After having been in an "open" relationship with my wife for the past 4.5 years but never had another relationship per se, I have now had a girlfriend for the past 4 months. Originally the two were kept quite separate, mostly due to my wife not necessarily needing to see her, but now she comes over regularly, stays over (in the spare room), cooks for us, etc. My 15 yr old son, who does not know that we have an open relationship, is fast cluing on that something is different here. He finally asked last week "Do you think your friend could be getting the wrong idea, I'm worried you're going to hurt her..." to which I responded something like - Look, it's complicated, we are more than just friends, but you don't need to worry, everything is above board, all three of us know everything about what is happening and you don't need to worry." Which he accepted - but the longer we go on, the more obvious it becomes.
My belief has always been that it's hard enough to navigate the heterosexual monogamous normative world for a teenager whose extended family are strong fundamentalist Catholics, without complicating it by adding to the mix a queer polyamorous perspective. However, it's happening. And I'm not opposed to it unfolding the way it is - I'm conscious of the fact that he's slowly building a picture, seeing things like the way I talk to her, or the fact that she's here so much now, or I'm over there. I'm thinking he will slowly develop a schema for what's happening and ask questions as he goes along. My main concern of course is that I don't want him to worry that his family will break apart. Also, we are already weird enough for him. To add this would be too much, I fear - I don't want him to worry. Grateful for any perspective you may have.
You're a Mum like me and I know how hard it is to do something which you fear may hurt your children. But I fear you risk a bigger hurt for your son in the long run. Let me explain.
All children grow up with white lies. These are lies you tell children which shield them from the enormity of the truth. Some white lies are bigger than others. On balance--and especially now it has become a reality in your boy's household--I think yours is pretty big (and not particularly white).
Lying is impactful even if it is a trade-off for avoiding a so-called ‘worse’ hurt. In fact it is often far worse than the one we fear to inflict. Lies, even teeny-tiny white lies, will present a false reality. The inconsistencies between the lies and reality will create a mismatch in the brain leading to psychological stress. In the developing brain, prolonged exposure to stress hormones can actually alter the architecture and gene expression; it can make someone more prone to anxiety in later life [Red Flag!]
We meet inconsistencies every day. When someone says they don’t want to get drunk but then goes on to order 6 tequila shots, what they say and what they do, doesn’t match up. Usually it’s because they lied… both to you and probably to themselves. But the clash of two different narratives creates stress in our brains. We may not recognise it, because it's in the subconscious. This clash is known as cognitive dissonance. Or in pop culture, 'a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.'
Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but its there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.
Morpheus ~ The Matrix
Narratives We Live By
All lying is stressful because it creates two conflicting narratives which the brain is constantly trying to resolve. It creates mental tension and in an effort to resolve them, people will form underlying assumptions with the only information available to them. These will be laid down as mental models/narratives in the subconscious and most likely followed as learned patterns and survival mechanisms in later life. Some potential assumptions I can immediately see from your dilemma are:
- Mum (women) doesn't tell me the truth; I can't trust her; Mum/women are not trustworthy
- Mum (women) is taking responsibility for my hurt; It is Mum/women's fault I feel bad
- Even when I asked Mum the truth she didn't tell me; I am not worth the truth; I cannot trust myself to discern the truth. I know something big is up, but she says it isn't.
We live by assumptions that our mind forms in order to make sense of reality. The problem is that once someone has laid down a mental model, the mind works in such a way as to fit other interpretations into it (whether they are true or not). So for example, if your son is given the opportunity to establish the narrative "I cannot trust myself to discern the truth" his mind will look for confirmation that this is true, and tend towards ignoring evidence to the contrary (it's the confirmation bias at play). He will be more likely to become uncertain of his own opinions.
So the 'hidden' impact of you trying to protect your son may lead to uncertainty, insecurity and distrust, both of himself and others. These elements have big impacts on his sense of self-esteem because self-esteem is only accessible by our own mind's underlying assumptions or evaluations or beliefs. You cannot simply tell him he is trustworthy, worthy or anything else, because his mind needs to form evaluations itself if they are to be accepted (see literature on evaluative praise vs. descriptive praise). Self-esteem is the evaluation of the self, by the self (and low self-esteem is indicated by our attachment to what someone else believes).
You need to make the difficult choice to either continue to protect him and risk all of that, or tell him the truth and deal with the more obvious fallout. Try to evaluate objectively about the consequences for him now you know both sides of the story. You will be impacted by your son being hurt of course. But that is your emotional responsibility, not his. If you decide not to tell him, be mindful that you might want to compensate for those internal narratives in some way.
Most likely he is already worrying that you will break apart. You are who you are and you have made the choices you have made. If you do not tell him, if you act as if it is something to be ashamed of then it is more likely he will think it is shameful. There is a strong possibility that you telling him will cause him hurt, not only because of the shock of a new revelation but also because you lied; my advice would be to apologise for lying to him but never for who you are and take responsibility for your past lying, but not his hurt. It may also lead to bigger impacts with your extended family. If you decide to tell him, obviously be mindful of what other stressful events are going on in his life.
I cannot know the position you find yourself in outside of what you've told me in this email, and this is a decision that ultimately you have to make. My two principle takeaways then:
- Try not push your emotional responsibility onto him and continue lying because you cannot bear to tell him the truth. Make your decision based on him and his situation if possible.
- Think long term because the narratives your son creates with you now, will heavily impact his relationships in the future. What kind of future do you want to prepare him for?
My advice to you is to respect your son's ability to handle the truth and his emotions. If you respect his ability, you will empower him even if he ends up hurt in the short-term. If he cannot handle the truth and his emotions, then all the more reason he needs to practice--and quickly--before he becomes a fully-fledged adult, especially since he almost is one.
Read next: Is an open relationship stressful for kids?