Ignorance is bliss.
December 30, 2005 12:06 AM   Subscribe

Ethical dilemma filter: How to move on from negative consequences of a hack done out of real concern?

I have two very uncommunicative parents who live overseas and one of them was ill a little while back but the other pretended it was not serious whilst I had my suspicions that it was. The frustration at not knowing what was happening lead me to hacking their personal email accounts. Their passwords were very predictable (ironically due to me knowing the type of people they are) and in doing so I have now opened up a Pandora's box.

It was a lot more serious than the other let on and although now recovered at the time it was clear that, the reality and the impression received were two different things. I do not want to go into further detail as it is not beyond the realms of possibility that one could browse this website. I have now discovered that one is having an affair, the other completely oblivious and that they are both pretending everything is absolutely fine. I am disgusted by the thought of the affair and even more disgusted that I have brought this knowledge and it's consequences on myself. How can I move on from this whilst taking part in this charade that all is ok?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total)
How would you feel if your parents had hacked into your private email? It's an undeniably unethical thing to do.

That said, I empathize with you quite a bit. My father has been unwell for some time, and my mother never really tells me about the more serious aspects of it. I just found out that he was in a serious car accident a few years ago - this is why he's no longer allowed to drive. I also found out, after the fact, that he'd once wandered off for the better part of a day only to call, confused, from a gas station miles away.

My mother's justification for not communicating this to me is that there was nothing at all I could have done about the situation save worry about it. She wanted to spare me that. She still does.

Which is exasperating. I really want to help out with the family and share the burden of caring for my father, but I'm not really allowed to.

As for the affair, I think you simply need to accept the fact that your parents are independent adults who can care for themselves. It's probably best that you let them deal with it on their own. Indeed, it's entirely possible that your mother or father already knows about the infidelity and is dealing with it in their own way.

How to move on? I don't know. If you're going to be consumed by guilt and feelings that you should be doing something more it might be best to own up to your email hacking and lay everything on the table. But if you can somehow put it out of your mind, perhaps that would be better. I suppose it boils down to determining what's more important - your personal well being or your parents relationship.

But as none of us here know you as anything more than white text on a green screen you'll have to do the heavy lifting on your own. Can you think of a third way that will ease your conscience and help your parents?
posted by aladfar at 12:30 AM on December 30, 2005

In the first place, it was disrespectful of you to hack into your parents' email account. You're all adults now, and what they choose to relate to you is their own business. What you've discovered about their private lives was off limits to you. If you're going to raise your concerns with them, you'll have to acknowledge your hack. Even if your parents have communication problems with you and with each other, you made the big transgression here. Maybe they need to hear what you want to tell them, but you have to be aware that you may bear the brunt of the emotional consequences.
posted by maryh at 12:36 AM on December 30, 2005

For what it's worth, I'd have done the same thing in anon's position, even if I'd known ahead of time that I'd be severely vexed from listening at keyholes.

As for advice on what to do now that the deed is done...

I guess the only useful thing you can do here is to try to bridge the chasm betwixt you and your parents. I imagine this would begin with some sort of confrontation and will probably involve a lot of unpleasantness along the way. But my family is plenty screwed up and cold and distant and I've never found a kinder, gentler way to deal with this kind of stuff.

In any case, once you do something that, however painful, you honestly feel might help the situation, I think you'll begin to put the hackery issues behind you.
posted by Clay201 at 12:58 AM on December 30, 2005

Spill it. Spill it all. Tell them you want to talk about something, get them together, and spill it.

While the truth is unpleasant, while the truth will hurt, while the truth will probably end their marriage, while the truth was something you stole... it's still better than living a lie.

Neither you nor your parents can ever be whole and real if they are living a lie. People will tell you this is crazy talk, but hey... you are living the lie right now... it's poisoning you right now... how do you feel?
posted by ewkpates at 5:06 AM on December 30, 2005

As a bit of a snooper myself, I can honestly imagine myself in your situation. Without being all "Dr. Phil," I encourage you to use this as a learning experience as much as possible - what can you take away from it that will teach you about caring for your parents first, rather than revealing everything and clearing your conscience so you can care for yourself. If it were me, I would use this as an opportunity to try and get closer to them, doing what I could to establish the kind of relationship that would allow me to offer support. Even if it's just sending e-mails and cards more regularly, offering to visit (or coincidentally planning an overseas trip that would happen to allow you to spend some time with them), sharing a little more of your life with them might help make up for the rude disconnect you felt when your parents' lives turned out to be so different than you expected. It might avoid it in the future too.

I hope this makes sense; if it were me, I'd be shocked that I missed out on some key events in my parents' lives. You can't "unring the bell" without causing a lot more damage (I'm in the 'don't tell' camp), so I'd work on being the kind of person that doesn't feel the need to snoop to know what's going on. You can't make them tell you anything, of course, but you can show you're open to listening.

Best of luck - learning everyone's flawed (and loving them anyway) is tough.
posted by deliriouscool at 5:51 AM on December 30, 2005

They are "uncommunicative", "overseas" and clearly don't want you very close (pretending an illness was not serious). While you may be concerned about their life, it is indeed their life - using this information you obtained (the actual method does not really matter) will only create more obstacles if you ever want to get closer to them again. Besides, what is really the point? Morals? Yours or theirs?

I'd say, forget it forever. If you want to do something, move closer to your parents and start being a part of their life in the first place.
posted by nkyad at 6:17 AM on December 30, 2005

Imagine how you would feel if you knew one of your parents had hacked your email password. Would you really want to know if your Mom knew you were cheating on your wife, or embezzling at work, or hiding the fact that you had MS? Thinking about it from their perspective may help you decide how to proceed.

It might help to talk to a therapist or close friend who can keep a confidence. Sometimes you have to discuss secrets to get the anguish resolved.

If you have not done so already, stop reading their email. It's hard to stop when you know there is more news, but you have to stop.
posted by theora55 at 7:36 AM on December 30, 2005

I don't advise telling them about the hack. (Though I also could imagine a similar situation, if my parents actually used e-mail.)

For your own peace of mind, you've got to find a little box in your head for the information about the affair. We all compartmentalize the parts of our past that we're not proud of -- the disgust you feel for the affair can go in the same box as the guilt about snooping.

Working out an adult relationship with parents is tough. If you still feel very conflicted, a few sessions with a therapist isn't a bad idea, if you're so inclined. (Reading through a bunch of old AskMeFi's about all the sundry dilemmas between adult kids and their parents may provide you some comfort as well -- I know it has for me.)

Also, everything that fandango_matt said.
posted by desuetude at 9:30 AM on December 30, 2005

I have now discovered that one is having an affair

It's here that you get into trouble. I can't quite tell from the way you phrased everything, but you either checked their emails ONCE, to determine the disease situation, or you've CONTINUED to snoop, even now that the disease situation is over and done.

You were snooping anyway, so you better just suffer the consequences of knowing the secret. It's your own fault and you deserve the discomfort of knowing and not being able to tell.

Consider how anything would be different if, for example, you'd happened upon one of them kissing a lover in the street. So you know. What are you going to do about it?

If you feel that you should defend the other's honor at all costs, then tell the truth to everyone and damn the consequences of how you found out. It's not a court of law where some evidence is admissable and other evidence isn't.

If you don't think you can improve anyone's situation by telling, or if you think it's not your place, then keep your mouth shut.

And your hands folded.
posted by scarabic at 2:24 PM on December 30, 2005

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