How do I find other people who experienced this niche manipulation?
March 17, 2023 5:54 AM   Subscribe

When I was a small child, a trusted adult coached me in lying and providing alibis to enable their extra marital affairs. I then played this role for them until early adulthood. It was not good for me! Now I’m middle aged, I’ve never knowingly met another go-between and I think this is a bit of a stumbling block in me understanding what happened.

I have a good therapist; I would find it additionally helpful to talk to people who’ve personally been through the same thing as me. I don’t really know what strategies are best for finding them.

I have other traumatic experiences (including physical violence) that I’ve found easier to process because they’re sadly so common I’ve met many other people who “get it”, without having to seek them out. That mutual understanding has been really helpful to me. I wonder if it comes across as nitpicking to concentrate on the specifics of running interference for a cheat; people who’ve been manipulated by different means can presumably empathise. I just know that it makes me feel freakish in a way other memories of abuse don’t.

Is it possible to find others who were triangulated in this manner? I have no social media presence, partly as a hangover from having to keep a lot of secrets, and I’m also not even sure how I’d word such a thing as an open call anyway. Googling hasn’t thrown up much of relevance to me, so any links you might have on related topics are also welcome.
posted by Tremble, Burglars! to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There’s a memoir called “Wild Game” that’s about something like this.
posted by 41swans at 6:06 AM on March 17 [3 favorites]

I don’t have personal experience to offer, but to offer a link on a related topic: have you read the novel The Go-Between by LP Hartley? It’s about a boy who’s placed in a similar position to the one you describe, and out of naive enthusiasm & a kind of awestruck love for the adults involved, he takes up the role without understanding the damage that it’s doing. It’s about unreliability, on a bunch of different levels. Highly recommended, whether or not you find it has any therapeutic value. There’s also a decent film version with Julie Christie & Alan Bates.
posted by Puppy McSock at 6:08 AM on March 17 [5 favorites]

Apologies if this isn’t helpful, but are you familiar with the concept of moral injury? It’s the idea that you behave in a way that violates your core beliefs, because you feel you have to or have been instructed to. What a profound moral injury you experienced as a child, to be pushed to lie by someone you trusted.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:28 AM on March 17 [12 favorites]

I had a version of that happen in my first "real" grownup job. My boss apparently used employees to play that role, and since I was brand new and young I didn't think I could refuse so I got stuck with this for a couple of years. It was awkward and embarrassing, and I can imagine that being forced into it as a kid would be traumatic and very unpleasant.

I wonder if you would find commonalities in the experiences of people whose parents were grifters or scammers, and were made to play a role in that as kids? From the outside, it seems like there would be overlap in being forced to participate in lies and troubling actions, and made to keep inappropriate secrets.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I think Reddit's r/raisedbynarcissists would be a very plausible place to begin looking, even if this wasn't a parent and/or a narcissist per se. The general idea of a child having been put in such a role is unfortunately common enough there that I think you'd find folks whose stories would resonate and who may be able to connect you to more specific resources.
posted by teremala at 6:38 AM on March 17 [5 favorites]

I haven’t seen the film (spoiler?) but I think Speilberg’s latest film Meet the Fabelmans has a plotline like this (and is semi-autographical).
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:50 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I haven’t seen the film (spoiler?) but I think Speilberg’s latest film Meet the Fabelmans has a plotline like this (and is semi-autographical).

I have seen the film; it isn't quite like this. It's a child discovering evidence of an affair and confronting the guilty parent, the parent apologizes and begs child to keep quiet because they're stopping it, child complies. So it's sort of adjacent, but not really a "giving an alibi" or "go-between" situation.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:53 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I wonder if you would find some utility in discussions of "parentification" - kids, essentially, having to learn to act as grownups in their relationships with the people who are supposed to be the grownups.

What's different is that parentification exists between a parent and their child, with the child supporting emotional and logistical needs, and being asked to be the parent instead of the kid. But what's similar is that, well, no adults are supposed to be relying on children to take care of things for them. The trusted adult in your life may have had a caregiving/nurturing role for you, or not, but either way they inappropriately relied on you to act as an adult and to be involved in their adult world. They relied on you to take care of something that wasn't your business to even think about, much less feel like you owed them assistance. It wasn't fair to you. It was a betrayal of your trust to ask you to take part in that as a grownup, instead of maintaining the appropriate boundary between a responsible adult and a trusting kid. To me, all those elements have an alignment/similarity to parentification.

Like teremala's suggestion above, this search term and way of thinking might help you learn about and find the others who have been manipulated by adults.

