An affair so often affects more than the three adults involved — if you and your partner have children, dealing with the fallout from infidelity becomes much more complex. Whether you’re planning on parting ways with your spouse or working through your issues together, you are probably asking yourself questions like: “Should we tell our children about the affair? How much information is too much for them to handle, and is keeping a secret detrimental?” The answers aren’t easily found, but YourTango asked two relationship experts, Lois Muir-McClain, and Lauren Matos, about the best way to move forward from infidelity when kids are a part of the equation.
Both Matos and Muir-McClain agree that the age and emotional capacity of the child is a big factor in how much they’re told. As Muir-McClain explains, “Older children, especially teens, may create their own ideas about why their parents broke up. It could be helpful for them to know the truth, rather than have to be dishonest about the break up.” Matos adds that many young children and teens can grow to believe that somehow their actions caused the rift.
If you’re choosing to talk to your children about the real issues at hand, do so with caution. “I don’t believe that it is important for children to know all the gory details of why their parents are having problems. After an affair, if the marriage or partnership is going to continue, then it usually is enough for the kids to know that mom and dad are having some problems, but are trying to work them out.” Muir-McClain says.
And, as Matos explains, kids who know the full story might assume some of the blame. “They may have feelings such as “I did something wrong.” They may feel a loss of control and powerless, and because of these feelings, they may act out.”
Muir-McClain adds the necessity for care and tact if divulging the affair. It would be detrimental if the child begins to experience feelings of distrust or anger to the unfaithful spouse; they should understand that the parents’ love for them has not changed, despite the adult issues they are dealing with. “This should be handled carefully, and it is best for both parents to be involved in revealing the truth, so that one parent won’t be harsh or disrespectful about the other behind his or her back.”
Just as you are dealing with the emotional roller coaster of an affair, your children will, as well. Even if you choose not to tell your kids about the infidelity, it is likely they will be privy to a change in tone in the household. It’s imperative to acknowledge this difficulty and give them outlets for channeling negative emotions in a healthy way. Matos suggests exploring a technique she uses in EMDR therapy:
“This exercise is called the safe/calm place. You can help your child think of or imagine a place that represents safety or peace for them. It could be their bedroom or the park or Disney World. It can even be a made up place — perhaps something they saw in a cartoon or movie that felt good. As they bring up this place, have them describe it to you. What do they notice? What are the sounds, smells and sights? Have them notice how their bodies feel. Are they relaxed? Is their breathing slow and even? Now, help them identify a single word that goes with how they are feeling. Then have them bring up the image of their safe or calm place and the word and hold them together in their minds. Next, they can give themselves the ‘Butterfly Hug.’ Have your children cross their arms over their chest and then alternately tap themselves on their shoulders one at a time, back and forth slowly for four to six pats while thinking about their calm/safe image and their word. Then repeat a few times each day to reinforce the feelings of calmness and safety.”
Matos also believes it’s just as necessary for parents to acknowledge their own pain and sadness. “It’s also important that parents made sure to take care of their own emotional and mental health as well through this difficult time. Often, parents ignore their own needs to take care of a child’s, but sometimes that makes you less able to care for your children. You may unwittingly unload inappropriate information and feelings onto your child, and it is mainly your job to be present and listen without judgment.”
Both Matos and Muir-McClain believe that therapy, couples and family counseling can be immensely helpful to the family during this time. As Muir-McClain says, “Learning that a parent has cheated can be very disheartening for a child, leading them to feel betrayed, and not sure who to trust anymore.” Therapy will help both the child, and the parents as they explore the best ways to deal with the problems at hand.
Matos explains further: “Seeking help is not admitting that you can’t handle things or that something is wrong. Sometimes when you’re too close to a situation, having someone with a little distance to help you can be the smartest thing you can do.”
No matter how you move forward with or without your partner, your children will always be an important, loving part of your life. Make certain to handle the aftermath of an affair with care and empathy, so they feel safe and comforted. Eventually, you will, too.