If you’ve had an extramarital affair, it’s likely that no one else in your circle of friends knows. Perhaps even your spouse doesn’t know. No one knows for sure how often affairs happen, but statistics suggest they may affect 40 percent or more of all marriages. Despite its prevalence, there is a cultural hush around infidelity. People just don’t talk about it.
Even when one spouse opens up to another, it’s quite probable that neighbors, parents and siblings may not have caught wind of it. But within the privacy of your own home, it may be your secret affects your children as well. Is your affair a private matter to them, or should they know?
Whose business is it?
One of the most frequent questions I get asked by couples who have been affected by infidelity is whether they should tell their children. When I reflect the question back to the couple, (a notorious trick of psychotherapists everywhere) asking them what they think, often they will tell me that they don’t think it’s a good idea, since the children may be emotionally harmed by finding out that one of their parents cheated on the other. Individuals (usually the partner who has been betrayed by his or her spouse) who argue in favor of revelation believe that the children have a right to know why tensions are high at home, or, in some cases, why mommy and daddy decided not to live together in the same home.
The simple answer to this question is that there is no simple answer to this question. If parents choose to say that an extramarital affair occurred, the information needs to be age-appropriate. The nature of monogamy may be a difficult concept for very young children to grasp, but most pre-schoolers that grow up in intact families have a general sense that their parents are only supposed to be affectionate toward each other. As children enter their school years, they master concepts such as “rules,” “limits,” and “right and wrong.” They may not yet understand about the specifics of sexual relationships, but usually by middle school most children have a pretty good sense of where babies come from. As children move into adolescence and teen years, well, you don’t need an expert in psychiatry to tell you that they have a world (world wide web, to be specific) of knowledge on relationships.
Is it right to involve the children?
But should parents tell about the affair, particularly if a child is able to understand the nature of infidelity? Let’s look at the argument that such knowledge is hurtful. It is true that children can be hurt by finding out this inconvenient truth about one of their parents. And, ideally, we ought to avoid unnecessarily hurting our children at all costs. But the unfaithful spouse is mistaken to believe the pain inflicted by the affair happens at the moment the child is told. No, the harm done to the child occurs at the moment that that partner elected to go outside the marriage for an emotional or physical relationship. When an affair happens, it cheats the spouse and the family of the love and commitment of a partner and parent. Telling the child may put an ugly name on why a parent has pulled away from the family, but it is, ultimately, naming a truth. And if there is one thing that affairs teach us, it is how devastating lies can be.
I think it’s also a mistake, though, to conclude that all children should be told about an affair. When couples are affected by an affair, they have the challenge of establishing a truthful and open relationship, but they also have the task of rebuilding trust. Before the parent who has been cheated on assumes that the child must know, it’s worth asking what the motivation is. After all, if you’ve been the victim of an affair you know it can generate a tsunami of negative emotion. When you turn to tell your children, are you sharing the knowledge with them because it’s information they must know, or are you telling them to vent your own anger or to inflict damage on your spouse? Your children should not be used for hurting others or as your personal therapists.
Making the call.
So, should you tell your kids about an affair? Here are some guidelines for helping you make this important decision:
Probably not: If the couple agree that they wish to remain in an intact marriage and continue to live together, and the person involved in the affair is no longer in the picture, then there is probably no reason to involve the children. It’s none of their business, and may stir up negative emotions for everyone involved.
Possibly so: Even when parent stay together, if one of the people involved in the affair was a neighbor, teacher, or other person who the family no longer has contact with, the child may need a deeper understanding of why the “friendship” ended.
Possibly so: If the couple continue to work on the marriage, but many people in the community already know the affair has happened, and there is a good likelihood that the child will find out anyway, it may be better to hear it from their parents first.
Probably so: If a couple choose to stay together but are clearly in emotional turmoil related to the aftermath of the affair, then the children may need to understand why their parents are behaving as they are.
Probably so: If one partner wishes to separate from the other either because the unfaithful one wants to continue the affair, or the affected partner cannot bear to live with a cheating mate, then if the children are of an appropriate age, they deserve a clear explanation of what is going on.
Protecting the well being of your children is the most natural thing in the world. That’s one good reason not to have an affair in the first place. But if the devastating effects of an affair have hit your family, then you should try to protect your children from the negative effects. However, if you can’t find a way to peacefully work though the aftermath of infidelity, then you may not be able to shield your children from the truth. That means that both parents must sit with the children, and get ready for a long talk. From that point on, the whole family has the challenge of rebuilding together