Care and Feeding

My Daughter Discovered Our Open Relationship in the Worst Possible Way

She thinks I’m having an affair. We should tell her the truth, right?

A 19yo woman looking pensive.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have been married for 22 years, and have had an open marriage for the past 10 years. Recently, our 19-year-old daughter was somewhere I wasn’t expecting her (in a different city where we live) and saw me with the woman I have been sleeping with for the past 18 months. We were in an intimate embrace, and she correctly inferred our relationship, but did not make her presence known to me. However, she confided in her mother. My wife told me our daughter saw us and now thinks I am having an affair. I asked my wife if she set the record straight about our open relationship, and the fact that she was actually with her lover at the same time I was with mine. She said that she doesn’t feel comfortable with our children knowing we have an open marriage.

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I am frustrated and angry and feel betrayed. The open marriage was something my wife and I agreed on together. I get feeling a little uncomfortable about admitting something so intimate to our children, but I think that the alternative—them thinking that I am a cheater who is cheating on their mother—is much worse. My wife says I should have been more careful, and that it will blow over. I disagree and want to tell all three of our children (19, 17, and 15 years old) immediately. She has told me she’d rather put an end to the arrangement than tell them. I told her we could do both, but that I was at least talking to the 19-year-old, telling her about the arrangement, and also telling her siblings if she has already told them about my supposed “affair.” My wife doesn’t like this plan, either. Should I go ahead with it anyway? I know my wife is just trying to save the image the children have of her, but in the process she doesn’t seem to see that she is influencing the way the children see me and my relationship with them. I’d rather my children see us as sexual beings with an open marriage than to see me as a cheater and their mother as a wronged party.

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—Swinger in Syracuse

Dear Swinger,

Whether you should’ve been more careful seems not worth litigating now; the cat’s out of the bag, and I don’t think your 19-year-old is going to just forget about it. Your feelings and your wife’s are both valid, but given that your daughter is now dealing with the fallout of what she thinks she saw, I think it’s worth framing your discussion and decisions around what is best for her, going forward. Is it better for your daughter to know the truth, or to persist in believing a painful falsehood? If her well-being is the priority, it’s really hard for me to see any option other than honesty.

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To be clear, I don’t think it’s your place to share details about your wife’s intimate relationships with other people—she has every right to keep that information private if she chooses. But sharing the fact of your open marriage is another matter, and I believe it’s far better to explain this than to let your daughter believe you’re having an affair. Of course, it would be ideal if you and your wife could explain it to her together, calmly, as a choice adults in a relationship can make together—or at least agree on why telling her is the best option. However you approach it, you will need to find more common ground around how much you share, because it is important for her to know, and soon. And I think you and your wife should also discuss when and how you might have similar conversations with your other two children, as hearing this from you is preferable to them finding out on their own or from their sister.

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I can understand your wife’s desire for privacy. And if she truly can’t imagine telling any of your kids, ever, perhaps she has more complicated feelings about your arrangement than she once did? But in any case, your daughter needs to know enough to understand what she saw. And I think that’s probably the best way to consider this question, and to frame the conversation with your wife: not focusing on the goal of damage control, or trying to control how your children see either of you, but recognizing that it is obviously better for your 19-year-old to know the facts than to hold a mistaken impression that is undoubtedly causing her pain.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 17-year-old daughter has a rare disease that affects her life but isn’t debilitating. She’s known about it her whole life, and we’ve always been completely open with her about her treatments and limitations and everything—except for one thing. The disease shortens people’s life spans by an average of 10 years. I don’t know why, but my husband and I never felt comfortable telling her that.

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Well, she found out on her own and has kind of gone off the rails. First, she got very depressed, and mostly stayed in bed. She stopped seeing her friends, quit taking her medication, and wouldn’t work on her college applications (“what’s the point, I’m just going to die”). We thought she was feeling better because she started going out with friends again, but now she’s staying out all night (and she just sneaks out when we ground her), hanging out with random boys we don’t know. I’ve caught her coming home drunk and/or high three times now. Obviously, therapy is necessary, but she refuses to go, and the two times we dragged her she refused to talk to the therapist. What’s the best way to support her through this?

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—Worried

Dear Worried,

I can’t know precisely what your daughter is going through or how she feels, but I imagine anyone in her position would be struggling with depression, fear, and anger, made even more intense by the shock. You say you don’t know why you and your husband never told her that her disease is associated with a shorter average lifespan, but I suspect you do know—it’s because that’s incredibly hard information to share, especially with someone you love. I understand why you would find it hard to tell her this, but it was still the wrong decision not to. Your daughter is 17, practically an adult. She has a right to this information about her own health, and she should have learned it from you—if not when she was very young, then certainly before now—just like the other details you’ve shared about her condition. If you haven’t already apologized for withholding this crucial information from her, you should—because until you do, and begin to rebuild whatever trust was lost, I think it will be even tougher for you to provide the emotional support she needs.