I'm sorry you're having to sort through this.
posted by neutralhydrogen at 8:26 AM on March 17 [3 favorites]

The suggestions above are good, especially in that they redefine the question to broaden the scope a bit. A slight reframing might help you find others in your shoes. For example, my parents split when I was young but didn't get around to divorcing. My father took up with another woman, who then got pregnant. My father insisted that my sister and I not mention the existence of our new sibling to our grandmother, his mother -- a sin of ommission, rather than commission. We were required to keep this secret until he finally told her, when the child was a full two years old. I'm still angry at him about this, making children cover for him because he was afraid to face his own mother. My ex did something similar-ish: he used my small son as cover for his affair. I doubt he ever told my son to lie to me -- my son was too small to really be able to do that -- but even as a three or four year old, my son was socially astute enough to know even without being told that he wasn't supposed to mention to Mama that actually, that camping trip hadn't been just him and his father, but that there was another, third person there. I will never tell my son that his father used him in this way, in large part because I don't want him to be as alienated from his father as I am from mine. All of which is meant to serve as an example of how, with a small amount of reframing, you may find that there are plenty of others who experienced things at least a little bit similar. I'm sorry that you're struggling with this.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 9:32 AM on March 17 [2 favorites]

Yes, I came here to suggest The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley!! You MUST have heard this novel before as you alluded to it in your post, or was that just an amazing coincidence?!

It's exactly your situation, and the indelible scars that it has left on the little boy. The novel is also written from a first person point of view.

If you ever heard the phrase, "The past is a foreign country", it comes from this novel. A classic for all sorts of reasons.

Another term to consider searching for: 'emotional incest'. Not quite the same but refers to when an adult treats the child as their emotional support.
posted by moiraine at 9:41 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

This was me as a kid (more the tween age) with one of my parents. I wasn't explicitly "coached" but I was told what do do about phone calls that hang up, not to answer the phone at certain times (this was the 1980s) and to fib about what one parent was doing at night when I knew full well that they weren't doing what they said. I finally tearfully confronted parent when alone in a car with them, called them a liar and said everyone knows what's going on. Nothing was mentioned about it ever again. From what I remember, those mysterious incidents stopped happening some time after... plus I got older and was gone from the house more often, so I just didn't see it or hear my parents loud arguing.

Fast forward 40 years and my parents are still together, 81 years old and probably happier together now than I ever remember them to be. They were not abusive or neglectful or anything bad to me or my brothers except for this stuff I'm mentioning. I do still carry it as baggage decades later, but the baggage is tiny and lightweight now. Took many years to come to grips with this.

I do not hold anything against anyone. My dad was in Viet Nam four different times around the time I was born and it must've been a living hell for my mom as well as him. I'm sure he suffered/is still suffering from PTSD, but none of that was ever mentioned back in those days. He almost never ever talked about the war, but he was in firefights and set up hospitals in-country. My brothers and I were (unfairly) recruited to be heavy emotional support for one of our parents and it affects me to this day.

Entire families suffer from PTSD and only one of us five has ever stepped into an official war zone.

People are complicated and shit happens. War is probably one of the worst things that can happen to a family, generationally. My anecdotes here are just a tiny part of the crap that was going on/is still going on in my immediate family. But I was lucky to have and still have otherwise wonderful parents who are as flawed as any other human being. I love thm. They love me. Ain't nobody's perfect.
posted by SoberHighland at 10:22 AM on March 17 [4 favorites]

There is a storyline like this in the first season of the HBO show In Treatment.
posted by lookoutbelow at 10:33 AM on March 17

Mod note: Comments removed. Please focus on helping the OP by answering the question and refrain from injecting politics in a non-political question, thanks!
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 11:05 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

My parents did this to me, and not just to hide things from each other but also from other people, like friends and family members. I think the emotion I struggle with the most, and still feel some shame about, is that I desperately craved attention and affection and understood that this was one way I could get it -- but I knew deep down it was all wrong.
posted by sm1tten at 12:01 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone; that was very helpful.

I desperately craved attention and affection and understood that this was one way I could get it -- but I knew deep down it was all wrong

One thing I heard a lot when I was young was that I could be trusted with secrets because I was so mature and clever for my age, not like other children. And yes, I knew (even if I couldn't articulate or knew that I knew) that all this was askew somehow. Confusing. I haven't shaken the shame, either.
posted by Tremble, Burglars! at 4:38 PM on March 17 [7 favorites]

I believe artist Louise Bourgeois may be of interest to you; her father's frequent infidelities and the trauma (and shame!) they caused were a central theme in her work.
posted by smorgasbord at 9:55 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

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