Your Call: Where Should a Husband/Stepfather’s Loyalties Lie?

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We get a lot of advice questions coming in at EMandLO.com, but sadly, we just can’t answer them all. Which is why, once a week, we turn to you to decide how best to advise a reader. And frankly, this one is a doozie. Make your call by leaving your response in the comments section below.

Dear Em & Lo,

My stepdaughter just confided in me she had recently lost her virginity with her boyfriend. She’s fifteen and doesn’t want me to tell her mom. She said that I’m the only one she feels comfortable talking about sex with. I’ve always taught her to practice safe sex, choose her potential partners carefully, and to be discreet about her personal choices. What do you suggest about her request not to tell mom?  I don’t want to betray her trust, but I’d also like to avoid the scalding hot water I’ll be in if it ever gets out I held onto this piece of info.

— The Secret Sharer

What should T.S.S. do?


  1. My wife and I have an agreement that satisfies both. When told something in confidence by either of our children, we let the other know what’s going on, but the parent who is “supposed” to be out of the loop agrees not to mention or use the info. Get’s a little complicated at times, but keeps both circles of the relationship connected.

  2. 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 your 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. And 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.

    Good luck.


  3. I never talked with either of my parents about sex topics for fear that they would tell the other parent. I think it would be best that you keep her trust so that you can open up the space to talk about topics in the future as well.

  4. If you caught her doing something dangerous, you might have to tell. But it sounds like she tried to do the mature thing here – seek guidance from an experienced adult whom she trusts. Mom doesn’t need to know.

    By the way, what the hell is with girls telling their parents when they first have sex? That seems incredibly common, but I don’t know a single male who has done the same.

  5. If you have a parental role in the family do not tell her mother. Unless you feel the girl is in danger or is in a situation that neither one of you can handle without her mom. Since you have given her “The Talk” I’ll assume shes not. Just as your stepdaughter trusted you, your wife should also trust you to be a parent. Don’t worry about the hot water as it will eventually cool down once she realizes or you explain that you were looking out for her daughter. Shattered trust on the other hand is notoriously hard to repair.

    If you don’t have a parental role(you should do this even if you do) prompt your daughter to tell her mom or allow you to tell her. But don’t force. And explain that being able to talk to your parents about sex is sometimes a helpful extension to the relationship.For example my girlfriend got sick on every birth control until her mother suggested the one she used.

  6. I don’t see this as choosing between your wife and your daughter at all.

    I don’t know why she trusts you more than her mom, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. Her mom should also be happy that someone is getting this information and can provide a sounding board for her.

    Look, she’s telling a trusted adult that she did this, and it sounds like she probably did it more or less in the way that you (and her mom?) would’ve wanted her to. Want to lose that trusted adult status and make sure she never tells you anything ever again?

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