the times he blamed his porn on them, the times he asked them to lie about being late to pick them up, the times he wouldn’t take them on trips because he wanted to go with his sex partner, the times he missed their birthday parties and sports events because he was getting a happy ending at the massage parlour, etc. They don’t want to face that all the lessons about knowing right from wrong, about treating girls and women with respect, about telling the truth, about making your family your top priority were lessons in hypocrisy. They won’t face they had no idea who he really was any more than their mother did. They don’t want to face it. It’s their whole childhood, teenage years, and young adult life at stake. We may lose our primary adult relationship. Our adult children are losing their whole foundation in life. They’re not going to give that up without first trying to offload it onto mom. She blew it. And she blew it for all of them. 

The very thing that their mother is enduring—the loss of decades together as a family and what you thought it meant—is a loss they will not take on. They leave her to be alone in it, and go on with their fake family story as if everything about their relationship with him is untouched by who he turns out to be. They believe everything he says about his “problem” and about their mother. If the wife asks him to tell the truth to the children, he will say he’s not responsible for her relationship with her adult children. She is reaping what she sowed. His therapist usually helps him with that script.

As for their mother—the one they have always been able to count on—she can’t count on them in the one moment of her life when she deserves compassion and support. She’s not asking them to hate their father (which is how they choose to tell it). She’s just asking them to believe the truth that has traumatized her life and have some scrap of empathy for her. They won’t believe it. They won’t even hear it.  

Of course, the sex addiction treatment industry constructs itself to make this only about the primary relationship between spouses. So, there is no one to come alongside these adult children with appropriate trauma skills and care to help them face truth, grieve loss, and reframe their past, present and future as needed. There’s no one for them, just as there is pretty much no one for her.

Deny. Isolate. Avoid. Diminish. Ignore. Blameshift. Silence. Threaten. Insult. Accuse. Abandon.

I hear story after story featuring the adult children doing these things to their abused mother. Read that list again, and ask yourself who taught them how to do that and get away with it. Because it wasn’t you.

Some women nearly go mad dealing with this ultimate betrayal. Some face grave or debilitating illness—the body’s response to stress levels beyond its capacity to escape injury to one or more of its twelve systems: cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune, integumentary, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal, and urinary. How does the treatment industry not monitor this? It’s basic traumatology practice. But when their priority client is the man called a sex addict, the wife/partner and children exist to serve him in his supposed recovery—a recovery for which they can offer no credible, evidence-based research to support. 

Comforting and calming women in this kind of core identity distress and primary family relationship betrayals is the most difficult challenge of my over three decades of caring for people. The only improvements I have seen emerge in their quality of life is when we conduct “experiments” in their relationships with adult children. These include establishing limited contact, cutting off financial or other material support, not sharing details of their life, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. It usually does drop. But I have to be honest with you, it seems to take years. And some of my clients may not live to see it.

Before you conclude we have a hopeless end, let me assure you there is abundant hope in the value of your life. There are assurances of joy and beauty and laughter that can be fulfilled in safety away from those who use and abuse you. But for many women the sunk costs of their family investment looms like a hammer over their heads so they just walk on eggshells, try to duck in time, never share what their life is like with their family, provide services and money when children ask for it, and learn to disappear when it’s convenient for others. They cry and cry as they speak with me because the cruelty of their children is even more unbelievable than the cruelty of their husband. It’s hard for any of us to look at decades of our life serving the family and realize that it’s never going to be our turn. Never.

That’s why I ask women to stop pouring the goodness of themselves down the black hole he created in the family. Give yourself what they will not give you. Create distance so you can recover. Cut off or limit your emotional and material support of their lives. Use scripts to deflect hurtful remarks. Wait for the other shoe to drop and see what it will mean—if anything.

Why do I suggest these things? Because your life is the most sacred thing you have. You cannot let others be stewards of it. You are the steward. Be the role model you want them and their grandchildren to have. Stand graciously in your truth, always ready for an opening to reconnect at a level of mutual respect, love, and support. In my faith tradition we have parable about a child who leaves home and squanders everything the parent gave the child. When the child  realizes the mistake, the child returns to seek the parent’s mercy, with no expectation of welcome or reconciliation. But the child receives exactly all that and more from the parent who never stopped watching the horizon for the child to come home.

As the parent who is always who we presented ourselves to be, it becomes our main job not to lay our core values down no matter how afraid our children are to keep them. In fact, we live more deeply into them. We stand in our truth. We heal. We grieve. We grow. We find beauty. We change. We learn. We give ourselves respect, acceptance and compassion. We add value where we are. We may even love again. We live our lives as if they are worth living, and prove it true every day. But we do it all, keeping an eye on that horizon. And we wait.

 with you,


P.S. Tomorrow is that last day to receive an early registrant discount on the next Sweetwater Retreat, led by licensed counselor and EMDR practitioner, Tania Rochelle. Info here: https://www.sweetwaterretreats.org/

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