Dear Dr. G.,
I desperately need your help. My 17-year-old daughter who is a high school senior suspects that I have been having an affair. The sad news is that she is right. I really don't know what to do here. I have been in a bad marriage for many years and I guess that I gave in to having an affair with someone who gave me attention. My husband is not only a workaholic but when he is home he doesn't pay much attention to me. Maybe I should get a divorce or maybe I should work on the marriage. I'm just not sure. I guess what I'm more concerned about right now is what to say to my daughter the next time she brings up this topic.
—A Scared Mother
Thank you for writing to me about the complicated set of circumstances that you are dealing with. I hope to be able to help not only you and your daughter but also others who are dealings with a similar set of circumstances. Trust me. You are not alone here even though you are in a very scary and perhaps lonely place in your life.
You clearly have a number of issues to deal with. Your priority, of course, is responding to your daughter. Since she suspects that you are having an affair and therefore already knows it would be a big mistake to lie to her. Lying to her would do more damage to your relationship with her. She would lose even more trust in you and might become angry. It is hard for a child to respect a parent who is lying to them. I suggest that you be honest with your daughter. You can tell her that yes you have been involved in a relationship outside of the marriage but you do not need to share details. Most kids do not want to know details. The details are not relevant. What is important is that you validate your daughter's suspicions and take her up on the opportunity to be honest with her.
Please do not ask your daughter to keep the affair a secret between the two of you. This would be terribly unfair to her and would put her in a very difficult position. You need to reassure her that you will tell your husband about what is going on in your life so that your daughter is not harboring a family secret and so that the anxiety level in the household decreases. You see, when there is a family secret there is also a great deal of anxiety. The family senses that something is amiss but is not sure what that is. I suspect that you are also feeling very anxious as it is extremely difficult to have a secret life, right?
Once the secret is disclosed to your husband you will have to deal with a variety of emotional reactions. I am sure that you are concerned about that. Nonetheless, that must happen. The proverbial cat is now out of the bag so you have no choice but to fully disclose. Then you and your husband can move on to the next step. You may decide to go to couples therapy to unpack and sort out the issues in the marriage. You may also want to consider individual therapy to focus on what needs are not being met in your life and what purpose the affair has served. I hope that you and your husband are able to work together. This will not be easy but it is clearly necessary.
Now let's get back to your relationship with your daughter. She may get angry at you when you confirm that you have been having an affair. Listen to her. She has a right to her feelings. You may want to apologize to her for any distress that you have caused the family. It would also be beneficial to let your daughter know that you will be seeking professional help. You may also want to ask your daughter if she too would like to see a therapist to deal with her feelings. Please provide her with this opportunity.
I wish you good luck and patience as you deal with this complicated situation. Please get back to me and let me know how things sort themselves out.