Deciding whether or not to tell your children about an affair is a tough position to be in. Should you keep it a secret, or is it better to come clean? Are they old and emotionally mature enough to be told? How much should they know?
It’s a fact: marital infidelity greatly affects the betrayed spouses. Finding out that your partner cheated on you can cause anger, confusion, insecurity, depression and mistrust in a person. It can take a long time and a lot of hard work to forgive someone who cheated and get over the infidelity. However, often the impact of infidelity in children is often overlooked. Experts believe that children often feel as betrayed and insecure as the wronged spouse. This is why questions like, “Weren’t we enough for Dad/Mom?” or, “Did I do something wrong? Is that why he/she doesn’t love us anymore?” are commonly expressed by children in homes rocked by unfaithfulness.
If you cheated on your spouse, or if your spouse cheated on you, you are probably wondering what to do about your children. You need to consider how best to protect your children from the affair’s negative effects, which includes considering whether or not to tell them about it. Do they need to know, or should you keep the affair secret? How much should they be told?
Impact on Children
Ana Nogales,Ph.D., in her book Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents are Unfaithful, coined the term “children of infidelity” to refer to children whose parents have engaged in infidelity. She surveyed 800 grown children and found that:
- More than 88% felt angry towards the cheating parent
- More than 62% felt ashamed or embarrassed
- More than 80% felt that the infidelity influenced their attitudes toward love and relationships
- More than 70% said their ability to trust others had been affected
- 83% said that they feel people regularly lie
- 86% stated that they still believe in monogamy
Moreover, experts believe that children whose parents strayed from their spouses are prone to have affairs themselves when they marry.
Should Children Be Told About the Affair?
Many parents feel conflicted about this particular issue. On one hand, they want to protect their kids from unnecessary pain; on the other hand, they want to be as honest as possible with their children. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma. Each family, each couple, and each situation is different. In saying this, however, the most important thing to consider is what is in the best interest of the children. If at all possible, both parties should sit down and decide together on whether or not to tell children about the affair.
The child’s age is an important factor in making this decision. If you are considering telling your children that one of you has been unfaithful, you need to do so in an age-appropriate manner. Kids between the ages of 0 to 5 are likely unable to grasp what’s going on with their parents, so they might not need to know. However, school age children will be more aware of and able to grasp the concept of monogamy; they know that their parents are supposed to have and display affection only for each other. Children this age are a lot smarter and more intuitive than we give them credit for. They can sense that their parents aren’t getting along well, and the resulting tension can affect them. It’s important to reassure them by saying something like, “Mommy and daddy are having some problems right now, but you don’t need to worry. This happens to moms and dads sometimes. We still love you and nothing will change that.” Parents should then make every effort to minimize the negative effect of the infidelity on their children.
Adolescent children, on the other hand, are another matter. They notice more than you think, and they are exposed to adultery whether you like it or not. Their friends’ parents may be going through divorces. Or they may be in romantic relationships in which they end up being cheated on, and it is every bit as crushing for them as it is for you. If your teenaged children can sense that you are having problems in your marriage and you lie to them about it in order to protect them, it may have the opposite effect, leaving them feeling more hurt, betrayed and insecure.
Many people believe that lying to their children in order to protect them is okay. After all, finding out the ugly truth about their parents can hurt children, and as good parents, we should avoid inflicting pain on our kids no matter what happens. However, with this line of thinking, people are operating under the misguided belief that the pain they cause their kids with regards to their unfaithfulness occurs the moment they tell their children about it. But make no mistake: the moment that a partner engages in adultery is the moment that he or she inflicts pain on their children. The spouse and children are cheated out of their spouse and parent’s time, love and commitment when a husband or wife enters into an adulterous relationship.
This isn’t to say that all kids should be told about an affair. Consider your motivations behind wanting to tell your kids. Is this information that they really must know? As the offended spouse, do you want to tell your kids out of anger and want to make them hate the other parent?
Making the Decision
It’s probably better not to tell your kids about the infidelity if they aren’t aware of the problem in the first place, the third-party is no longer in your lives, and you and your spouse have committed to staying married and working on your relationship.
It might be a good idea to tell them about the infidelity if:
- The couple decides to separate as a result of the affair, whether it’s because the unfaithful party wants to carry on their relationship with the third-party, or if the offended party cannot forgive the one who cheated and can’t get over it.
- The couple decides to stay together and work on their marriage, but many people in the community have become aware of the affair, and it is likely that the child will find out about it from other sources.
- The couple decides to stay married but the person involved in the affair is someone they know (like a friend of the family’s, a neighbor or teacher), in which case they will need to understand why their relationship with that person has been terminated.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Infidelity
It will be difficult to work together after an affair has occurred but if they want to protect their kids from its negative effects, parents need to sit down and agree together in advance about what they will say. It would be good to anticipate any questions that their children might ask, and how best to tackle those questions. A good rule of thumb to remember is that kids, even teenagers or adults, do not need to be told details of the affair. Factual information, not sordid details or emotional upheaval, is what your kids need.
Whatever happens, never blame each other or put each other down in front of your kids. Moreover, be careful not to place undue pressure on your kids to act as your confidant or therapist. Remember that no matter how hurtful the affair was, it is not their burden to carry. They are children who have the right to a childhood, even if they are teenagers. You are their parent, and it is your job to see to it that their emotional needs are met.