Q. A year ago, I discovered that my father is cheating on my mother. I have felt completely paralyzed for the past year because I do not know what to do. My father does not know that I know. I found out by snooping through his e-mail. I feel bad about doing that, and due to some problems I had a few years ago, I am afraid that if I confront him, he will throw that in my face.
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I don't know if my mother knows. I am so angry with my father, and there are times when I want to talk to him about this, but I don't know what to say. I feel like I should tell my mother because this situation is not fair to her. My dad has always been a difficult person, and I get the feeling he has become even harder to live with than usual. I feel like I should tell my mother, but at the same time I can't imagine telling her something that will hurt her so much. How should I handle this situation?
A. I would incline toward not telling your mother, and not confronting your father, either.
Your father didn’t give you this information or otherwise “let” you find out he was having an affair. It’s not as though you walked in on him in bed with some other woman. You found out by snooping. What’s more, your mother did not come to you asking if you knew anything about your father and another woman.
It is not for you to intervene in your parents’ private business by disclosing this information. It’s unfortunate you have created this burden for yourself by snooping. There’s a good reason not to snoop! You might find out things you don’t want to know.
It sounds as though your parents don’t have a great marriage, and that you also don’t get along with your father as you wish you did. Perhaps you hope to punish him some way, which makes the desire to “tell on him” even greater.
If so, this is a bad reason to rat him out. You shouldn’t act out your own problems with your father in ways that involve your mother.
There are many times when a spouse does know about an affair, or suspects one, but remains in denial, choosing to keep the family intact and the problems under cover, because that’s how they prefer to handle such difficult circumstances.
It is unlikely any good will come from telling your mother. By doing so, you are usurping her right to handle this the way she chooses to. If you give this information to her, you are making that decision for her, and it’s not yours to make.
What’s more, you do not know how your mother will react if you tell her. Think carefully about whether you want to make yourself responsible for her pain and potentially for the end of your parents’ marriage. You might also undermine your own relationship with your mother. By causing further destruction between your parents, you only stand to lose.
It’s also not a good idea to let your father know that you know — in effect, you would be threatening him. You have secrets you wouldn’t share with him, and you would be outraged if he found out and confronted you. You aren’t entitled to tell him how to live his life unless he is doing so in ways that directly affect you.
The fact that you snooped on your father indicates you have a crippled relationship with him, and feel you have “caught” him doing something wrong.
It seems that you identify with your mother and feel emotionally betrayed by your father. That makes you want to gain revenge by telling, but it won’t change your feelings of betrayal.
You might consider approaching your father, acknowledging your troubled relationship and seeing whether you can work out your differences. This is a more constructive way to deal with this situation than telling either of your parents that you know about this affair.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: An adult child should work out difficulties they have with their parent, but not place themselves between their parents.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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