I feel hurt that he’s done this to my mom (though I knew their marriage wasn’t great) but I feel most upset about the fact that my family has been keeping it from me. Should I talk to my dad about what he’s doing? Do I have a right to be angry with the rest of my family? I feel shocked and upset but I’m not even sure who it’s directed at. Please help. When I went home for the holidays. I found out (on Christmas Eve!) that my father has been having an affair with a woman in our town for months. Everybody in my family knew except me. It’s a pretty open secret.—Betrayed and Bewildered
Well shit, fidelity really seems to be going out with a bang doesn’t it?
Monogamy is not for everybody. But when it’s not for our parents (and they aren’t in a situation to deal with that like the adults we want them to be) it can be brutal. I’m sorry your dad cheated on your mom. That’s ugly and it hurts. I’m also sorry to hear that your family lied to you. That’s doubly painful. Adding Christmas Eve into the equation just sounds like spreading mayo on a shit sandwich. Ick.
All that being said, it sounds like you’re approaching this with a fair amount of dignity and grace. The broader issue here is a conversation about fidelity—a cultural practice many of us have take for granted (see: stats about fidelity here, the release of the Ashley Madison members list, or "Dear Sugar" devoting THREE whole podcasts to the issue).
To understand this issue, you will have to reckon with your own feelings, your family, and your father as an individual. Meanwhile, a cultural reckoning about the pragmatics of fidelity is happening all around you. I suggest you start small and go slow in this process of forgiveness, airing of grievances, and healing.
BEFORE YOU TALK TO ANYBODY
Do something for yourself. Hang out with your friends or partner. Take your dog for a walk. Go play a game of squash if thing your thing. Whatever you do, re-affirm your place in your own life, which you live on your terms.
YOU DO YOU
If and when you talk to your dad, do it for yourself. Don’t try to convince him of anything. Your dad is doing something that’s hurtful to his family and his relationship. On some level he knows this. On another very basic level probably it feels really good to him to find intimacy or sexual fulfillment with another person. If and when you speak to him make sure you let him know first that you’re asking him to listen and respond later.
John Updike, author of Couples, a novel about sixties swingers who tried to drown out their post-Calvinist New England sorrow with sex in small town, said in a 1960 Time Magazine interview that adultery had become a kind of “imaginative quest” for a man’s successful, enjoyable hedonism in an otherwise meaningless life.” Your father may be of Updike’s generation and of the same mind. He may not be. But usually when people stray, they’re seeking meaning.
PEOPLE USUALLY HAVE REASONS FOR DOING THINGS
Ask your family members individually why they didn’t talk to you about your dad. They may have lame reasons or good reasons, but hearing them out will help you contextualize their actions. This could be a moment to deepen your relationships with them. Frame it as a conversation not just about the affair, but about secrecy in your family in general.
Remember that you don’t have to say anything. As the child (or rather, adult offspring) in this situation, you do not bear a responsibility to help your parents figure this out. You have this knowledge and you can do with it what you want. Usually, it feels better to talk about things and get them out in the open but if you just need to sit with this information for a little while, that’s OK too. You have a right to feel whatever it is you’re feeling and you have a right to share that at your own discretion.
SET UP A THERAPY APPOINTMENT, IF YOU CAN
Do it, like, yesterday. No matter how beautifully you handle something like this you need a good listening ear. Check who your insurance covers, then, GO!
My dear, friction in a marriage—whether it’s actualized in the form of an affair or not—never seems fair for the kids. Whether those “kids” are three or thirty-three. When things go wrong with our parents we respond to the news as all of the ages we have ever been. There is the two-year-old’s tantrum, the twelve-year-old’s disgust, the 19-year-old’s empathy, and then you—whoever you are today. I hope that you make space for all of those feelings.
I’d remind you that your parents are also all of those ages and the emotional states that come with them. Here’s hoping that you can meet as your adult selves to work this through.