Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Telling Your Children After the Affair Doesn’t Always Turn Out As Expected

Last week I began exploring the topic of telling your children after an affair. For Stephanie and me, telling the children seemed like a no-brainer. Because of my profession, my story was becoming more public as I used it in my testimony of the transformation that infidelity had brought to our marriage and the hope that is available. We wanted them to understand the legacy and, hopefully, to learn from our mistakes. For us, the question wasn’t if we would tell them, rather it was how and when we would tell them.

There is certainly more than one approach to telling your children, and there is no perfect way that can be used for every family. We chose what we believed to be the best way for our family. We love our children, and I believe love always acts in their best interest. Our first question was “when” should they know. This was too big of a secret to ask one child to keep from his siblings. For that reason, we chose to tell all three children about the affair at the same time. This presented another consideration since we wanted the youngest to be at a maturity level of understanding. Our oldest was 21 and engaged to be married; we had discussed for a few years that we wanted to share this with her before she made that commitment. We believed it would be a life lesson for her and her fiancé that we wished we had been taught. This meant our youngest was 15. We believed him to be emotionally mature enough to understand the situation and to appreciate the privacy nature. Consequently, we rented a condo on the coast and went on a family trip. At that time our children were 15, 18, and 21.

The kids had no idea what was coming. As far as they were concerned, it was another trip to the coast. I’m not even sure they were surprised when I called them all together on the second night for a family meeting. We began by telling them we wanted them to know the rest of the story of our marriage. Having been given the green light, I proceeded telling the story of my life and how I had an affair. Stephanie and I both spoke of the pain, the things we did that were helpful, and those that were not. I highlighted their mother’s strength and my amazement at her forgiveness. Stephanie spoke of my willingness to do whatever it took to put the marriage back together and to meet with accountability people. We both spoke of how our marriage had not only survived, but what we learned and how we had grown through the trial.

What came next caught me totally off guard. My oldest daughter was furious. Not because I had cheated on her mom, but because we hadn’t told her sooner. She felt it unfair that the youngest would get to hear this information at the same time she did. My attempts at soothing her ruffled feathers seemed futile, and she stormed off angrily into the night. My second daughter was angry because at one point, a couple of years earlier, she had begun to put two and two together and began asking questions about whether or not I had been unfaithful to her mom. Since Stephanie and I had made the decision to tell all three children at the same time, I misled her by not answering the question directly. She felt lied to and manipulated and stormed off after her sister. My 15-year-old son didn’t seem bothered at all, and found it somewhat amusing that both the sisters had gone missing. Amazingly, these hurts were short lived. By the next day all was back to normal, and we moved on with our stay at the beach.

I’m not sure any one of you should emulate our method of informing your children, but I can say it was one of the best things we’ve done. Trusting our children with the information of our life opened up the door for them trusting us with what was going on in their lives. That’s one of the simple lessons I learned in my own recovery. You can’t gain trust until you first give trust, and trusting them with our story enabled them to trust us with theirs. My kids are far from perfect, but I believe it was our honesty that prevented the disconnection that so often happens between parents and their teens. For that, Stephanie and I are both grateful.

If you are considering sharing your story with your offspring after the affair, here are a few suggestions.

When should you tell your children?

Telling your children in Real time: In the midst of recovery: (not recommended)

To think that infidelity doesn't have a profound impact on both children and adult children is naïve. If you’re reading this and you’re in the midst of recovering from an affair, here’s some simple advice about talking to your children. The younger the children are, the more important it is to protect them. The last thing a child needs is to have to carry the burden of your mistakes. If the children have heard things and are asking questions, then you may need to be more open. Secrecy and pretending can be even worse. On the other hand, if they don’t know anything about what is going on, then protecting them from the crisis might be the kindest thing you can do, even if they are adult children. There will come a time to share, but unless it’s in their best interest to know, don’t tell them. There’s too much risk of them being triangulated and impacted by what’s happening. By triangulation, I mean placing the children in a position where they feel they have to choose between you or your mate.

Far too often, parents begin using their children as confidants. Children don’t have the emotional maturity necessary to handle that information, and it robs them of their childhood. Spousification of a child (sharing details and processing information as you would with a spouse) is abusive and creates deep problems for a child.

