How do I re-start/maintain a relationship with my father while my mother is cheating on him and he doesn't know?
September 23, 2009 1:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I re-start/maintain a relationship with my father while my mother is cheating on him and he doesn't know?

My mother and my father's relationship has been on rocky ground from some years, but they have not made any real moves towards divorce. At the same time, I've never been close to my dad and at times this bothers me. Quite often my mom has done the work of getting the family together. My dad is a good person, but we used to have arguments quite often when I was a teenager (which is normal) and he's quite a bit more right wing than I am, and very much a workaholic (his job takes him away from home for up to 2 weeks at a time). As I left for university, my conversations with my father rarely got to deeper subjects than the weather or farming. On the other hand, he's fairly supportive of my sister's and my choices and, as I said, not a mean or bad person. I also worry that my dad is depressed and that his aversion to seeking medical help generally means that he won't deal with it. So I want to have more contact with him, in order to be more aware of how he's doing mentally and possibly intervene/help him before his depression gets out of hand.

My mom has always been close to me, but I've found it stressful talking with her lately, because she spends most of her conversations complaining about my dad being distant and unloving. Several months ago, I advised her to "figure out what she wants in her life" and make that happen rather than letting things happen to her and complaing about it. She's using those words to justify this affair, which actually infuriates me, because I meant them more as a "decide to divorce or not once and for all" and not "have an illicit affair". Furthermore, she's told everyone in the family about this affair now, and I'm angry that she's put all of us in the position of being secret-keepers and/or secret-spillers. I don't approve of her doing this and have told her that I think she should either tell dad, or formally seperate from him so it doesn't matter. She says she wants to avoid divorce because of all the legal and financial stress of it. I also worry that he's going to eventually find out (my parents live in a very small, rural community rife with malicious gossip, so it's going to come out), and I think my dad will be doubly hurt that everyone knew about this before him. I think he deserves to be left by my mom, but not to be humiliated by her. OTOH, I don't want to tell him myself because I feel that it's my mom's responsibility and I think she's on a subconscious level wanting to be 'caught' and hoping that someone will do the difficult work of telling dad so she doesn't have to. (My mom has always been very conflict-averse and neurotic.)

So, basically, to sum up: I'm anticipating a major blow-up and I've decided that it's important I keep a healthy relationship with both of my parents, and I know that I'll need to put in some effort to do that with my dad. I don't want to accidently or purposely tell him about the affair. Nor, do I want my attempts to re-establish more contact with my dad to be intepreted by my mom as some conspiracy against her. An example of how I'm considered trying to get closer with my dad is asking him to (re)teach me how to fish as it's something he knows and likes, and that I'm interested in getting into. I also have a particularly good memory of a fishing trip with him when I was 5 years old.

Other possibly relavant details: I'm an independent adult (approaching 30), own my own home and live several hours away. I ended a 9 year common law marriage last year when my former partner was unfaithful to me, and while I'm trying really hard to project some of that onto my parents' situation, I realize it's a risk. My sister (late 20s) is also independent from my parents, married with kids, and lives closer. My sister's husband talks regularly with my dad and is probably most affected by knowing. Both my parents (early 60s) have good jobs/pensions and healthy savings balances, property, etc, and neither will be devastated financially by a divorce.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think he deserves to be left by my mom, but not to be humiliated by her. OTOH, I don't want to tell him myself because I feel that it's my mom's responsibility and I think she's on a subconscious level wanting to be 'caught' and hoping that someone will do the difficult work of telling dad so she doesn't have to.

Tell your mom that one of you is going to tell your father. You're of course correct to be worried about and feel a need to support your father's mental health, but this is an issue of fundamental dignity. As bad as walking on eggshells is, it's made much worse by doing it to avoid confronting another person's bad behavior.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:45 PM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

She's told everyone in the family about this affair now... she says she wants to avoid divorce because of all the legal and financial stress of it. I also worry that he's going to eventually find out.

Since there's nothing in your post that suggests that your father is developmentally-impaired, have you considered the likelihood that he already knows, but doesn't care?

