Note: Randy Silverman, wherever you are, David Bianculli wants his comic books back. And I want more blackberries from Olympia.
A few months ago, when I was visiting home for the winter holidays, I made the unfortunate discovery that my father is having an extramarital affair.
I made the discovery when I used his laptop to get a little work done. He was well aware that I was going to use it while he was at the office for the day. I went to log in to my social e-mail after the work was finished, and an e-mail account appeared on the page, with my father's first name involved in an address I'd never seen before, and it was open at the in box. Obviously, he'd neglected to log out from this covert e-mail account the night before. The in box contained messages from only one person, a woman I'd never heard of.
I felt sick to my stomach, and on some level didn't want to know anything, and almost logged out. But at the same time, I couldn't stop myself, and still feel like an ass about it -- I read one, only one, of the many, many e-mails.
The one e-mail told me what was going on pretty clearly. It contained one back-and-forth exchange between the two of them. It wasn't explicitly sexual, but it was clear -- my 60-year-old father is having an affair with someone in another city. They have pet names for each other, they were trying to arrange a meeting over the holidays, but it was proving complicated, and there were some references to personal family stuff going on. My father made a slightly mean comment about my mother, which hurt to read. Incredibly, the woman mentioned something about being together for five years in the e-mail, so I even (sadly) learned the long duration of this thing.
In some ways, I wasn't surprised. I am not a judgmental enforcer of others' monogamy ... I want to be faithful to my own husband, and happily work at my own monogamy, but it seems understandable that after being married for over 35 years (like my parents), it is certainly human to fail once or twice. But the failings I imagine might happen for couples, like making out with someone from the office or having a regrettable one-night stand, are very different than a sustained, five-year relationship. My parents have always seemed pretty happy (if slightly dysfunctional, like everyone else in the world) to me. They've got problems, sure, but they always seem to be there for each other. My accidental and then purposeful snooping opened up a few dark possibilities that are lingering now, and I am really struggling with.
I didn't tell anyone about what I'd discovered while visiting. My husband loves my family, and I didn't want to ruin anyone else's time as much as mine had already been ruined. But I did tell him as soon as we were on the plane ride back home. I asked him to keep it private (I have siblings and haven't told them for obvious reasons), and I wanted his advice. More than anything, I am worried about my parents. My father drinks more than he should (this is his main dysfunction) and my mother always puts other people ahead of herself (this is hers). This affair makes me feel like there is a chance that my father no longer really has my mother's back. And what that means for these two people I dearly love as they are hitting their golden years scares the crap out of me.
Maybe my mom knows. Maybe she doesn't know? My husband thinks I need to talk about it privately with my father. I want to, but not in a nasty, confrontational way. I am worried and concerned about them, and I feel if I talk to him from that place, maybe that would be a reality check to help him clean up. Or maybe I would learn that they have an arrangement. I doubt it, but at this point, who the hell knows!
I want to have a conversation about this potentially life-altering behavior he is engaging in. Is that wrong, or selfish? I am his adult daughter. It feels strange to think about asking my father about his girlfriend, and what his plans are. What do I do? What do I say? Everything? Nothing? I know I shouldn't have opened that e-mail, but I did. Now I've created a mess, and I have no idea how to clean it up, or if I even should. Please help!
Sorry I Snooped
Dear Sorry I Snooped,
Put aside for now the question of whether to talk to your father about it. First ask how this is affecting you and why. Ask what you want. That is the important thing.
Later when you have figured that out, then you may or may not talk to him. You may decide that what you want is something that many of us want but cannot have -- to fix a wrong, to protect someone, to make things right.
If you talk to him before you understand what you want, and what you want to say to him, and how this situation is affecting you, then the opportunity to say what you truly want to say may be wasted. Worse, you may find yourself in some awful tangle. You may pull him into something, too. Finding himself in unknown territory, he may act in ways that he does not want to act; this may precipitate a cascade of events with unintended consequences.
The pain of family stuff is often too much. You never know.
So figure it out for yourself first. What do you want that is actually obtainable? Perhaps there is just something you want to tell him and, having told him, you can rest.
I don't know your family. I know my family, though. At least I know how many dogs are in the yard. I know how they act when you wake them up or anger them. So I let them sleep.
But supposing you think and think about this, and you talk with a therapist about it, or you spell it out and go over it and over it: How will you know when you have figured out what you want? How will you know? How will you know when you know?
Rummage through your mind for all the reasons you want to talk to him that represent impossibilities -- the desire to fix things, to rescue, to erase, to change, to control, to avert, to smooth over, to understand, to make whole again. Face it that none of these things can be done -- that entering into it with any of these hopes in front of you is a route to further futility.
You could make a list. There will be things on the list that you can't have. For instance: Do you want to protect your mother? You can't do that. Do you want to stop him from having the affair? You can't do that. Do you want to make sure nobody in the family keeps secrets? You can't do that. Do you want to erase this wrong? You can't do that.
You are left with maybe a few true words you want to say to him, after which you can say to yourself you did what you had to do and that is that.
Maybe you need more drama in your life. Maybe your whole family does. Maybe sometimes it is great for things to fall apart, for people to act in ways that precipitate unstoppable crumblings of marriages, recriminations that last for decades, children not talking to parents.
Maybe everyone would be secretly grateful if the secret came out. But often people don't have the courage to deal with the facts. They aren't set up for it. They don't have the language for it; they don't have the practices by which a family could come to terms with it. So rather than dramatic revelation and change, what you get when a secret is revealed is a lopsided, distorted, incomprehensible flash of the facts, and then these facts, dangerous and slightly distasteful, are shoved back into the bag with everything else they can't figure out what to do with, whether to throw it out or keep it or find some use for it, and it all sits on the floor in the utility closet for the next 20 years.
"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.
What? You want more advice?