Help! Must I Tell My Wife About This Thing That Happened With Our Son?
This is an advice column. I, Ben Dreyfuss, have neither a wife or a son.
Welcome to this week’s installment of “You want advice? From me? Ben? Ben Dreyfuss? You must be really desperate,” where I dole out advice to the worthy and deserving. Both letters today came to me specifically and are not something I pulled from other advice columns. If you need some advice, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message on Calm Down’s dedicated hotline (323)425-9437.
I Let Our Son Get Drunk. My Wife Will Be Mad. Must I Tell Her?
Dear Calm Down,
My wife and I met in high school and fell in love despite having somewhat different teen experiences. I was a jock and a partier. She had strict parents and was studious, shy, and buttoned up. She didn’t consume alcohol or smoke pot until we got to college. (We went to the school to be together.)
Our son was born while we were at college. That was hard, and I don’t recommend it. We’re now in our mid-thirties, and our son is 16. The summer before he entered high school, she and I talked about which path we thought he was more likely to take. She did not want him to spend his teens in a drunken stupor the way I did. Though I think I turned out fine, I love her, and as a concession, we agreed to make a deal with our son. If he made it through all four years of high school without drinking alcohol or doing drugs, we would give him $10,000.
We both have good jobs and are financially well-off, so we’re going to pay for his college no matter what and give him an allowance, but the $10,000 would be something he could do whatever he wanted with.
He is now a junior in high school, and to the best of our knowledge, he kept up his end of the bargain for the first two years.
Since January, I have been consulting for a firm abroad. It’s been hard. I miss both of them. I was very excited when my son decided to come to visit me for his spring break. Unfortunately, when he got here, he was being a teen. He kept whining about missing his friends and wasn’t interested in doing any of the sightseeing I had planned. This was very disappointing to me since I’d been looking forward to his visit.
On his final night, we went out to dinner, and I ordered a drink. He joked about how in this country, you only need to be 18 to drink legally. He bet me that since he looks a little older than he is that if he ordered a drink, he wouldn’t get carded. For whatever reason, I agreed to this. Sure enough, they did not card him.
Once it was at the table, he playfully at first but then seriously asked if he could have it without breaking the $10,000 contract. This was the first time he had been anything other than annoying on this trip, and so I said yes. He drank it. I stopped paying much attention but noticed by the end of the meal he was drunk. When the check came, I realized he had ordered a shot and another beer when I was in the restroom.
I did not call him out. The next day he flew back to the US.
I know I need to tell my wife about this, but my question is: do I need to tell my wife about this?
—A bad dad but hopefully not too bad husband
Dear Man Who Hasn’t Gotten A Divorce Yet,
Before anything else, I need to tell you never to mention that detail about him ordering drinks while you were in the bathroom. Ever. To anyone. You didn’t call him on it in the moment, and it doesn’t make anyone look good. If you did mention how there were more drinks on the receipt, people would reasonably point out that there are other ways that happened. It isn’t conclusive evidence, and you missed your chance to get him to admit it in the moment.
Put the receipt in a safety deposit box and bring it up to him when you’re a grandfather and he’s complaining about his own kids if you want. But otherwise, just forget it ever happened.
Ok, moving on:
There is no way around this: you screwed up. You’re in a bit of a pickle.
In a vacuum, letting your dumb 16-year-old son have a drink or even a couple of drinks isn’t necessarily bad. I think you understand this. But you don’t live in a vacuum. You live, when you’re not working in far-flung places, in a home with your wife and son. You and your wife made a deal with your son. No one made you make that deal. Your wife might have been the motivating force behind it, but you are a party to the contract.
At this dinner, you gave your son a one-time pass to violate the contract. Whether he had one beer or snuck a few more when you weren’t looking is the sort of legalese nonsense that makes people roll their eyes at lawyers. The important fact is: your son has now had alcohol but has not violated the contract.