When parents separate or if they decide to get divorced, they need to decide together what the story is going to be and tell the children together, sitting together on the same sofa. Even though a husband and wife are separating and/or divorcing, they will never be able to terminate their responsibility as Mom and Dad. For that reason, the children need to be reassured that they will still be dealing with the children together.

When talking to children, I suggest that the unfaithful person consider saying something like this: "I didn’t love (treat) your father (or mother) the way that married people should love (treat) each other." That’s truthful. It’s not denying the presence of a third party, but it doesn’t rock their world by bringing an unknown third party into it. Eventually, when it’s age appropriate, they should be given the story, but not in a way that gets them involved in marriage, but so they can learn from your mistakes.

Older children, if they know what’s going on in the crisis, need to be told the truth, but they don’t need to be involved in what’s going on. Give as little detail as possible to protect your children. Granting your children the space to live their life apart from yours is one of your greatest gifts to them. They don’t need to be dragged into the pit of your struggles. Take care of yourself and model for them how a mature adult is able to find appropriate support from others their own age. Take the high road and don’t play the victim by throwing your mate under the bus. This allows them to have the relationship they need with both you and your mate.

Telling your children in retrospect, to share life experiences with them:

Another instance for telling your children would be for the sake of the family. Stephanie and I wanted to model openness and honesty to our older children and to help them learn from our mistakes.

What should you tell?

The information your give your children needs to be age appropriate. Telling a six your old that your mommy brought another man into our house and took off all her clothes and let him touch her privates is abusive. As mentioned above, for the six your old it would have been far more appropriate to say, “I didn’t love (treat) your father (or mother) the way that married people should love (treat) each other.”

When children are in early adulthood and have questions, you can give more detail, but even then they only need the 30,000 foot view. If there was a pattern of behavior, tell them about the pattern of behavior, not how many times sexual contact occurred. For instance: “I had a series of affairs from 2001–2005.” Details, such as names aren’t important. At the same time, share the story and how you are recovering from the affair; tell about forgiveness and those that extended grace. Use your story to speak of the hope which came from your experience.

Why should you tell?

In Real time: You would only tell your children in the midst of the struggle, if they have overheard things and are asking questions, or if they are at risk of finding out from someone else.

In Retrospect: Love always acts in the best interest of another and the first question would be “Is it in their best interest?” If not, why would you tell? There are times that people want to use telling the children as a threat to get their mate to do what they want. This is abusive, destructive, and certainly not in the children’s best interest. If it’s the two of you telling the children, then you’re presenting a safe, unified front for your children, but if you talk with them alone without your mate they may well feel you are telling on your mate and you’ll be seen as the bad guy. Hopefully, the two of you will be in agreement when it comes to telling your children. Here are a few benefits you might want to consider:

  1. Portraying the perfect marriage when you are really far from perfect creates a standard of behavior that we ourselves can’t even meet. Why would we want to create an unrealistic standard for our children that teaches acceptability is based on perfection rather than grace? I think we all want to be loved “okay, as is, good enough,” just as we are, warts and all. Modeling how love is able to forgive and change provides an example for them when they encounter the failures of life.
  2. It teaches your children what an authentic relationship looks like and helps prepare them for a real marriage.
  3. It allows for honesty in your relationship with your children. I believe our honesty with our children helped us maintain a meaningful connection with them as they went through their struggles.
  4. It’s a part of their legacy and how you responded will ultimately reveal your greatest strengths.
  5. We don’t want to leave our children ill equipped. Life is hard, especially after an affair, and you do them a disservice if you pretend otherwise. Sharing your story with your mature children allows them to both understand and to learn from your mistakes. More importantly, you want to set the example of how to respond when things are hard.
  6. We don’t want to pretend normal. Stephanie and I both hope our children are way ahead of where we were when we were their age. We want to model how to live life on life’s terms. We want them to have mature, loving, and intimate relationships. That won’t happen if all we do is teach them how to pretend normal.
  7. Finally, I don’t want them to think they were crazy. At least, let them know they were spot on when they once asked, "what’s wrong" and you’d say, "nothing."

Life teaches many lessons. I hope you can find a constructive way to share the lessons you've learned with your children.

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Comments

Telling children

All good advice. What if you don't have a cooperative spouse or ex or a serious addition issue going on with that person?

