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My father is having an affair

During lunch with her father Fiona noticed that he let drop a letter while he went to the gents. It was a love-letter from a woman with whom he was having an affair. Her parents live apparently happily in the country but her father works in town during the week. He is unaware that his daughter has seen the letter. What should she do?

You don't have to be an agony aunt to know that lots of people's relationships are extremely bizarre. I know of couples who don't sleep together, couples in which one is a transvestite, couples in which one is bisexual, couples in which both are having affairs and the other knows nothing about it, and couples in which they are each openly unfaithful. And yet to their friends and relations they appear to have perfectly ordinary relationships and no one suspects a thing.

Of course the idea that her parents' marriage may contain sinuous twists and turns and turnings of blind eyes may distress Fiona dreadfully. The idea that our parents even have sex distresses most of us dreadfully - or, rather, it's something we prefer not to dwell upon. But the truth is that Fiona knows nothing about her parents' relationship arrangements and to say anything about this affair to her mother would be disastrous. Chances are her mother and father have it all worked out and her mother has said to her father: "I don't care what you get up to in town, as long as I don't hear about it." Or she may have said: "I love you but find you physically repulsive and can't stand having sex with you one minute longer. I suggest you get a mistress." If Fiona were to say anything she might make them hate each other or, even worse, unite in hatred of her.

However, it was pretty careless of her father to let drop a letter in a restaurant. Perhaps he dropped it for some subconscious reason - he wanted Fiona to read it and to discuss it with her. But it was also pretty silly - and impolite - of Fiona to read the letter. What is extraordinary about reading other people's letters when you shouldn't is that they almost invariably cause you pain. Never, when noticing the word "Virginia" in a letter and being unable to resist reading on, have I found that the next sentence runs "is the most delightful, entertaining and intelligent woman I know." Even if it reads: "Virginia is nice" I'm left wondering if a single wishy-washy adjective is quite good enough, and often as not I learn something I'd pay good money to unlearn.

But the damage has been done and it's asking a lot of Fiona to keep her knowledge entirely to herself. Perhaps, if only to put the ball back into his court, she could write to her father apologising for reading the letter and saying she's now in a difficult position. Then at least it will be up to her father to explain the whole thing away and take the burden away from Fiona. If he has any sense he'll say: "This letter was not what you think it was, the situation is a very complicated one and one which has now been totally resolved and you need worry no more about it ever again." If she has any sense Fiona will not question him any further.

She maintains her parents have a happy marriage in the country. By keeping quiet about what she's learned - or thinks she's learned - it may remain happy. Or, who knows, perhaps it is only because of this affair, if indeed it is an affair, that it is happy at all. Fiona shouldn't rock a happy boat, lest her parents become unhappy. And since unhappy parents are the most frightful burden, Fiona would be well advised to keep quiet for no other reason, if it gets down to it, than her own self-interestn

What readers say

Tell her, gently and lovingly

Your mother is bound to find out about your father's affair eventually. If she also finds out that you knew about it and did nothing she will feel doubly betrayed. You can make it easier for her to bear by breaking the news to her gently and lovingly.

Of course it will not be an easy thing for you to do, and your mother may react badly at first, but I am quite sure that she will be immensely grateful to you in the end, as indeed may your father if it helps to repair their marriage. My own daughter has been a great source of comfort to me throughout this time, because she loves and is loved by us both. I do not underestimate the difficulty of what you have to do, but I am quite certain that it is the only option.

Alice, Oxon

The truth may destroy a marriage

Fiona can only do what her heart tells her to, which is what I did, but she should be aware of the possible outcome. I found out that my father was having an affair, and chose to tell my mother. As a result my mother endured a lengthy period of ill-treatment from my father after she had confronted him, followed by a very acrimonious divorce. They have now lived apart for some years - my father is settled with someone else, but my mother continues to be ill, lonely, and depressed.

Even though I feel I did the correct thing I still have times when I feel guilty and ill at ease. Knowing that my mother would probably have found out anyway and that my parents' marriage wasn't very happy is sometimes no consolation. I sometimes wonder whether honesty really is the best policy.

M

Keep the secret, and bear the burden

I once came across a letter to my father from a woman who had been his lover for many years. I have no idea whether my mother knew about it, but I know that if I had mentioned it to either of them, it would have caused terrible, heartbreaking quarrels, and, who knows, might have destroyed what was a happy marriage.

The most important part of this is, in my own family's experience, that the later years were the happiest. If that had been denied to us all, what a tragedy it would have been.

So your correspondent must bear the burden of keeping this a secret. I hope her parents are in fact happy and stay together. Even if they don't - the split won't have been her fault for betraying a secret she had no right to have uncovered.

Micael

`Kind advice' is not so kind

As a wife I received "kind advice" and anonymous phone calls which I loyally brushed off until the day my husband rang me and asked me to get his driving licence out of his drawer. There I found a bundle of letters and copies of the poems he had written to "the other woman".

The advice and phone calls were plain nasty and did not help when I did know the truth from the man himself.

If your father asks "are you going to tell your mother?" keep your thoughts to yourself.

Patricia, Reading

Next week's dilemma: I'm in love with my flatmate

Dear Virginia

I'm a student living in a house with one other girl and two blokes. The problem is that I've fallen in love with Simon. We had a one-night stand a month ago after a party and since then we've mucked about a bit, but he still sees other girls and treats me more like a sister than a lover. Should I tell him how I feel, or how should I behave? I find it so hard living with him and not knowing where I am, and it's affecting my work because I think about him all the time. He's really kind and I know would hate to hurt me, but he doesn't seem to know how I feel though it must be obvious by now.

Yours sincerely,

Jenny

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