When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
Overall, I like to be pretty honest with my kid, but when it comes to this subject, I wonder if I should say anything at all, much less tell him the whole story. About a year ago I had an affair. I don’t want to get into the whole thing, but it was a huge mistake, and now, months after my wife found out, we’re still trying to repair our marriage and get back to some sense of normal. I don’t know that we will, but I hope so.
In the middle of all this is my son — just 12 years old — and the poor kid has seen his home life turned upside down for the better part of a year now. I moved out for a few weeks at first, and after coming back, it’s been varying between tense and combative with little else to lighten the load. My kid knows something is going on — it’s impossible for him not to — but neither my wife or I have told him exactly what, and although he’s a sharp kid, I’m not sure really how much he knows already or how much he suspects. Overall both my wife and I have tried to shield him from this stuff, but it’s his life too, and part of me feels like he should have some idea of what the hell is going on.
So, should I tell him about it? If I do, how much should I say? How do I deal with his reaction?
Basically: How do I explain an affair to my kid?
The Expert Advice
Rick Reynolds, whose infidelity and journey back led him to found Affair Recovery: Typically, unless there’s a risk of your children finding out, I recommend not telling them about an affair. You can tell them that you’re having problems, but explain to them that your marriage is your business and that you and your spouse will take care of it.
The mistake that a lot of people make is that they will start talking about the affair, and they’ll spousify their children, which means that they’ll start talking to them like they’re an adult, or they’ll talk about things that are in the marriage. Children should never be involved in the marriage bubble or subsystem, it’s too unnerving for kids and it puts a lot of weight on their shoulders. The parents need to say it’s their responsibility to take care of this and that “our marriage is our business.” The boundaries need to be that clear.
There may be cases where it’s public knowledge, and for whatever reason, kids may already know what’s going on. For those situations, if you’re the parent that cheated, you can say something like, “I’ve made some very bad choices, but our marriage is our business and we’re working on this and it’s not your business.” You don’t want to explain why you did it, because when people do that, they’ll say stuff like, “I was unhappy with your mother, and because your mother wasn’t making me happy, I went out and found somebody who did.” That’s going to be really harmful for the child because it’s always important to remember that other parent is half of who that child is, and you always want to protect that view as much as possible.
For the same reason, if you were the one who was cheated on, it’s important to do what you can to still protect that view, so you can say something like, “Your mom made some poor choices in my view, but she’s still a good person and she’s still your mom and you need to love her.” Kids need that security, and you’ll need to reassure them a lot through this process.
You especially don’t want to involve them if you’re still in the midst of the turmoil. It’s one thing to tell the story in retrospect so that hopefully they can learn from your legacy, but while it’s all going on, it’s going to put the child in a position where they need to choose one parent over the other, which is really going to impact their own identity.
You might decide, when the child is an adult, that it may benefit them to learn the whole story. Some feel that events like this are an important part of their legacy, which was the case for my wife and I when we told our own children before they got married, but there are many cases where your child may never need to know.
Kimberly Bell, clinical director of the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development: Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason why you’d want to tell your child voluntarily about an affair. There may be very unique situations where you may tell them as an adult, but it’s rare that it would benefit them to know this at all.
The cases I run across most often are when a teenage child has caught one of the parents. If that happens, there can be nothing but honesty about what’s going on. I don’t mean all of the details, but you can’t try to deny the perception of a teenager by trying to explain things away — it’s extremely damaging and selfish. To do that isn’t protecting the child, it’s protecting yourself and it can damage a child’s sense of reality to know they’re being lied to by someone they love. It destroys the relationship.
Instead, the cheating parent who has been caught should tell their child that they will be the one to tell their spouse, and they should apologize for how this hurts the child. Outside of that, they have to make clear that this is a grown-up matter between the two parents and that they will handle it.
Regardless of how their child found out, the parent who’s had the affair has to accept the anger from their child. Most people in that kind of situation will try to defend themselves, but with their child, the parent can’t defend their behavior — they have to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. See, in a marriage where people aren’t getting along, it’s easier to sit down and say that we’re just not getting along, that there’s no one to blame. But in the case of an affair, there is someone to blame, and the person who cheated has to be strong enough to take responsibility for that.
On the other side, the spouse that has been cheated on has to rally their own resources. There will be a compulsion to use their anger against their spouse, but if they’re really thinking of their child, the person has to explain that what’s going on is a grown-up trouble, that they and the other parent will handle it and that the other parent still loves them — that this is something purely between the parents.
If the parents are staying together, it would be ideal to have both the parents talk to their child together. If they’re splitting up, in an ideal world they’d still talk to the child together, but practically speaking there may be too much anger to accomplish that. Bottom line is that both parents will end up speaking about the situation with their child. This is why, with situations like this, I recommend that people get a therapist involved to help mediate the conversation. Sometimes people don’t understand what a family therapist can do, but they can help the family to navigate through these difficult conversations. No one has to be “in therapy” to do this, it just helps to have them as a mediator.
Ultimately, the dynamic when a child is aware of an affair is still going to be to not get them involved. You want to tell them that this is a grown-up matter and that applies to a young child or to a 16-year-old. The language may vary and teenagers may better understand the intricacies of a relationship, but regardless of age, you don’t want to put them in the middle of it.
Linda, whose husband was unfaithful during their marriage: I remember when my daughter was about eight years old, she started to become aware of the differences between her own family and other families, so she asked me one day about why her daddy wasn’t around. I didn’t want to tell her everything about “a woman scorned” and all of the emotions that come with that, so I had to remember to not react with any adult emotions. I had to remember she was a child and I had to answer things delicately. I told her at the time that I didn’t know why her daddy had left us, but that he wanted to be somewhere else and I let her know that if she wanted to know anything else she could ask.
It was hard not to bring my own emotions and sorrow into the conversation, as our marriage had ended when my daughter was just three, but I knew that I had to be calm about things and I had to be open to her questions. I always wanted to be careful not to color her view of her father, and I wanted her to be able to form her own opinion about him. I also took her to meet him at age nine so that she could know who he was.
As my daughter got older she wanted to know more. I let her know that she could always ask me questions and that I’d be honest with her. Ultimately, as she entered her teens, she learned more about our marriage and why it didn’t work, including the fact that he never would spend much time at home and that he’d always be out with his friends or another woman.
I always tried my best to be honest with her about him, but to allow her to form her own opinions about her father, as I felt it wasn’t my place to poison her view of him, or other men who would eventually come into her life.
Betty, Linda’s daughter: My mother was never the type to say, “Don’t talk to that piece of sh*t,” or anything like that when it came to my father. Whenever I came to her and asked her questions, she was very calm and measured about the subject. She never wanted to poison my view of him, and she let me form my own opinions. She even took me to see him on several occasions, all of which I’m very grateful for.
When it came to the questions about infidelity, it seemed normal to me to learn those things. I was very enmeshed with my mother at the time, and I know that she just wanted to be honest with me. Also, I understand why she told me about all those details; after all, it was just the two of us, and it’s hard not to confide in the only person that you see every day, even if that person is a child.
As an adult now, though, with a child of my own, I honestly feel like I didn’t need to know all of the details of my parents’ marriage. While trying not to ruin my view of my father, I also learned a lot of really terrible things about him, and it was a lot to ask of a kid to take all of that in. So while it all seemed very normal at the time, I do believe that I should have been shielded from all of the gritty details of their marriage. For a kid, that’s just too much of a burden to bear.