Telling your children

Rick, Great article! It is timely and needed. Quickly I will tell you that for Susan and I, we told our adult daughter & her husband less than 30 days after I was fired from the ministry. Why so soon you ask? How could we have kept my termination a secret. Anyway, I did all (or most) of the talking. After I was done, I asked Susan if there was anything I left out and she said, "No, I did a good job of telling the truth". Our daughter (God bless her and her family) cried heavily and leaned against her mom. Then, (pardon me while I take a break to dry my eyes from the tears) she bolted across the room, put her arms around me and said, "I love you dad!" The miraculous thing is that we had no modern day book to go by. No support groups to attend. We did not have "AR" and I was 10 days away from meeting Dr. Mark Laaser. Even the counselor had only seen me 3 times and he did not know what to expect! Once again, great article and I must say both of you took some risks by delaying the admission to your kids. But, as you said "love prevails"! I would like to add another point or reason to tell the children: 7. Finally, I don’t want them to think they were crazy. At least, let them know they were spot on when they once asked, "what’s wrong" and you’d say, "nothing." 8. [Editor: Others may have knowledge of the affair which is fertile ground for rumors, gossip and false information. All of this surprising information may be within earshot of your children, at any age. It is far better your kids know the truth from both of you (up front), than to hear it from an uniformed third party or from a peer…whose own motive may be questionable.] Rick, I can't tell you the number of times an angry affair partner has started rumors at church, work or in the neighborhood. A child, young person or an adult hears snippets of information and "compares information with another uninformed third party" and before you know it, the children are drawn into the conversation. I often encourage innocent wives, children and parents of an unfaithful man. This is no ones business except God's and the one who wants to recover and move on. Gossip and arm-chair counselors do nothing but rob Christians of their joy and future peace. Thanks and God bless...

Telling the Children

You may use this comment if it is helpful. The affair wasn't until after 36 years of marriage, the kids are grown, married and live far away. I chose not to tell at the beginning because I knew there would be extreme pressure to divorce and I wasn't sure that is what I wanted nor was I emotionally able to deal with the pressure. Also our children were adopted by my husband and that adds another compexity to the situation. Someday I'm sure they will find out, perhaps when I pass on but for now there doesn't seem to be a reason to share the information. It has been 4 years since discovery and we are doing well. It is difficult when we share time with friends knowing that one of the couples have stated they will never be "friends" with my husband again. We are older and had many years together before the affair and that is even more difficult than when one is young and has work and children to keep ones focus.

I wish I would have read this 2 years ago....

but I fear it would not have mattered. I am guilty of all of this! I'm ashamed to say this, my children were 13 and 16 at the time their Dad was leaving us. But, their Dad wanted to put the story like this: "we love you (true and I agreed) but we just don't get along anymore". That I did not agree with, it felt to me like some how I was to blame for his affair. For the way he treated us horribly before I found out about the affair. He lied, denied and lied some more. One day he finally broke and said, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you". As much as I realize what I did was wrong looking back on it, at the time I felt justified. I wanted the kids to see it was his fault, he did this, he left us, he tore us apart. He was the one who was to blame for all the things that happened to us following his leaving. He came back within a month (we happened to be going on a florida vacation paid by me, he called her when we were there and his daughter caught him). He left, came back, left, came back, left and came back. There was a domestic charge on him that he committed against me that the kids witnessed. He came back, he left, he came back. My son smoke pot, got in trouble, probation as a minor, not who he is at all. My daughter dubbed herself the princess and who could give her more stuff, she is still at that point. He came back, he left. Three months ago he told me "she's f^^&ing crazy and needs meds, there is a reason we never got divorced, I look at the kids and see you, I think of our futures, grandchildren"......he was here for Easter, bought us all Easter baskets......then he was gone. He's lived with her for over 2 months, my daughter is now spending time with them and he is now bringing her here with them to drop my daughter off. My son wants nothing to do with her. Right now its like he is trying to bribe my daughter to live with him. I'm sick and saddened and my daughter is hateful to me. Was it right? Was I wrong? What did I do to deserve this? Why am I the one in pain? Why does he get to be happy? Am I playing the victim? Or am I just someone who's heart was broken and living with the pain every day?

Thank you!

Thank you so much for writing this article on how and why to tell children about their parents' marital problems. I've always wondered about this and I really appreciate the guidance. Thank you.

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