Dear Prudence

My Son’s Father Killed Himself, but His Family Doesn’t Know He Had a Kid. Should I Tell Them?

Prudie’s column for March 9.

Mother and 4-year-old son walking.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monzenmachi/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a 38-year-old mother of a happy 4-year-old boy. My son was conceived after a one-night stand with “Ryan,” an acquaintance from college. He was, to put it best, an unstable mess: brushes with the law, drugs, sketchy employment, etc. When I decided to go through with my pregnancy, I didn’t want to invite his kind of chaos permanently into my life. I am currently engaged, and my fiancé wants to adopt my son. We went looking for Ryan only to find that he killed himself last year. Ryan had a very large and loving family based on what I can see from social media posts. I want to contact them but am afraid to. I am scared for my son since depression runs in my family as well; he needs a family medical history. I don’t know how they will react to my son or me, if they will be welcoming or hostile or confrontational. I have never met them. I doubt Ryan even knew my last name. I feel like I am sitting on Pandora’s box here. What should I do?

—Afraid to Open the Lid

Before you get in touch with anyone in Ryan’s family, talk to a lawyer. You seem uncertain in terms of what you’d be prepared to accommodate when it comes to his family, so spend a little time figuring that out with your lawyer and your fiancé first. Are you willing to let them meet your son? To have any sort of ongoing family relationship? What, if any, are their legal rights in your state? If all you need is proof of Ryan’s death for your fiancé to adopt your son, does it feel worth contacting Ryan’s family for a medical history and possibly inviting an additional family into your son’s life? Once you have a clearer idea of what’s legally possible and what you would consider a desirable (or at least acceptable) outcome, you can pick a specific family member and try to get in touch.

I don’t know how they will react either, but you should prepare yourself for a number of potential responses, from total stonewalling to requests to get to know your son. Remember that their first reaction might not be their last—it’s huge news, and they might need time to adjust. If you’re unable to get Ryan’s family medical history from them, you should move ahead as best you can without it. You already have some sense of what you should be on the lookout for based on your own family history. Be patient, be prepared to answer questions, figure out what you aren’t willing to share with them in advance, and have a script or two for some polite but firm refusals in mind. Get as informed as you can in advance, and wait to act until you feel (relatively) confident.

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Dear Prudence,

Empathy has never been my husband’s strong suit, but his actions most of the time demonstrate that he loves me, strives to be a good man, and wants a happy home. Still, he seems to believe that violence within a family is acceptable. He grew up in a dysfunctional family where he experienced physical and emotional abuse, with lasting scars. Several times in our marriage (of less than two years) he has been violent, treating me and my child cruelly, making us afraid, and leaving bruises and emotional scars. He does not claim responsibility for this and instead blames me for causing him to feel annoyed. After seeing how upset these incidents have made me—and after I refused to go on a trip with him out of fear that he’d assault me again in the car—he gave me his word that he would not put his hands on me in anger ever again. He has come a long way and has a genuine desire to build a positive future. He has stated his willingness to change what would otherwise be a deal-breaker issue in our marriage, and I believe he is capable of doing so. How can I help and support him in choosing loving kindness over anger, and in learning positive patterns of interaction that were not modeled for him growing up? And on the flip side, if he goes back on his word, how will I know when it’s time to quit and give up on the man I love, the family life I want, and our future together?

—Fighting Old Demons

It can be so tempting to try to reframe being abused as “not giving up on the man I love” because in that version, there’s something you can do in order to moderate or stop the abuse. But look at the question you’re asking me: How do I help support my husband choose not to hit me or my child? In the two years of your marriage, your husband has assaulted you in the car, bruised you and your child, instilled fear in you, and refused to take responsibility for his own violence, and instead blamed you for it. The only time he has paid lip service to the possibility of not committing violence is when you declined to go places with him, and he felt that he was at risk of losing the person he chooses to abuse. Have you ever had to ask that question about anyone else in your life? Have you ever, as an adult, needed someone else to “help” you not commit violence? Is he ever violent with his co-workers? With his boss? With authority figures? With strangers in public? Is he violent with your child when other people are around, or does he wait until it’s just the three of you to raise his hand?

The answers to these questions will tell you something about his ability to control his anger—namely, that he’s capable of nonviolence when he knows he could get in trouble for violence. He regularly decides to use violence against you and your child because he believes he can get away with it. It’s not a question of not knowing better or of having received insufficient healing for his own abusive childhood. He chooses to abuse you because he wants to do it. It’s not an accident, or a bad habit, or something that he needed to have explained to him. He has convinced you that he’s about to change because you wouldn’t do what he wanted, firmly set your own boundaries, and refused to get in the car with him, and right now he wants very badly to convince you that, as a grown man, he’s only just now realized it’s not a good idea to hit your wife or her child.

Please don’t think of this as a choice between “helping him choose loving kindness” or “giving up” on the man you love and the future you want. Your husband does not abuse you or your child because you haven’t been patient enough with him, or explained that abuse is wrong enough times, or because you haven’t been sweet enough or gracious enough or lovable enough or patient enough. You do not deserve to be abused, and it stands to reason that there is nothing you can do that guarantees your husband will not abuse you or your child again. What you can do is keep both yourself and your child safe from a man who you know is willing to hurt both of you, and capable of doing so. Please tell someone in your life you trust about the abuse, and document to the best of your memory every time your husband has laid his hands on you and your child. If you need help planning a way to leave safely, contact a local women’s shelter or the National Domestic Violence hotline. They will be able to help you find a lawyer and sue for sole custody.

I know this isn’t the question you asked me, and it may be that you feel protective of the man you love—that he’s wonderful most of the time, that he’s been misunderstood so often, and that you’re not his victim but his partner. I know that when you first met him, he was likely charming, winsome, and lovable, and that it’s so hard to think of “the man I love” and “the man who abuses me” as the same person. I’m so, so sorry your husband has assaulted you and your little one. You didn’t, and don’t, deserve it. You deserve safety, security, and peace, and I hope you find it.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.