Let’s walk through your options:
You could not tell your wife. You would need to ask your son not to tell her, either. You may have already asked him this at the dinner, even in passing, because “ok, but don’t tell your mom” is a thing people say. But even then, you need to have another serious conversation about how you were serious, and he really, really can’t tell his mom. There are a couple of problems with this, though. Most importantly, you would now be lying to your wife. Maybe you have done that before, so it wouldn’t be a historical precedent, but it sounds like you love her a lot, and lying to her probably isn’t something that is going to be good. And you would have to lie. You could just not say something right now, and people can argue over whether that’s a lie by omission, but when he graduates high school, and you and she sit down to write him that $10,000 check, you will be forced into actively lying.
Another problem that hopefully won’t come up is that your son could start doing this more. The problem with so many lies is that you end up getting deeper and deeper into deceit because things aren’t actually one-offs. If, back at school, he starts actually drinking and partying, and it starts to have bad effects on his life that are going to come out, and then so too is your role in granting him that initial pass. That probably won’t happen. People don’t invariably become fall-down drunks because they had a drink at 16. But it could!
And even if it doesn’t, you’d still be vulnerable to your son letting the truth slip at any other time. Maybe one day he’ll be in a fight with his mom, and he’ll say, “I love dad more than you. At least he trusts me! He let me drink in Rome” or wherever you are. Maybe he’ll be in a fight with you, and he’ll tell her about it just to get you in trouble. Maybe he’ll be talking with his friends about it in the backyard, unaware that the kitchen window is open and she can hear. The point is: the chances of a teen keeping this secret in perpetuity are not great.
Here is what is going to happen if she finds out you lied in the future:
“How could you lie to me about this? We made a deal!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry I just knew it would upset you, so I kept it from you.”
“What else are you lying about to protect me?”
“You have been fucking Janeane down at the hardware store?”
“I see how she looks at you!”
“I have not been fucking Janeane.”
“What about your weekly basketball game with Greg and Peter at the Y? You been fucking them?”
“Are you even playing basketball, or are you three just sitting in the sauna, sucking each other off?”
Now maybe you have been sucking them off in the sauna and have been looking for a way to broach the subject, in which case this might be a good way to do it. But if you haven’t, the rest of your life is going to be spent refuting questions about who you have and haven’t been sucking off.
You could try to keep it from her, and then when your son does accidentally reveal the drinking pass, you could deny it. The only person who will know you’re lying is your son, and no one will take his word over yours. Ground him, the lying rat.
This might not be great for your relationship with your son! He would hold this against you for a long time. But it would be sort of funny in a cruel way. Still, I don’t recommend it. You and your wife are young. You are going to be having Thanksgiving with this kid for 50 more years. At least a few of those dinners will be ruined by him screaming at you about how you’re a liar, and you’ve always been because you gaslit him over the drinking pass when he was 16.
This brings us to the thing you already know.
You need to tell your wife about this event.
But you knew I was going to say that, even if you hoped I wouldn’t. And this is not a column where I give one-word answers, so the good news is that we’ve got more to talk about.
Everyone who has ever lived has made a mistake that they have had to confess to. Maybe not publicly, maybe not before a judge or a group of reporters, maybe not to their spouses or their children or their bosses or their parents, but to someone.
There is a line in The Lion in Winter. Henry’s children are in the dungeon expecting to be executed, and Richard says, “He isn’t going to see me beg!” and Geoffrey says, “You chivalric fool! As if the way one falls down matters,” and Richard says, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”
You may have to confess, but you can choose how to do it and how to frame it.
This will be an important factor in how you are sentenced.
The first thing is to consider who the primary audience of your confession is and then who the secondary audiences are.
In this case, the primary audience is your wife. The secondary audiences are your son, family friends who will one day hear about this, and yourself. You’ll have to be ok with how you do this.
If you confess in a way that sets a bad example for your son, you are a bad father. If you confess in a way that makes you sound like the biggest prick on earth, your friends will think less of you. If you confess in a way that leaves you feeling bad, you will struggle to sleep at night. These are things to consider when considering your options with regard to your primary audience, your wife.
