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Do Children Learn to Adapt to a Parent’s Betrayal?

When a parent is unfaithful, a child also feels betrayed.

When a married parent secretly chooses to become sexually involved with another partner for whatever personal reason-a sense of adventure, a physical or emotional yearning, an antidote to unhappiness with one's spouse or oneself-chances are that he or she has not considered how their children will be affected. Or perhaps the parent rationalizes his or her infidelity with the commonly held belief that "children always learn to adapt."

It's true that children learn to adapt. And when they discover that one parent cheated on the other, even if that discovery occurs years later, they will adjust to the reality of having a mother or father who had sex with someone else. They will do what they can to get their needs met regardless of the anger, confusion, and loss of trust most often brought on by parental infidelity. But they will also feel betrayed, because the parent will have broken a promise that is essential to every family: to be loyal and loving toward one another.

Unfortunately, without the needed guidance, children and adult children whose parents are unfaithful may adapt by acting out with self-inhibiting behavior; by expecting less from friends, lovers, and spouses; or by seeking partners with whom they can replay the infidelity drama, either as the betrayer or the betrayed, in order to resolve or make sense of it.

Of course this is not what parents want their children to go through. But children are generally not the focus when the decision is made to have an affair. What my clients and the hundreds of Parents Who Cheat Survey respondents confirm, however, is that when the betrayer and the betrayed are also parents, marital infidelity is never a private affair.

More from Ana Nogales, Ph.D.
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