My parents have a rocky marriage. Recently I was using my father's iPhone and discovered that instead of being on a business trip to Seattle last month (as he told my mother), he was rendezvousing with his "girlfriend" in Los Angeles. My question is: Should I tell my dad that I know what he's been up to? Should I tell my mom what's going on behind her back? Or should I just keep quiet about the whole thing? Help!
Dr. Michael Tobin's Answer:
It's very sad to hear that you are facing such a difficult dilemma. No child wants to discover information of this kind. We all want to admire our parents, to see them as positive role models that we can emulate. To see a parent as secretive and duplicitous is extraordinarily painful and undermines our sense of security and well-being. This is even more true if you're young and more emotionally dependent on them.
I mention age since I don't know how old you are, whether you are married or single, or live with your parents or are on your own. I am going to operate under the assumption that you are out of the house and most likely in your twenties or older. If however you are an adolescent living at home, I encourage you to seek advice from a counselor or a trusted adult.
You ask whether you should tell your mom, your dad or do nothing. I am assuming that since you are writing this question that doing nothing is most likely not an option for you. I don't know how anyone can put this information in a mental lead container and then forget about it. I would imagine that every time you saw your mother or father, the knowledge of this secret would coming rushing to the forefront, and this would put you at risk of suddenly blurting out the big secret, especially if you're feeling emotionally vulnerable.
So who do you talk to? Your father, your mother or both? And what do you say?
As you can imagine, there are no perfect answers to that question. So much depends on your relationship with your parents, your involvement or over-involvement in their "rocky" marriage, and your sense of responsibility to protect your mother. Perhaps you long ago sided with your father and can understand why he might pursue a marital affair. Or maybe you've experienced your father as the perpetrator in the marriage and that from your perspective your mother has been a legitimate victim.
I don't know if you are filling a role that we in the marital therapy business call the "parentified child." The parentified child is the child in a family who takes on the job of taking care of one or both of her wounded parents. This often happens in a problematic marriage when the troubled parent seeks "help" from the most compassionate child. The child then feels responsible for taking care of her parent's pain. I mention this because if this describes you, then I want to warn you to be careful to avoid getting in the middle of their marriage.
You should speak to your father and no one else.
Okay, so back to the question of who do you talk to and what do you say? I asked a number of people, both professional and lay, and there was a common response - you should speak to your father and no one else, which was my response as well. Why is that?
First of all, you discovered the information from your father's phone. I am assuming that you stumbled upon it rather than searched for it. If you did search for it, then you obviously suspected your father of having an affair, and it would tell me that you're already so involved in their marriage that you felt compelled to play private detective. I'm mentioning it, but I'm not going there. However if you're that involved, I strongly encourage you to get help to disengage from their problems, and to focus on building your life. Their drama is an impediment and a painful distraction.
What I suggest is that you schedule a meeting with your father in a neutral place, like a restaurant or any public place. Then, in a very matter of fact way, tell him what you discovered and then wait to see how he reacts. Does he deny the facts and then begins to spin a tale filled with explanations, or does he admit the truth without faltering? If you are sure of your facts and know without a shadow of a doubt that the information that you discovered can lead to only one conclusion - "My father is having an affair" - then tell him that both he and you know the truth so you're not interested in hearing his lies. Tell him that you think that the only honorable thing to do is for him to speak to your mother and to stop the secrets. Avoid the temptation to moralize or condemn. Just stick with what you know and what you expect him to do. Don't threaten to tell your mother.
If he starts to describe how terrible his wife has been to him and uses the awful marriage as justification for his behavior, try your hardest to avoid this discussion and just say, "You two need to deal with your marital problems. I'm not interested in being in the middle."
Why not tell your mother? First of all, it's not your responsibility to protect her, and who knows if she even wants to know the truth? Perhaps, she's suspected him of having affairs and she avoids dealing with it. Knowledge of an affair puts pressure on her to take action - either to get out or to get help. Doing nothing might be exactly what she wants to do. So you may not be doing her any favors by telling her and you might find yourself stepping into the middle of a bottomless pit.
I imagine by now that you've recognized that I have a certain point of view and that point of view is simply for you to do the minimum you must and no more. If you were the kind of person that could say to yourself, "This whole mess is their problem. I would rather not get involved,” then I would say, "If you're really being honest with yourself, then I agree with you." However, as I said in my opening paragraph to you, you wouldn't be sending this question if you had such as laissez faire attitude. So since you're already involved, try to keep it to the minimum and then get on with your life and let them figure out what to do with theirs.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber's Answer:
On the one hand, some very devious behavior is occurring. Your father has his ‘little secret’ which can not only ruin his own life, but has the potential to harm the lives of everyone around him. If you stay quiet, it is likely that he will become increasingly entrenched in this very unhealthy behavior pattern. Not only that, but you owe it your mother to tell her that she is being cheated on: By ignoring what you saw, you are violating your basic loyalty to the most important person in your life.
On the other hand, if you do expose your father, you will undoubtedly bring the entire marital problem into open confrontation. By forcing your father out of the closet, you run the risk of removing any chance of Shalom Bayit, domestic harmony, that may still exist.
Here is how it looks to me. You began your letter by stating, “My parents have a rocky marriage”. Why not let that be our guide?
First see if there is anything you can do to help your parents’ marriage.
Somewhat similar to the imagery of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the iPhone episode was a wakeup call from Heaven. Hopefully, something can be done about your parents’ rocky marriage – but there isn’t time to waste. For the moment, forget the illicit rendezvous and let’s see if there is anything you can do to help your parents.
“Dad, I’ve been thinking. It’s no secret that you and Mom have been having a hard time together. It seems like you almost never agree on things. You both seem to be in pain and not living life to its fullest. Forgive me, but neither of you seems happy. As your son, there is not much I can do personally - it’s just not my place. However, maybe there is something you can do. Maybe there is someone out there that can help the situation. Maybe you should both go and speak with the rabbi or one of the wonderful counselors in our neighborhood. I’ve been reading a lot about it and marriages can improve.”
If over time you see that things don’t progress and, in particular, that your father is uninterested in improving the marriage, then the issue of whether to tell your mother about his affair can be reconsidered. Of course, not every marriage can be saved. Still, they are all worth a try. Don’t give up on this one just yet.
In the meantime, you will need help sorting all this out. From the moment of the iPhone revelation your conscience must be tortured. There seems to be no good options available. Your mind won’t let you ignore what you saw; your heart won’t let you reveal it. Get some help! If you are an adult hire a therapist; he or she will help you sort this out. If you are not an adult, tell your parents that their rocky marriage is driving you crazy and say simply: ‘Please get me help.’
Wishing you, and your parents, many blessings.