Talking with Children about Infidelity
The recent Ashley Madison hack exposed 32 million users for their involvement with the now-famous adultery-inspired dating site. It seems like a relevant time to discuss an issue that’s frequently shoved under the rug or ignored altogether. That issue involves children and marital infidelity. While spouses are obviously greatly affected by romantic affairs, psychologists argue that children may take the brunt of the blow.
If you’ve had an extramarital affair — or your spouse has cheated on you — there are obviously personal issues to sort through. In most cases, though, couples try to keep things under wraps and avoid telling friends and family members. However, what do you do with your own children? Is your affair a secret to them and should you keep it that way? Or should you come clean and tell them what happened?
Impact on Children
Making generalizations about how individual children will respond to an unfaithful relationship between parents is challenging. However, according to a survey of more than 800 children who have once been caught in the crossfire, the following emotions are common:
- Loss of trust.
Roughly 75 percent of respondents say they felt betrayed by the parent who cheated. Furthermore, 70.5 percent say their ability to trust others was affected. Around 83 percent of respondents now feel like “people regularly lie.”
Confusion is a long-term effect of parental infidelity. If the infidelity occurs when a child is young, they may grow up to believe marriage is an illusion of love — or a sham. If the parents stay married during an affair, the child may become deeply confused about the meaning of both love and marriage.
Anger is a common emotion for adolescents. This anger typically is displayed toward the betraying parent and may be accompanied by violence or sadness. If not dealt with, this anger can lead to long-term resentment.
Young children often feel shame. If the affair is a secret, they feel the weight of hiding something from the world. If the affair is public, they may feel embarrassed and different.
It’s possible that children are more likely to be unfaithful in their own relationships if they know their parents were, too. While 86.7 percent of respondents say they believe in monogamy — and 96 percent don’t believe cheating is morally right — 44.1 percent say they’ve been unfaithful themselves.
To Tell or Not to Tell?
With so much on the line, many parents are unsure of what to do. On the one hand they want to be as honest as possible with their children, but on the other they don’t want to cause long-term issues such as a lack of trust, confusion, anger, shame, and infidelity. What are you supposed to do?
According to Rick Reynolds, the founder of a website dedicated to helping couples overcome infidelity, much depends on the timing of the situation and how much knowledge children have regarding the affair. “If the infidelity is a current event and the children don’t know about it, then absolutely do not discuss it with them,” says Reynolds. “Children don’t need to be involved in their parents’ marriage.”
If young children suspect something is wrong in the marriage, you should confront the issue with as few details as possible. You may want to say something like, “I didn’t treat your mother (or father) the way I promised her I would, but I’ve apologized and it won’t happen again.”
“If they are under 10, don’t lie,” Reynolds says. That means you must be truthful when asked a direct question. Otherwise, the consequences of lying may be more damaging than exposing the infidelity. However, that still doesn’t mean you have to tell them everything. You should avoid giving details and only discuss basics. “If there was a pattern of behavior, tell them about the pattern, not how many times sexual contact occurred,” Reynolds advises. “Details, such as names, aren’t important.”
In the end, the most important thing you can do is protect your children. While it may be difficult to cooperate with your spouse in the aftermath of an affair, it’s important that both parents coordinate their efforts and take a consistent parenting approach. Nothing is more disastrous than two parents playing a blame game and putting down each other. Not only does this hurt the child’s view of marriage, but it can drudge up additional resentment.
The reality is that you can’t give a perfect response to an imperfect situation. According to psychologist Kate Scharff, “It’s inevitable. At some point your child will stump you with a loaded question to which you have no idea how to respond without lying or revealing the too-painful truth.” It’s okay to tell your child you need time to gather your thoughts. There’s too much on the line to make rash decisions.
Parents quarreling photo available from Shutterstock
Cyprus, J. (2018). Talking with Children about Infidelity. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/talking-with-children-about-infidelity/