Adultery hits a family with incredible force. Earlier I discussed the effects it has on you, not only the incredible weight it bears on its own but also the unwelcome additional stress, anger, and frustration it brings to its usual successor; divorce. What is often overlooked though is the impact adultery has on the children of divorce. The subject generally brings focus to the wrong committed by one and the impact it has on the other parent. If the children know about the infidelity, then the entire subject becomes part of their story and it carries significant impact on them in the short and long term.
Most have heard the odd philosophical question about a tree falling in the wilderness with nobody to hear it. If you know my background you can likely take a safe bet about how much I care if it made a sound or not. But that question does line up with adultery and children during divorce. If the children never know about adultery, can it have an impact on them? I believe the answer is indirectly, yes. They may not know why, but the existence of infidelity in the entire divorce swirl will create more tension, more negative emotions, which all will be sensed by the kids. The reality is that, based on the divorce stories I’ve learned, it is very rare that the children don’t find out.
Children are always observing. During the tension-filled times of divorce, their alert status is elevated to the wartime levels. Their future is uncertain, their foundation is rocked, and they are seeking information to help them make sense of the unknown. If ever you have a doubt, always, always assume your children are listening. They are around the corner, or just down the hall, but they are listening. Odds are also good that their mom or you have confided in a friend about the details. The more people that know, the higher the chances are that a kid from that home will hear. As connected as children are today with social media, the word will get out. Parents getting divorced where adultery is a major factor need to decide whether or not to tell the children themselves. Making that decision requires analysis of many factors, like age, circumstances, likelihood of them finding out, along with many more. I personally feel it is better for them to hear it first from the adults rather than learn from friends or other kids at school. Ultimately, only you as their parents have knowledge of all the issues and can make that call. When making that decision, though, remember that sooner or later, they will likely learn the truth.
With knowledge of the cheating, children will face two major problems. First, they now will have their moral and general life foundation further rocked beyond that of simply divorce. Prior to the divorce and adultery knowledge, their world was based on a home centered around two parents. Already with the divorce this foundation and social norm is shattered. Adultery, though, breaks down the relationship into a clearer black-and-white issue. From early games, reinforced many times during their lives, they learned the meaning of cheating. Very young children know what it means for a person to cheat on another. Now this breakdown of the ideal is a reality for their parents.
Knowing the issue and the right-and-wrong associations that go with it leads to the second problem for your children. Adultery is pretty cut and dry, with one person being in the wrong, and the other being the victim. They don’t understand the many reasons that built up to the infidelity. They won’t grasp the expert opinions that describe adultery as a symptom of a failed relationship, with shared responsibility. In many ways I envy their innocent, simple understanding. As they try to make sense of the divorce, they desperately want to know why it happened, what went wrong, and how to fix it. For most, a large amount of the divorce stress will come from the frustration when they can’t find a reason, or seek to blame themselves. With adultery, they now have a reason. It is one of the parents’ fault. It is simple, it makes sense, and the case is closed.
As one whose ex cheated on him, I firmly stand by my belief that, while there is satisfaction in the children blaming the divorce on the cheater, it is not good for them. They need a good, solid relationship with both parents. When you look at the future from your children’s perspective, you should be able to see how assigning blame to one parent is not right. They will have difficulty understanding how the faults are actually between just the parents and don’t affect either parent’s relationship with the child. Helping them reach an understanding will not be instantaneous, but it will be helped if the same message comes from both parents. Even if you choose to not tell your children, remember that there is a strong possibility that some day they will learn the truth. The strength of the message coming from both of you still holds true later.
While not obvious, adultery in a divorce can impact the children. Aside from the obvious where it actually may cause the divorce, it can erode their foundation beyond the damage just caused by a divorce. One of the hardest lessons in life is when we learn our parents are human also. The lesson is likely best learned in adulthood, when we can relate. In our childhood, our parents are not “real” people, but just simply our parents; infallible and the standards. The divorce crumbles the two-parent foundation of their world and adding adultery brings a hard lesson early during an already rocky period. It further brings the danger of assigning clear blame for the divorce to one parent. We all will someday learn, to varying degrees, the part both parents played in actually causing the adultery and divorce. Children will have a much harder time reaching that conclusion, as they will desperately be seeking a cause. It’s up to the wronged parent to recognize the importance of the relationship between the children and both parents and how adultery should not be allowed to disrupt this source of strength and development for your kids. I’ve walked that road and know how hard it is. But I can tell you now from the other side how grateful I am that I worked to prevent the erosion for my children.