I am the biological father of my ex’s 21-year-old daughter. She insists I take this information to my grave

Several years ago I was contacted by an ex girlfriend who informed me I am the biological father of her 21 year old daughter, the middle of her three children. She was my first serious girlfriend but we split up whilst still young. Our paths crossed several years later and we had a brief affair. Unbeknownst to me she became pregnant through this liaison but kept the matter a secret and remained with her husband who unwittingly raised the child as his own.

My ex immediately regretted telling me and insisted I take this information to my grave. Whilst I have respected her wishes, I feel extremely frustrated with the situation and would like to meet and get to know this woman who doesn’t know I exist. I am married (16 years) and have a young daughter of my own. My wife is aware of this situation and fully supportive.

Eleanor says: As I see it, your dilemma here is about whether to tell the truth. It doesn’t sound like you’d be able to get to know this young woman any other way.

That’s a very hard decision to make. Usually when we make choices we think about which outcome we prefer – but here, it’s almost the opposite. You can’t make a decision out of an attachment to a particular outcome.

It can’t be about whether you’d like a happy relationship with this young woman – because you can’t rule out that she’d want nothing to do with you. It can’t be about whether your ex should have told you – because exposing deceit now won’t mean she was honest then. It can’t be about getting closure – because you might find it just makes people angrier. There are so many open futures here that the only thing this decision is “about” is whether you’re willing to risk all of them.

That makes the focal length of the choice very short. It’s poker rules: you make the best choice you can with the information you have, not claiming to know how things will turn out.

Sometimes when I’m stuck in a situation like that it helps to hear what someone else would do, set out almost like a closing argument. Being the listener seems to take the pressure off being the decider. I’ll try to do that for you now – I’ll tell you what I’d do, with the hope that it’ll help you run a resonance check. I stress I don’t offer this as an answer. I offer it so you can test whether you’d be proud to inhabit this kind of reasoning.

I wouldn’t tell. Here’s why: yes, her mother made a hurtful decision, and two or three more after that. But that’s done now, set in the resin of time. Reaching out might just be one more hurtful decision. It would mean she had to decide how to feel about a stranger while processing that her mother had an affair and deceived her. It would be a gamble on whether her parents’ marriage would survive, meaning this 21 year old – who didn’t choose any of this – might face a crisis while her support system was in a crisis of its own. Since I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that the world I’d force her into is better than the one she’s currently in, I’d be making that decision unilaterally. That wouldn’t feel fair.

So I’d try not to be pulled by the outcome I desperately wanted, or by how wildly unfair it is that I even have to make this choice. I’d try to do the least risky thing.

It would feel unspeakably tragic to do that. It would cost me one of life’s most beautiful things. I might even vent the steam of my fury at my ex so my pain had somewhere to go, or even upload my data to a DNA tracing website so that if my child ever went looking she’d be able to find me.

But I’d try not to confuse my protest at the situation for an answer about how to resolve it. Sometimes other people’s bad choices leave us with nothing but bad options.

I hope it helps to test whether that’s the kind of person you’d feel OK about being.

Whatever your answer, I think that’s the way to make this choice: when we can’t make decisions on outcomes, we can ask what kind of reasoning we’d like to shine out from our actions.

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