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Her behavior is definitely concerning, if also understandable given what she’s dealing with. While I agree that therapy would be good for her, you also really need her to open up to you—she needs to know that she can trust and talk with you honestly about her feelings and fears. This is why I think working on your relationship with her, and being open and vulnerable yourselves, is important. If she’s not ready to talk with you, maybe think about who else she has in her life—are there close relatives, family friends, a trusted teacher, a school counselor, etc. who are also available to listen and offer support or guidance? You might try reaching out to advocacy groups (if they exist for the medical condition she has) in case they have more specific recommendations for all of you. And you and/or your husband could consider talking to a therapist yourselves, even if your daughter remains unwilling—with a more detailed picture of your situation and the decisions you made, a good family therapist may be able to help guide you through the work you will need to do to better support your child.

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• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve recently gone through my first failed IVF cycle, and the grief hit me way harder than I expected. I’m slowly starting to feel better (I am in therapy). Though we are generally private people, my husband and I have opened up to some friends and family about what we have gone through and how tough it was. As things open up, there is one type of comment I am dreading, and I need help figuring out how to respond to it. My husband and I are active people—we travel, play sports, hike, etc. Sometimes, when we make small talk about our activities, some parents respond along the lines of “Well, we can’t do things like that, we have children”—even though I know plenty of parents who do these activities. I found these types of comments annoying before, but now they’ll just hurt. Do you have any advice on how I might respond to such comments without revealing my fertility struggles? Most of my friends and acquaintances who have kids don’t say things like this, but it’s happened enough in the past that it’s on my mind, and I want to be prepared.

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—Dreading Return to Small Talk

Dear Dreading,

I don’t think there’s a way to prevent or totally shut down this type of talk from parents, unfortunately. Some may be “joking” or blowing off steam; many probably do sincerely miss things that felt more possible before children. Either way, I do see why it would be tough to hear in your position. And I imagine it must feel worse layered on top of other even more hurtful comments, as so many people can be deeply callous about infertility.

I know I find it awkward and sometimes unpleasant when parents complain a lot about their kids. And you’re right that many parents do plenty of traveling and other hobbies with (or in spite of) their children. But an individual parent’s ability to do various things depends on their specific situation—their child(ren) and their needs, their schedule and other obligations, their resources and support system, etc.—and it’s possible that some of the parents you know can’t easily travel the world or pursue all the activities they wish they could, for a whole host of financial or practical reasons. It doesn’t mean they aren’t glad and generally grateful to have their kids; most are probably just trying to be funny while also airing mild (or major) aggravations to friends, something we all do from time to time.

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There is of course no reason why your friends need to share such things with or vent to you. If you want to try to quell these comments in your presence, I don’t think you necessarily have to reveal personal details about your own life. You could try just changing the subject. You could choose to respond with something a bit more pointed, like “I still think you’re lucky to have such great kids,” which might potentially help redirect the conversation if it’s about to turn into a parental venting session—but there’s a greater chance that this could come off as a little scold-y or dismissive. If there are particular parents who complain a whole hell of a lot and it’s annoying and/or hurtful to you, you could also just try to spend less time with those particular people. Finally, while I realize there may be no perfect way to respond to or head off these comments, I wonder if it’s worth bringing them up with the therapist you mentioned, to see if they can help you acknowledge and process your feelings around them.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I are parents to a wonderful 3½-year-old son who desperately wants a baby sibling. I’m happy with our decision just to have the one, but I can’t seem to find a way of explaining it to him when he asks. The real reason is a mixture of money, time, independence, and the fact that his father has two much older children from his previous marriage (my son knows they are his siblings, but they are adults who have never lived with us, so they feel more like an uncle and aunt to him). If I say something about the real reasons, that might make him feel like some kind of burden to us, and I’d never want that. I thought about saying that we don’t need more children because he’s enough for us, but wouldn’t that indirectly put pressure on him? I want to be truthful in an age-appropriate way so that when he’s older he doesn’t feel as if he was misled about it. Can you suggest a formula?

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—One and Done

Dear One,

I don’t think it puts a ton of undue pressure on your son if you say he’s enough for you on his own, but I probably wouldn’t rely on that explanation, as it could imply that other parents have multiple children because their first child wasn’t enough for them—not the sort of thing you necessarily want him repeating to all and sundry. At his age, especially, I don’t think you need to go into a particularly long or detailed explanation. I would probably go with something simple, true, and direct: “This is a decision for parents to make. We’ve decided to have one child in our family, and we’re really happy with that decision.” When he’s older and can better understand the nuances of your particular situation, feel free to explain more if you want to—if he even still cares. But I don’t actually think you owe anybody, including your child, explanations or justifications for your family size! You and your partner have made a choice that you feel good about and believe is right for you, and that should be a sufficient explanation for anyone.

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My 9-year-old son is “one of the best behaved” kids in class, never gets in trouble at school, does all his homework and schoolwork, and practices his instrument (though with some prodding). Sounds like a great kid, huh? So why do I feel like he’s being a jerk when he seems to be so uncooperative at home? He won’t help around the house and finds excuses to not do what we (husband and I) ask him to do (“I’ll do it later,” “in a minute,” “after I do this”) ALL. THE. TIME. I’m finding it personally offensive because I feel like he doesn’t care about the family unit. Are we being too strict, or is he an early sociopath?

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