A particularly painful anecdote from John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards’ marriage was made public last Wednesday during the former senator’s embezzlement trial, prompting the couple’s eldest daughter, Cate Edwards Upham, 30, to abruptly leave the courtroom in tears.
The Associated Press reported that former Edwards' aide Christina Reynolds told the court how Elizabeth Edwards confronted her husband about his extramarital affair during a 2007 campaign stop. In an airport hangar, she reportedly pulled off both her shirt and bra and yelled at him: “You don't see me anymore!”
Upham's emotional exit raises a bigger issue: While the public can demonize and forget a fallen political figure like Edwards, his daughter has to call him Dad for life. So, how can Upham -- or any young woman in a similar situation -- forgive?
To better understand the dynamic between a father and a daughter in this scenario, HuffPost spoke to experts who have dealt with children and parents facing comparable issues. While none of the experts have worked personally with Edwards or his family, their experience has shown that when a father damages his daughter’s perception of him by having an affair, her relationship with him may change for life.
Family mediator Laurie Puhn, author of “Fight Less, Love More,” said Upham seems to have taken on what would have been Elizabeth Edwards’ role.
“Obviously, I haven’t counseled him or her, but she sits by him in what would have been the role of the supportive wife. It’s a motherly role. It’s a wifely role. It’s definitely not a daughterly role,” Puhn said.
Perhaps Upham shoulders this responsibility to help maintain a sense of normalcy for her two younger siblings, Puhn said, so that they can have a relationship with her father. “When you feel tremendous disappointment in your parents, you do what is necessary to make sure that they’re healthy and functional and fill the roles of parents or, in the future, grandparents,” Puhn said.
Upham, a lawyer, is the eldest of her siblings. But she is still Edwards’ child -- not his wife or caretaker. Whether this duty was self-imposed or encouraged by Edwards’ counsel, Puhn said she believes that a daughter put in Upham’s situation would be “very confused about who she is.”
When parents engage in extramarital affairs, their children sometimes learn the details. In some cases, this happens purposefully as the straying parent tries to justify his or her actions, or as the wronged one attempts to get the child on his or her side. (It could also happen accidentally if a child simply sees an illicit text message, for example.) In any case, learning such information can cause children at any age to feel betrayed and angry, as they look back on the narratives of their childhoods. Puhn said children may be unable to maintain the relationships with their parents they once had.
A daughter "might find a way to forgive" her father, Puhn said. "But she probably won’t trust his judgment ever again. And that is really the moment -- for anyone -- when we turn from being a child to looking at our parents with fresh eyes.”
Having a functional relationship, however, isn’t a lost cause, according to clinical psychologist Janis Spring, author of “How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To.”
A father who has been unfaithful in his marriage cannot reverse his actions, of course, but a daughter might be willing to “allow a father to earn her forgiveness” over time, Spring said. “Forgiveness isn’t an all-or-nothing process. People can have very respectful relationships with partial forgiveness. As time passes, the offender creates more opportunities to make good and earn more forgiveness.”
While Spring said she doesn’t condone infidelity, she said children don’t always understand what’s at the heart of their parents’ transgressions. If a spouse strays while the other is sick (as was the case with John Edwards), the affair may be because of loneliness or fear, Spring said. In these cases, parents and children should “listen to each other’s pain and understand each other as human beings,” she said. Children "may find that they have less to forgive.”
Lawyer Malcolm S. Taub, a partner at Davidoff Malito & Hutcher LLP in New York, said he believes Edwards will need to put his ego aside in order for his children to start moving toward such forgiveness. “The only way to repair this bridge -- which he has blown up -- is to concentrate on complete honesty with his children,” Taub said. “This includes a real acknowledgement of what he did, a non-defensive admission of his fragility and getting them to understand that he at least owns up to the reality of what he did and the damage that it caused to their mother, their relationship and his life. Period.”
As for Upham, it's unclear how her relationship with her father will evolve -- or if it already has. In 2007, she spoke to Harper’s Bazaar about her younger brother’s death and her mother’s cancer diagnosis, but she could have been talking about the events of last week when she said: “It's very, very hard to imagine how you would cope when you haven't faced tragedy. But the strength exists, and you do get through it.”
Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, opened up about their relationship to GQ in 2010. Check out the excerpts below.
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