The Vine: August 8, 2012
I'm in need of some advice and I don't feel comfortable sharing this with anyone in my personal life.
My parents have been married for almost 40 years, and as far as I can tell it's always been a happy marriage. I recently moved back home for a few months and I'll be moving out in a couple of weeks. The other day I accidentally stumbled upon some information and I'm not sure what to do about it. In short: my dad has a girlfriend half his age.
I've managed to get through almost 26 years on this earth without once having to imagine my father as a sexual person. In addition to just generally avoiding that line of thinking because he's my dad, he and my mom give off sort of a chaste, sweet, bookish vibe. It's been easy to go along assuming they're as contentedly monogamous and, at this point in life, asexual (for my own peace of mind, especially while sharing a home with them, I prefer to imagine them both as asexual) as they appear.
So it was a complete shock to be confronted with this information. What happened was this. My dad was working on his laptop at the kitchen table, and my cat, who stays in my room because my dad's allergic, escaped into the kitchen. I went to retrieve her just as my dad momentarily left the room. The cat was prowling around under the table, and as I scooped her up I glanced at the laptop screen, saw the words "Hi sweetie," and thought, "Aww, how cute, my dad's writing my mom an email when she's a hundred feet away!" Except, of course, he wasn't writing to my mom. The email was a short, boring, work-related paragraph, followed by a couple of puke-worthy closing thoughts of a…sexually suggestive nature.
I immediately booked it the hell out of there, and I've been playing dumb ever since, but what's killing me is that I'm 98% certain my mom doesn't know about this. I've been trying to comfort myself with the remaining 2% (maybe they've had an arrangement like this for years!) but I'm finding it increasingly difficult. My mom is an intensely faithful person (then again, so is my dad, to all outward appearances). Of course I can't pretend to know exactly how their marriage works, but my best guess is that she'd see this as the ultimate betrayal.
I Googled the woman and learned that she's half my dad's age (only a couple years older than I am, gah). I have no other information except that they work together in another state, where my dad spends at least one night a week.
I guess my question is: should I tell my mom?
On the one hand, my mom deserves to know. On the other hand, as awful as this is, I can't help wondering if maybe in a twisted way this secret relationship is actually holding the marriage together rather than sabotaging/jeopardizing it. I mean, I'm willing to bet that my parents don't have a sex life anymore; what if having a little fun on the side is the secret to their continued happiness together? Obviously this stuff goes on far more than is ever acknowledged or discovered. What if it also happened 30 years ago, before I was born? Should it have been revealed then, risking the breakup of an otherwise beautiful marriage? Maybe things are okay the way they are. (Is this the part of the letter where I try to convince you of something ludicrous in order to avoid my own responsibility in this situation?)
The only way I can see this working for my parents is if it remains a secret. And since there's no guarantee that it will remain a secret, I feel like my mom needs to know. Now that I know, the problem isn't just my dad's lie; I'm lying to my mom as well.
I really don't want to confront my dad, but I suppose I could envision having a "You tell her or I will" conversation. Ugh. I just hate this whole thing. Please help.
Wish I Could Un-Know This
Dear But You Can't,
Before I get to the bossing part: my sympathies. The "unwanted information about infidelity" position is the worst, and if "that information is about your parents" isn't the worst of the worst, it's in the bottom three. The situation sucks, you have basically no good options, and before you do or say anything, take a minute to sympathize with yourself.
With that kindness to self in mind: I don't think your theory that maybe Dad's side dish is what allows his marriage to Mom to function is that off-base. Yes, it's probably something you're telling yourself so you don't have to wade into the conversation without a life vest on, and no, it's not a relationship set-up I can relate to personally, but "apparently there's [vague circular hand gestures] An Arrangement" is a phrasing I have heard more than once, and in most of those cases said arrangement seemed functional. You'd prefer not to know either way, of course, but it does happen and it does work for some people.
Unfortunately, you can't know whether that's the case for your parents until you speak to your father about it, so to your actual question: no, don't tell your mother anything yet. Ignorance is in fact bliss, and telling her — if in fact there's anything to tell her — isn't your responsibility. And if it comes to that, she will know that, and she will understand the impossibility of your position.
Speak to your father. Invite him for a coffee or something, outside the house. Tell him as dispassionately as possible what you saw, and how uncomfortable you feel having this information, and see how he reacts — and take it from there, and if he wants you to keep it a secret, well, then you'll have to re-evaluate. My policy on information of that type is usually along the lines of "I won't tell, but I won't lie if asked, either," and you may want to take that stance. You may want to recuse yourself completely on the grounds that children shouldn't involve themselves in their parents' marriages, which is also fair. Or you may want to go with the line you mentioned earlier, that he's got X time to come clean or you'll do it for him.
But again, you won't know what's up until you talk to him — and it's possible that there's An Arrangement, or that, unconsciously, he wants to get caught (leaving that screen visible with you and/or your mom in the house indicates to me that either he's trying to get busted on some level, or there's no "busting" to do). I would pick whichever option seems the least likely to embroil you further, but the thing to remember is that this isn't on you. It's on your father. If you decide at whatever point that you Just Can't, and you don't want to tell Mom anything even if she does ask, or you move out and don't deal with your parents face-to-face for a while to clear your head, that's okay. Your parents' marriage may hit a rocky patch and your mom may feel horrible, but you can't control that and it won't be because you "told wrong."
Tags: etiquette the fam