Sex outside of marriage is often formally disavowed but privately tolerated, and that sort of understanding is most common, I've found, among older people.
posted by rokusan at 1:47 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Talking about farming isn't a bad thing. Some guys won't go much deeper in conversation beyond that. That's the world he knows. That's the world he still has some control over. It is his measure of worth. If everything is falling apart - something that given the things you've said I doubt he doesn't realize (double negative intended - he knows things are going up in flame). He wants to know he made a difference. He wants to know his efforts helped make something for his children.

You don't need to tell him about the bad things in his life - you need tell him about the good things.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:54 PM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'd make sure your mother knows you resent being told about the situation and thus required to sort of pick sides by keeping the secret or not. But it sounds like you've done that.

Don't let your mother tell you any more details about her affair. If she tries, gently but firmly tell her that it's inappropriate and you don't wish to be any further involved.

Other than that, I'd stay out of it. I don't know your parents obviously, but based on the broad strokes you give here, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to learn that your father's been unfaithful as well, possibly for several years. Have you considered this possibility, and what does it do to your view of the situation?
posted by Naberius at 1:58 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Setting aside the affair, does your dad have any hobbies or interests? Fishing is a pretty good way to spend time with people and not have a lot of pressure. Plenty of stuff to talk about (where to go, what kind of lures, etc) without getting intensely personal.
posted by electroboy at 2:05 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Explain to your mother that she is going to tell him. Or else. She is being unfair to him and you.

There is never a justification for an affair. There maybe tons of justification for leaving, for finding someone else, but if you made a promise, you are supposed to keep it. People think that sexual satisfaction is a justifiable reason for not keeping a promise and lying, but it is not. Cheating is about promises not kept and lies. It is about betrayal, not sex. You can get sex with someone else by making hard choices and sticking with those choices. Divorce is painful, but it is the right thing for her to do, rather than break a promise she made and her lying and putting you in difficult positions. It isn't fun. Life rarely is.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:11 PM on September 23, 2009 [9 favorites]

I would push your hand with your mother; she needs to tell your father or you do. Right now you're letting a family member be humiliated, and he may never forgive you for that.

It seems like your mother is passive-aggressively ridding herself of your father, as you said., and your father is to depressed to even attempt that. This situation isn't healthy for either of them, and neither is going to help themselves.

Good luck, it sounds like you are in for some tough times trying to save both of them.
posted by Willie0248 at 2:15 PM on September 23, 2009

Sometimes people appreciate, and even hunger for, being treated as their own person who is not defined by their relationship to someone else.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:23 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it's really rational to be angry at your mom for putting you in this position. It's incredibly selfish and unfair. I would be very hard-pressed to keep a secret like this, because I too have had a cheating ex, and part of what made it so hard for me was that a lot of our friends knew about it long before I did, but none of them had the balls to tell me. So, when my marriage dissolved, so did a significant percentage of my friendships, because I was furious at them too. I can't even imagine how much that hurt would have been magnified if it had been my family deceiving me. (Anecdotal...and I was in my 20s and considerably more volatile then.)

Were I in your position, I would take my dad out to dinner (or fishing, or whatever you guys do together that he enjoys), and tell him. I would do that because I think he deserves to know, and because I would absolutely refuse to be a party to a betrayal like that.

But then, I have a tendency to get up on my high horse and be all paladin about the place, which...not always the most rational of responses. This may be the absolute worst approach for your family dynamic. I have no way of knowing what the fallout would be, only you know that.

I'm really sorry you've been put in this position. It was a cruel thing for your mother to do, and I'm very sorry.
posted by dejah420 at 2:42 PM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Unless he beats her i feel he does not deserve to not be told. Its not fair that you know and hes doesn't. I would honestly tell him yourself.
posted by majortom1981 at 2:45 PM on September 23, 2009

How do you have a good relationship with someone you're keeping a big bad secret from? Answer: you can't. Either your mom has got to tell him or you do.
posted by selfmedicating at 2:58 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since your mother has told her entire family, news of her affair is bound to "leak" to your father, if telling your entire family isn't leaking enough. By your mother telling her family, it signifies that her intention isn't really to keep it a secret.

