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Ask the Rabbi/Psychologist: My Father’s Affair

Ask the Rabbi/Psychologist: My Father’s Affair

Should I tell my mother?

by and

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

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

Rabbi Yaacov Haber's Answer:

Tough call!

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.

September 27, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 45

(31) Anonymous, March 10, 2014 7:19 PM


I appreciate that an Orthodox site is discussing this issue and other difficult family/personal issues. It is better to face it, see the truth of these situations , learn ways to deal with these issues from the learned experts and the experience of others , than to pretend it does not exist.

(30) Anonymous, February 4, 2014 3:08 PM

DO NOT tell the mother

Even if the father had an affair, telling the mother will do nothing good (for example if the father had already terminated his affair or if he will in the near future (which may well be)). If the mother hears about it (whether she knew previously or not) her reaction will be not good and it will hurt her feelings and make her very embarrassed. - and that is even when the fathers affair had been long ago and there is no relevance to it. Why should someone cause anguish to his father when there is nothing to gain, only to lose. Similarly if a husband/wife had cheated on his/her partner it is not a good idea to tell him/her, in the hope of unloading feelings of guilt. You can not foresee what is going to happen and the small gain that you may have may well be overshadowed by your relationship never being the same again and a break-up. One man who had 'confessed' to his wife said : "I would give anything in the world not to have said what I have said to my wife". Words can be worse than arrow and once you shoot them you can rarely take them back.

It may or may not be appropriate to tell your father openly but under no circumstances should you threaten him to tell your mother or else you will because that might lead to what is above. You may break your own family.It is important to honor ones mother but also ones father and in fact the torah speaks about "Kavod Av we Ima" - honor of father and mother.Do everything possible to safeguard the honor of your father. The best would be not even to mention it directly.Also- never discount the possibility that you may have interpreted what you found on your fathers phone incorrectly.Think about how you would feel if your parents announced something about you which you don't want others to know, even something like announcing that their son had a crush on .... in front of familily members. If you tell your mother about an affair the result will be over a thousand times worse and you can not even foresee the consequences

(29) Kate, February 24, 2013 5:20 PM

Honesty always best.

I have been the victimized wife in a relationship with a husband who had multiple extramarital affairs. I was devastated and only the support of my children, friends and other family helped me get through this terrible experience. I have not been able to continue my relationships with friends who concealed my ex husbands affairs. If one of our children had been party to conceling his activities I would have had a very difficult time with that.... There is no question that it is a difficult situation for the adult child but concealing the information makes one complicit with the affair and suggest that one condones the affair,. Always best to get the truth out. Lies undermine relationships in so many ways.

ruthiel, November 28, 2013 10:24 AM

children should not be forced to side

Thats your opinion, a child facing such a dilemma might be seriously traumatised by the revelation and its consequences.
wwould you rather the truth or a messed up child? Children love both parents and dont wish to hurt them,lets not forget than cheating doesnt necesserily make one a bad parent

(28) Anonymous, November 24, 2012 12:04 PM

reminder of my teenage problem

well this reminded me of my time when i was a boy and did tell my mother which brought into me being al by my self in israel without my parents and they stayed together i would not say happyly after but for the next 7 years my dad lived and then passed away well may their souls REST IN PEACE G D BLESS

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