The Ethicist: Can I Talk to My Dad About His Affair?

December 17, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Can I Talk to My Dad About His Affair?

My mother recently let slip that my father had an affair several years ago. I’m the oldest sibling in a family that I have always considered extremely close. The news was a devastating shock. Immediately after her disclosure, my mother told me that I could never tell my father that I knew. She insisted that the counseling they went through afterward resulted in a much happier marriage. Apparently, they decided to keep it a secret; only one other sibling knows.

Since I learned of his affair, my interactions with my father have felt stilted. He has always been one of the most important people in my life, but now when we talk I’m distracted by anger and distrust. My gut tells me that I should have a conversation with him about what happened in order to move on, but I also believe I have an ethical obligation to respect my mother’s wishes. My sibling’s view is that further discussion would only bring unnecessary turmoil to our conflict-averse family. Should I hope that forgiveness comes with time, or risk broaching this difficult topic with my father? Name Withheld

My response: “Should I …?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

By the way, I’d note that your mother told you—I don’t think it was the accident she or you implied with “let slip”—or I would say burdened you, and unburdened herself, then imposed on you an obligation. Or I would say attempted to impose on you an obligation. She only succeeded if you choose to accept her unilateral imposition. I saw nothing in your story to prompt her imposition.

I wouldn’t accept her unilateral decision to burden you with her guilt or whatever motivation. I’d involve her in the process of what you do with it so as not to surprise her, but I’ve written in this column several times about not accepting people’s obligations without knowing what they’re asking of you.

She didn’t even ask you. Looks entitled and insensitive if you ask me.

The New York Times response:

Your mother asked you to keep what she said in confidence, and it would seem you accepted her request. You’re right, then, that you owe it to her to keep your word. At the same time, you might want to consider why your relationship with your father has been so damaged. True, he risked the family’s tranquillity a while ago, but his biggest betrayal was of your mother, and she has forgiven him. Things are now fine with them. Then there’s the fact that your sibling — looking at the same situation, with the same knowledge of the characters involved — judges that nothing good will come from confronting the past.

So there’s a case for doing as your sibling counsels. You’ll forgive your father eventually, or just get used to thinking of him as imperfect in this way. Recognizing our parents’ failings is part of growing up. And it’s hard for parents to discuss their sins with their children. They’re used to things being the other way round. They think, correctly, that some of their authority comes from your respect for them. (Indeed, your own response to your father’s affair confirms this.)

The trouble with your sibling’s position, though, is that it entails maintaining a serious and corrosive dishonesty at the heart of your relationship with your father. You’re going to be tempted at some point to bring up the affair when you’re angry or upset, and he’s going to ask how long you’ve known — or worse, deny it, and add to the lies between you. If intimacy with your father matters to you as much as it evidently does, this attempt at omertà may simply not work. In some cultures, families are conflict-averse and not very intimate; in others there’s space for conflict (and its resolution) and a good deal of intimacy. I offer it as an anthropological hypothesis that those are the stable combinations.

There are issues about why your other siblings should be kept out of all of this, but the situation is complex enough considering just you, one sibling and your parents. Right now, your father doesn’t realize that two of his children know about his affair. This is a troubling situation, even for him, because it creates an atmosphere of brittle conspiracy. I’d suggest that you try to get your mother to see that keeping her confidence is unfair to your father and damaging to your relationship with him. She may feel that bringing this all up will upset the carefully achieved improvements in their relationship. But no solution here is without costs.

My sister-in-law, her ex and her children have bankrupted my in-laws by taking advantage of their generosity over the years. My in-laws have little for retirement and recently had to sell their house. My sister-in-law and her family are now in a better financial situation, spending on vacations and cars. How can I encourage them to repay my in-laws in some way? I don’t know how my in-laws would feel, but it’s heartbreaking to see them struggle after their hard-earned funds were wasted, seemingly with little gratitude or sense of obligation. But I also wonder if interference would make a difference. These people have proved to be selfish. I can barely stand the prospect of spending time with them, and if I do, I feel like a fraud for not standing up for my in-laws. Each time they bring up the latest vacation or new car, I feel sick. Name Withheld

My response: If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

You see a retired couple that has been exploited by their daughter, her ex-husband and her children, a cohort whom you regard with some revulsion. If you’re right about the situation, your feelings are appropriate. Part of being a decent person is having what philosophers call the appropriate “reactive attitudes.” The philosopher Peter F. Strawson described these as “essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others toward us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions.” He mentioned resentment, gratitude and anger, among other such emotions that we have in response to how we ourselves are treated. But we can usefully extend the idea to the attitudes we have to those who display good or ill will or indifference toward others, especially those we care about.

When you don’t have such attitudes about people — second-order reactive attitudes, like the anger and indignation you feel — you treat them as if you weren’t enmeshed in relationships with them. When you do have such attitudes, and they’re justified, you are entitled to express them. You have every right to tell your sister-in-law what you think.

Why haven’t you done so? Perhaps because you fear her first response will be reactive attitudes of her own: anger and resentment at you for saying these things. It can be hard to forgive those who point out our sins, especially if we are half-aware that we’re not doing the right thing. Once our bad behavior is made explicit, it’s harder to excuse ourselves.

So you’re justified in wondering whether bringing the topic up will do any good. Indeed, the first effect may be that you cease to have the kind of family gatherings that you now dread, because they stop speaking to you altogether. If your husband shares your view, it will make things easier; he can support your arguments and accept with you the social consequences of speaking up. But if he doesn’t, the costs will be higher still.

Consider, instead, getting together with your ingrate kin (and any other members of the family who could help) and discussing how you can all help your in-laws. You’ll probably achieve more if, rather than confronting these moochers with their moral debts, you adopt a line like: “After all they’ve done for us over the years, I feel we should do something for them.”

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