If your father asks you directly whether or not your mother is having an affair, you are obliged to let him know. However, due to the nature of your conversations with him, he won't probably bring it up himself.

It's not your responsibility to tell him, but it sounds as if your mom is being non-confrontational, which is selfish and puts you and your sister and her husband in an uncomfortable situation. That she doesn't want a divorce and "all the legal and financial stress of it" also signifies selfishness. I'm wondering about the risk of STI's too. But everyone deserves more than a half-hearted relationship; something needs to happen.

If this "secret" is not eating away at you and disrupting your conversations with your father, continue as is. You can choose to be complicit and let your father find out some other way. But if it really is bothering you, get together with your sister and her husband and tell your father together. As long as you emphasize that you all are informing him out of love and respect for him, he won't mind that he is the last to know.
posted by mlo at 3:11 PM on September 23, 2009

Don't stress about you mom's affair. If you're not in a position to have close conversations with your father, you're not the one to talk to him about this. Not yet, anyway. Maybe you should talk this over with your sister and brother-in-law, who you say have a closer relationship to your dad?

You say you rarely have conversations with your dad about emotional things. But also, you should work up to it. Talking about him and your mom, or eventually your mom and this other guy, are bound to be emotional conversaitons. That conversation doesn't have to be always "out of your league". Maybe you'd be interested in having some real emotional conversations with him about something else.

Ask him what he thinks about... um... a career move you made? an emotional time in your past? That time your sister's college-boyfriend was in trouble with the law? When you came home from college break convinced you were going to be a lawyer but got over it 6 months later? A college road-trip you went on that you never mentioned to the big bad parents? Anything you can think of that is (a) past tense, (b) non-sexual, (c) open to interpretation. It's a real conversation and will help you two learn about each other - what you value, what you risk, how you react, how you share things, etc. It's also a practice conversation, and if your mom refuses to "have the talk", you'll have a better idea of how to talk with (not to!) your dad when you get to the super-difficult stuff. Maybe you'll start with something ridiculously simple, but as you know him better, you can start breaking those barriers and talking about things you currently care about.

Me, I find this all pretty difficult. It's been 12 years since my parents split up, and I've rarely been able to talk to my dad - I'd give him a conversational opener, and he politely set it down. Except sometimes he doesn't, and we talk about stuff. I can't control when my dad will talk to me, and when he's going to tell me the latest football scores. But we've talked about his retirement plans, and how he feels about his career path that wasn't what he expected, and about my brother's kid and what it was like for dad when we were babies, and I tried to tell him not just the news during my job search, but what it all meant to me with the resumes and the self-evaluations and the rejections and the decisions.

Find things to talk about. Bring them up, because he sure won't. Ask him his opinion, because he won't volunteer it. He's a man who's lived longer than us, and will have a different perspective, and letting him know you value that might go a ways towards getting him to open up to you.
posted by aimedwander at 4:09 PM on September 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

Give your mother a deadline. Less than a week. Tell her that if she hasn't told dad by the end of that day you will tell him the next day. Stick with the date you set. If she claims your deadline isn't a good day, then tell her to do it sooner rather than later. If she still complains, she should have told him *before* the affair and she shouldn't have involved you, and these are the consequences of her actions.

I'm sure that she gave you consequences as a kid. Well, right now, she sure seems to be acting like a kid.

As to how to build up your relationship with your dad, maybe try to be the one there for him if your mom isn't that person after he's told. Alternately, since you have a fair difference in personalities, your bonding might after be at the farming level. Think of it as one of those sitcom scenes, like Rescue Me, where they're saying mostly banal things, and the subtitles do the translating of their secret language.

I.E. they say, "I'll see you later son." and it translates as "I love you, son."
posted by nobeagle at 6:22 AM on September 24, 2009

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