One of the greatest social fallacies of family life is what I call the Fallacy of Parental Omniscience. Parents often debate about what children should be told about sensitive issues, when they should be told, how they should be told, etc. The truth is that children of infidelity have a brilliantly sophisticated emotional radar. Research says that it is often more finely attuned than adult radar. Whatever you’re withholding from them, they’re in the process of figuring it out in their own way in real time.
During a crisis of infidelity, parents tend to make one of two unfortunate wrong moves. They either tell the children too much, or they say too little. The parent who advocates telling them everything might be a Hurt Partner seeking to create an alliance with the child against the Involved Partner, or it might be the Involved Partner seeking to preemptively wrest control of the “story” from the Hurt Partner. In either case, considerations of appropriate boundaries with children of infidelity are subordinated into political maneuvers and petty wrangling.
There are quite a few moving parts for the children of infidelity:
These are but a few of the larger issues that parents must consider. Under dysfunctional conditions, children of infidelity can be enormously impacted for a lifetime.
In some cases, the betrayal is internalized so thoroughly that a form of trauma sets in. I once had a client whose father was a callous philanderer. Making matters worse, her mother was as skilled at triangulating as she was at ignoring boundaries. Her mother terrified her with the endless mantra of “Daddy has left us… we are completely on our own… we will never be a happy family again.”
The woman understandably developed a Borderline Personality Disorder. She had a desperate fear of being abandoned by her partner, and of course, this fear was only matched by her skill in becoming involved with philandering men who pushed all of her family-of-origin buttons. Half a century after her father abandoned his family, she remained a frightened tortured soul.
Therapists are divided on this issue. But there are some useful guidelines. What role does the affair have in family functioning? Is divorce on the table? Is there fighting in front of the kids? In most cases, a firm “keep secrets” policy will drag your kids into your issues because they will have a compelling need to connect the dots.
Children of infidelity will acutely feel every shift in your marital dynamic. Every shrill tone, every sigh, every bang, every whimper. If your intimate world is crashing around you, please do not make matters worse by operating from the conceit that you can somehow keep this from your children. You can’t.
Teens have a sophisticated level of understanding. However, when their sense of security is threatened, they can be resentful and unforgiving. If you are not careful and pro-active, this alienation can last for decades. Research shows that frank discussions of what you are doing to save your marriage, or careful information about how they will be impacted by decisions being made, is both therapeutic for the children and parents.
The two biggest mistakes with children of infidelity are recruiting them into one-sided parental alliances and keeping them in the dark about issues that they are anxious about.
Children will engage in magical bargaining with the universe. They will sometimes focus on what they imagine a parent needs, instead of clearly communicating what they need from their parents.
Whether or not the marriage survives, Children of Infidelity require parents who will suspend their hostilities and re-focus their attention on what their children need in the short term as well as down the road.
When kids tell you that they don’t want to do their homework, and you uncharacteristically explode… they will begin to worry and ruminate. When young kids under around age 9 or 10 become anxious about how their parents are functioning, they begin to craft a narrative about how they are the problem. Sometimes they will act out, become depressed, profoundly listless and sad. They may even become physically ill in a strategic unconscious attempt to compel their parents into becoming a united front once more.
When stressed kids are acting out, one of the most important axioms of family therapy is the question: “What problem is this symptom or behavior attempting to solve?”
Children need information that is considerate of their developmental age that reaffirms in no uncertain terms that they are loved and cared for.
Kids should not be stressed out or burdened with your baggage. They need to know if you are trying to stay together, or if divorce is only a matter of time. They need your understanding, not your impatience. Kids learn about intimate relationships from the two of you. And what you decide today will echo through time.
They are grieving the loss of the comfortably secure family that you once provided. What do Children of Infidelity need? They need both of you right now… more than ever.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.