Divorce and Infidelity: What Do We Tell the Children?

Whether they know what happened or not, children get cheated in the wake of infidelity. But parents have the power to combat the side effects of divorce by naming hard truths in an age-appropriate manner.

Children and Infidelity

A few years ago, I saw some emails I wasn’t supposed to see, and my marriage came crashing down. My boys were one and three when it happened, so they didn’t understand how radically our lives had changed over the course of 24 hours.

Fast-forward four years, and my now five and seven year old boys see their dad, step mom, and half sibling every other weekend and one date night per week. They rarely ask questions, but every once in a while they hit me with a doozy.

“Mommy, why doesn’t our daddy live with us?” My youngest asked me this question at just four years old during a routine weeknight story time. He fixed his gaze in my direction as he hung in mid-air from the ladder of his bunkbed.

I drew the deep breath I knew I should take and, on the exhale, delivered my matter-of-fact answer. “Mommy and Daddy aren’t married anymore. Daddy is married to your step mom now, and usually you want to live with the person you’re married to.”

“What?” said my oldest son. “You and Daddy used to be married?”

“Well, yes,” I said. “That’s how we made you.”

“How can he do that?” My oldest wanted to know.

Silence.

“Never mind. I know why,” he said. “People just have enough of each other.”

Both boys seemed satisfied, and with that, we resumed bedtime stories.

The Current State of Affairs

That’s the extent of what my children know about the circumstances that led to their parents’ divorce. But I wonder how I’ll handle it when the questions get more specific and complex.

While none of us really knows what to say to our children on this topic, research shows that infidelity has a definite impact on them whether they know about the betrayal or not. In our house, my boys had to go through a period of receiving less of my attention. Without the information or the maturity to understand it, they had no way to comprehend that I was struggling with the emotional weight of a traumatic divorce and the practical realities of single motherhood.

A Case for Truth

A quote by psychiatrist and author Scott Haltzman articulates it so well: “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.”

Ouch.

I don’t imagine a point in my future where I sit my children down and tell them all the gory details of their parents’ divorce. But I’m beginning to realize how important it is to be real with them if and when they ask questions. I don’t want my own half truths or silence to leave them to make up their own answers, or worse, add a second layer of betrayal that some children feel when they find out they’ve been kept in the dark.

Name That Side Effect

Research by clinical psychologist Ana Nogales shows children are likely to struggle most with the effects of divorce when they grow up and begin trying to form intimate bonds of their own. As adult children of divorce, my boys will probably experience some side effects that will be important to name and trace to their roots.

1. They may be more likely to be unfaithful in their intimate relationships.

In Nogales’ survey of 800 adult children of infidelity, 96% said they believe it is wrong to cheat on your partner. Ironically, 44% also said they have been unfaithful themselves to their own partner. Why the mismatch in belief and behavior? Nogales says that it may be an unconscious attempt to replay events in order to work out unresolved feelings about what happened between their parents.

2. They may have an insecure attachment style.

As a result of seeing their family break down, adult children of divorce are more likely to have a fear of betrayal or abandonment. It makes sense that when a person’s primary structure of security and safety breaks down, they’ll have a hard time believing in the solidity of any future family unit they attempt to form. Instead they’re more likely to believe that their relationships can end at any moment.

3. They may have a hard time trusting others.

In Nogales’s survey, 70% said their ability to trust others had been affected by their parents’ infidelity, and 83% said they think that people regularly lie. Nogales explains that when a person sees infidelity happen between their parents, they’re more likely to believe that someone they love could lie to, reject, or abandon them. As a result, they may be excessively suspicious, emotionally distant, or avoid commitment.

4. They will probably be confused about love, marriage, and sex.

Eighty percent of Nogales’s survey respondents said their parents’ infidelity affected their attitudes toward love and relationships. If parents stay married and continue having an affair, children will likely be confused about the meaning of sex and marriage. When nobody talks about or outright denies infidelity, the children are left to make their own assumptions about the prevalence and acceptability of cheating.

The Bottom Line

So what will I say if and when the questions come? Based on what I’ve read so far, I’ll respond with truth in an age-appropriate manner. I’ll do my best to keep emotions out of it and stick to the facts, acknowledging that details are often unnecessary. (Research also shows how important it is to foster a positive relationship with both parents.)

Experts like Nogales and Haltzman don’t advocate telling children about infidelity in 100% of cases. If they’re too young or have no idea what happened, it may not be necessary. They caution, however, that we often underestimate how much our children already know or suspect.

If my writing speaks to you, please ease my path to publication by subscribing to my monthly newsletter. It gives me proof of readership and sends all of my new content directly to your inbox in one email per month. 

Leave a Reply