Son Doesn't Know His Parents Aren't Married

It's best not to keep family secrets.
I have been living with my 11-year-old son's father for 21 years, but we never got married. Our son assumes that we are married and most of our friends think so, too. Our family, however, knows we aren't married. We are considering tying the knot. Do we get married quietly and let our son think we've always been married or should we be straight up and honest?
I always opt for not keeping family secrets. They disrespect all family members. You have been lying by omission to your 11-year-old son all his life. He assumed that you were married and you gave him no reason to doubt that. I do not know why you are choosing to marry your son's father after living with him for 21 years. I am assuming that your wishes to become legally joined are informed by a need to declare your commitment to each other, although there may also be some other pragmatic reason that I am not aware of.

If you and your partner of 21 years believe this will be a joyous event, then I would allow your son to join you in this celebration of your love. I am sure that you can tell your story in a manner that is both truthful and sensitive to his feelings. He may become confused upon hearing your revelation. He also might initially question whether there are other lies that he has been told. Neither of these potential responses means that he cannot come to understand and accept the history of your past as a couple and a family. What is most important to him is that he knows that you and his father have loved him, appreciated him, and raised him with great care and affection.

I wouldn't suggest that you marry quietly and ask him to keep it a secret because there is no reason to be ashamed of what you're doing. You might wish to engage the talents of an experienced family therapist to advise your family during this unusual and emotional time. Congratulations on your upcoming marriage and your commitment to being honest with your son.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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