I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard my mom talking to her best friend on the phone when I came home early from soccer practice. She was talking about having an affair with a man from our church. They worked together this past summer and then started playing tennis with each other. He’s married, too. My mom said that while she loves my dad, she’s in love with this man. As soon as I realized she was sharing very private thoughts with her friend, I should’ve walked away. Instead, I kept listening. I feel very guilty. I met this man a few times and he isn’t smarter or more handsome than my dad. Why would my mom betray him? He’s always there for all of us.
I don’t know how to carry this secret. I can’t be a hypocrite and pretend like nothing has changed. Maybe she’ll stop seeing this guy on her own if I just give her time. But what if my dad finds out and becomes aware I knew? He’d feel betrayed by both of us. I’d want him to punch me, but he wouldn’t. He’d just be so hurt and disappointed in me.
If I tell him, my mother would never forgive me. If they get a divorce, it would be my fault. I’m 13 and somehow would deal with living with my parents alternatively but my two younger brothers (11 and 7) wouldn’t understand. It would break their hearts to have to spend time apart from either of our parents.
I think about talking privately with my mother and confronting her (not in a mean way), but I’m afraid. I’ve been really upset but haven’t told anyone, not even my grandma who will love my mom no matter what she does, like me. I’m not sure what to do. I love both my parents.
— Ryan (not my real name)
First of all, none of this is your fault, no matter what happens. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Relationships can be complex with shifting dynamics and you’re being forced to discover this at a young age.
While it’s not a good idea to eavesdrop, it’s normal to stop and listen when you hear something so shocking that feels like it could change your whole world. You didn’t deliberately go snooping through your mom’s emails. She accidentally talked where you could hear and you accidentally overheard. It was an accident. It’s not healthy for you to take on the responsibility of your whole family, including any future pain your brothers might experience.
You’re in a very difficult situation, feeling disloyal to your father if you don’t speak up and disloyal to your mother if you do. I understand that you can’t pretend you don’t know what you know. You’re finding yourself in someone else’s awful tangle and have ended up with an adult-sized burden, perhaps too big to bear alone.
Maybe you could talk to your grandmother, tell her what happened, and have her talk to your mother or confront her together. Is there another trusted adult you’re close to, someone who’s not directly involved and could help you shed some of the burden, process your feelings and help you work through this? If not, I recommend you speak to your parents about helping you find a counselor or psychotherapist. You’d have the opportunity to feel your own sadness, anger and fear without always worrying about everyone else first. A therapist with professional expertise in counseling about extramarital affairs can offer insight, won’t judge your parents’ behavior and instead can offer an objective viewpoint and practical steps to coping with this situation.
The therapist could discuss your feelings, family dynamics and explore questions such as, “Does either your mother or father have a bad temper?” “Is there a chance one of them might turn on you?” “Do they openly fight or threaten to leave each other?” You and your therapist could discuss the possibility of telling your mom what you overheard and explain that you don’t want to be part of a cover-up.
If you decide to confront your mom, think about what kind of parent she’s been over the years, as this — not the affair — defines your relationship with her. Ask yourself what you hope to achieve (i.e., protect your father, stop her from continuing the affair, make sure there are no more family secrets). These desires are probably not in your control.
I know it seems like everything around you is falling apart, but please try to keep a healthy, optimistic outlook on life and love. No matter what happens, none of this is your fault.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.