Adult children appear to be becoming estranged or alienated from their parents at alarmingly high rates. Paternal estrangement is common subsequent to divorce when children live with their mothers and have increasingly distant relationships with their fathers.
Sometimes adult children decide that one or both parents are so toxic that they want nothing to do with their parents now that they are independent adults. It could be because of a history of abuse that the parents fail to acknowledge. Parents might be perceived as overinvolved in their adult children’s lives in ways that disrespect their adult children’s boundaries as mature adults who can make their own independent decisions.
One source of parental estrangement that is not much discussed is parental infidelity. In a study I conducted at Adelphi University where I teach, I discovered that 23% of undergraduates were aware of parental infidelity.
Sometimes children are the first in the family to discover parental infidelity. They may or may not expose the unfaithful parent’s secret affair. Frequently, the betrayed parent, in hurt and anger, tells the children about the infidelity to punish the unfaithful partner.
Children often identify with the betrayed parent, so feel as morally outraged at the unfaithful parent as the betrayed parent does. The children feel betrayed because they now see that the unfaithful parent isn’t the honest and trustworthy person that they thought that parent was.
The Betrayed Child
Children don’t feel much empathy for whatever marital frustration might have motivated the unfaithful parent to have an extra-marital affair. Children assume that their parents should be adults and deal with marital frustrations in mature ways that do not include deceit and betrayal.
Children are idealists and want to think the best of their parents, who are, after all, supposed to be role models of mature adult behavior. It’s quite disillusioning to become aware of parental infidelity. It’s hard to respect or want to emulate a deceitful parent who has violated a marital vow of sexual exclusivity. It’s hard to trust that parent going forward, because how do you know whether or not the unfaithful parent is currently being truthful and honest?
Children feel that if the world is a just place, offenders should be punished for their misdeeds. The only way children can really punish their parents is to withhold love and affection for some indeterminate length of time and look to see how the parent deals with being in the doghouse for what might be forever. Is the unfaithful parent remorseful? Does the unfaithful parent try to make amends? Does the unfaithful parent accept the punishment as legitimate and work to earn back the children’s trust? Or does the unfaithful parent feel entitled to forgiveness and get angry when forgiveness is not forthcoming?
Children distance themselves not just to be punitive but also and perhaps more importantly to be self-protective. Parental infidelity makes children cynical about love relationships. Children distance themselves and harden themselves so they won’t get hurt again. They learned their lesson. They don’t want to be naively trusting just to be betrayed once again. They are growing up and will be leaving the nest. They are beginning to sever the ties of dependency that bind them to their parents. Why not completely sever the tie to the unfaithful parent just to play it safe? That’s the road to parental estrangement. Never forgive the unfaithful parent. Put up impenetrable walls so you can’t get hurt again and never look back.
Can You Win Your Children Back?
Unfaithful partners are not proud of their infidelity. Whatever the marital frustrations, there is shame and guilt about having dealt with those frustrations in a deceitful way that was a betrayal of trust.
Regardless of whether or not the unfaithful partner wants out of the marriage, the unfaithful partner doesn’t want to lose the connection to the children. The unfaithful partner hopes that expressions of contrition will earn the children’s forgiveness. After all, it seems to the unfaithful partner that the intention was not to hurt the children as innocent bystanders of parental marital conflicts. There is shame and guilt that indeed the children are hurt by awareness of parental infidelity.
The unfaithful partner desperately wants forgiving children but that might not be a realistic expectation. It’s one thing to lose your spouse because of your infidelity but it’s another thing to lose your children as well.
What will definitely not work to win back your children’s love and affection is to make them feel guilty because their unforgiving attitude deeply wounds you. That will further alienate your children because then it’s like you’re the victim of your children’s cold, moralistic, and unforgiving reaction. Your children will just see that as further evidence of the self-centeredness and selfishness that led you to cheat in the first place.
Or you might get angry because you feel you’re still the parent and your children owe you some respect. That too will further alienate your children, as your children will believe that respect must be earned, and the unfaithful parent lost that respect by being deceitful and untrustworthy. It strikes children as hypocritical and authoritarian to angrily demand respect or love when it’s undeserved.
Ultimately, the unfaithful parent must eat humble pie. The unfaithful parent must accept the punishment as well deserved and the loss of trust and respect as legitimate. The unfaithful parent should not burden the children with the parent’s hurt and anger at losing the children’s love and affection.
The basic attitude must be that even though you have the right to reject me, I don’t have the right to reject you back in kind. I’ll still be your parent if and when you are open to it. I’ll still support you financially. My love and devotion are timeless, even if I’m in the doghouse forever waiting for forgiveness that never comes. I won’t write you off even if you have written me off.
Hopefully, the children will eventually come to see that you are truly a changed person and that those changes have withstood the test of time. Maybe then, and only then, will your children forgive you and allow you to once again be a treasured part of their lives.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.