in Ethicist

The Ethicist: 13 December 2017

Can I Talk to My Dad About His Affair?

Question:

My mother recently let slip that my father had an affair several years ago…. The news was a devastating shock. Immediately after her disclosure, my mother told me that I could never tell my father that I knew…. they decided to keep it a secret … my interactions with my father have felt stilted…. 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…. Should I hope that forgiveness comes with time, or risk broaching this difficult topic with my father?

Correct answer:

Your mother was not supposed to tell anybody this information, but she violated her ethical obligation to your father by telling you. In doing so, she also put you in a very difficult situation – you know information that you’re not supposed to know – and extracted a promise from you not to share it with anybody. Now you’re not supposed to tell anybody this information, so… you think it would be a good idea to tell your father? How does that make sense?

If you promise not to tell a secret, keep your damn promise. If you don’t intend to keep your promises, then stop promising things.

Question:

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? … Each time they bring up the latest vacation or new car, I feel sick.

Correct answer:

How can I encourage them to repay my in-laws in some way? You can do it like this: “I encourage you to repay [my in-laws] in some way.”

But you’re probably anticipating that saying something like that would feel awkward, and that’s because it does and should feel awkward to interfere into other families’ money issues.

It would be a good idea to stay out of this, but if you do choose to get involved:

  • Bring it up once, and never bring it up again.
  • Don’t dance around the issue. Be clear about what you’re suggesting.
  • If they tell you that you’re wrong to have said anything, apologize immediately.