How does your wife see you? Be honest with yourself. Does she think you drink too much? Does she think you’re a fuck up? Does she think you’re bullheaded? Selfish? Narcissistic? She loves you despite these things, but she no doubt does think you have some flaws.
Traditionally when one parent is more lenient with their child than another parent, the lenient parent plays the ol’ “I’m sorry he just looked at me with those big eyes, and I have a soft spot for him!” card. I don’t think that is going to be a good angle for you, though. You and she discussed this at length and decided to make your child a $10,000 deal.
Your son has not broken that deal yet (though if he continues drinking, all bets are off). You have by yourself added an amendment to the deal that says that each parent has the right to issue temporary passes. It’s more substantial than just letting your kid use TikTok even though he’s grounded or whatever.
This is going to sound harsh but you sound like a sad, weak, pathetic man. Lean into this.
This is going to sound harsh, but as you probably know in this email you have sent me, you sound weak. You sound like a pathetic weak man. It sounds like you didn’t make enough Irish friends in Shannon, and then your son came and wasn’t nice to you and didn’t want to fill that lonely hole, so you forgot he was your son and started to treat him like your friend and let him drink. You sound like a pathetic gullible little bitch.
You can lean into that when explaining this to your wife. You would not have done this back in the US, but you’ve been alone and abroad, and you missed her, and you are not your best self right now, and you screwed up. Her anger for you will be mitigated by your patheticness.
This also has the added benefit of being true. It’s easier to stick to something when it is true, even if you have exaggerated some parts for effect.
The situation where I would not suggest framing it like this is if she both already thinks you might be a pathetic weak cuck AND has found herself daydreaming about men she is attracted to because of their strength. This will confirm the suspicion that you are weak and act as an accelerant for any ideas she might have about having an affair with her trainer or the guy she has a quarterly flirtation with at the sales conventions in Orlando.
I know what you’re thinking: Haha, Ben. What a funny joke.
And it is funny, and my name is Ben, but it isn’t a joke, and it might not be funny for you.
You guys got together in high school. I assume, given everything you told me about her, that you’re the only person she has ever slept or been in love with. You are both in your mid 30’s. It is a simple fact that she is thinking about the arc of her life, her own mortality, and the road not taken. You are, too, whether you want to admit that or not. The conclusion of these thoughts is probably that you are happy and the marriage is solid, but a lot of people who get hitched young because of an unplanned pregnancy do actually break up around your age.
Your son is going to be going off to college very soon. She will still be in her thirties. She not only could leave your ass, but she could even start another family. Then you’re going to die alone in a disgusting one-bedroom apartment with carpet that is too thick. You know the carpet I’m talking about. It’s a depressing carpet.
So, if there is any chance that she is going to leave you because you’re a soft little man, don’t frame your confession like that. Frame it in a totally gaslighting, chauvinistic way. A righthood of men, a coming of age thing between fathers and sons, etc...
She’s gonna ask what made that dinner different from every other dinner, and you’re going to have to lie. You can lie by saying your son was depressed about some girl who doesn’t like him at school or some shit. He probably did whine to you about that during that week. Or you can lie in a way that can’t be proven. Lie about what went on in your own head.
Some bullshit like: “We were in the restaurant, and it had this green pattern wallpaper that I hadn’t seen in a while, and it made me feel something, and then it hit me: it’s the wallpaper that was at the bar where they had my mother’s wake. I was just overcome with memories of my dad crying, and he never cried, you know? But he cried that day, and I was thinking about how it was the first time I’d ever seen him bare his soul. I was 10, and that was the day he became an actual flesh and blood person in my eyes, not some cowboy off in the pictures. And I went up and hugged him and said it would be ok. And he looked at me, and he stopped crying, and he ordered two shots of Jameson and gave one to me, and he raised his glass just enough for no one else to notice, and he said, ‘We’re going to be ok, boyo. We’re gonna be ok.’ And we banged the shots together and downed them. I still remember the hangover.”
Your wife probably knows the details of events like DEATH, so tweak the story to make sense, but you get the idea.
Hopefully, this is unnecessary, and your wife isn’t thinking about leaving you for Charles Bronson.
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