Comment of the Week: Trust Issues Are As Complicated As String Theory

In response to the “Your Call” about whether the stepfather whose stepdaughter told him in confidence that she was sexually active had an obligation to his wife to let her know, regular EMandLO.com commenter and Wise Guy Figleaf offered up some advice that confirms he’s one of the most thoughtful, reasonable and helpful people around these here parts. (Btw, Ape’s answer the day before Figleaf’s was spot-on, in our opinion, but Figleaf’s just took it that extra mile to secure the “comment of the week” spot):

While every former-peer-counselor and privacy-respecting bone in my body says don’t share something you’ve been told in confidence, and while I agree strongly with Ape that if you’re her parent and you’re parenting in good faith that should be sufficient, the problem is that you’re not just a parent, you’re a partner.

If your partner views you withholding that information as a relationship deal-breaker then you face the loss not only of contact with your partner but also of contact with her daughter, given that it’s almost inconceivable that she wouldn’t follow her mother should her mother leave you.

I don’t and probably can’t know your family’s details — how long you’ve been a parent to your step-daughter, how “proprietary” your partner is about her, what your partner’s relationship with her daughter is, etc.  So there could be exceptional circumstances here…

But here’s what I’m going to strongly recommend.

First, urge your step-daughter to tell her mom.  Offer to be supportive.  Offer to “war-game” it with her.  Offer your perspective on your partner’s likely reaction.  Determine if she feels she has real cause for fear or if she’s just working on ordinary teen embarrassment.  I mean think about it, if your partner’s got any kind of perspective at all then she, like a lot of “blustery” parents, is unlikely to flip out, send her daughter to a convent, and so on because she’s become sexual.

Second, if the first thing just isn’t going to go, then it’s time to have a conversation with your partner about her and your boundaries about her daughter.  See if you can get a realistic assessment of her level of trust in you.  Because as Ape says she really might be fine with your authentic parenting decision.  On the other hand, if she’s not then it’s going to be a hard choice, and you might have to work very hard on the in-family diplomacy, but you really do have an obligation to let your partner know.

One last thing.  There’s a phenomenon in a lot of families where one parent or the other will be dominating to the point that his or her partner becomes effectively a co-sibling or other kind of ally with the children.  One consequence of that dynamic is that it becomes extremely easy to share secrets and otherwise sort of passive/aggressively undermine the other parent’s authority.  Considerable evidence (including direct observation on my part) suggests this almost never turns out well in the end.  It’s tempting, it’s easy, but it’s also dangerous and lazy.  I’ve already said I don’t know your family dynamics so I’m not accusing you of participating in this dynamic at all.  But!  If you feel that might be happening (and you don’t always notice at first) then there’s a responsibility to one’s partner, one’s self, and most importantly one’s family to “man up,” or “woman up” and re-open those closed power/communication channels.  Again, the alternative is that things generally don’t end well.