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

Surviving Infidelity: What Do We Tell the Kids?

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A common fear expressed by my clients is how the infidelity may impact their children. In 2008, Ana Nogales published the book, Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents are Unfaithful1. In it, Nogales breaks down the findings of 822 responses to a survey she conducted:

Seventy-five percent of those who responded to our "Parents Who Cheat" survey reported that they felt betrayed by the parent who cheated. Sixty-two percent felt ashamed. Eighty percent felt that their attitude toward love and relationships was influenced by their parent having cheated, and 70 percent said that their ability to trust others had been affected. Eighty-three percent stated that they feel people regularly lie. And yet, 86 percent reported that they still believe in monogamy!

I was personally surprised by her findings. My experience with the children in the Affair Recovery community doesn't seem to reflect those statistics. In my opinion, the impact on children is strongly influenced by their parents and how they react to the crisis in their marriage. In marriages where parents have used the crisis of infidelity as a catalyst for transformation, I've seen children reflect a strong pride for being a part of the family.

When parents are able to incorporate the story of the infidelity into their larger story, I've seen children do the same. When forgiveness been modeled in a healthy way, I've seen adult children of infidelity do the same. Infidelity, when revealed in retrospect and crisis is past, can reveal the best traits of the children's parents. I remember one of my daughters commenting about a bad choice she made and that her mother would never be able to forgive her. That brought a laugh from me and I told her that when it was age appropriate, I was going to share the rest of our story and she was going to discover there was nothing she could ever do that her mom wouldn't forgive. When that day came and we told our children of our journey and what we overcame, it not only strengthened the legacy of our family and the belief that we were a family capable of overcoming major obstacles, but our kids learned that their mother was an amazing woman who was full of grace and strength. Since that day, they've felt safe talking with us about anything.

What follows is an essay written by a young woman who told her parents' story on her college entrance application:

Infidelity From a Child's Perspective

Honestly, there isn't much I remember about my parents telling my brothers and I about my father's infidelity. I was about 6 or 7 years old. They probably would have waited until we were older if there wasn't a possibility that the affair partner, the woman my father had the affair with, could show up at our front door. There was even a chance that the son my father and the affair partner had together could come live with us. The information that they shared with us was minimal and age-appropriate; more information would be shared as my siblings and I grew older. I'm beyond thankful that my parents decided to teach us about their journey and the lessons that it taught them.

From that day on, my parents were like open books. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't like we were having family dinners over the topic or anything. My parents just made it very clear from the beginning that the subject was not off-limits. We could ask them almost anything and they would do their best to give an answer, even if it needed to be somewhat filtered for appropriateness. They made sure to heal and recover without making our entire lives revolve around my dad's mistake. I didn't know it then, but the transparency that my parents had with my brothers and I was going to define so much of our growth into young adults.

Now, I can't speak for my siblings, but I do remember feeling emotional for my mother. She was, and continues to be, the rock of our family, holding all of us up when we need it. Her strength is amazing, but nobody was made to handle that kind of pain. I could see her struggle with small things, which I would later learn were her triggers, and there were definitely some feelings to be had toward my father. He knew it, too. I couldn't understand how someone could create such pain for someone they love and, even though I never asked that question, my father addressed it. The second most important thing that my father did for our family was take the steps toward recovery. He genuinely wanted to understand what led him down that path so he could eventually answer a question like, "How could you do that to Mom?"

Now to the first most important thing in our family's healing, honesty. Recovery was one component of the process, but my Dad felt as though none of the work would be worth it if he couldn't openly tell us, and others, about his journey when the time was right. Recovery is a hard road to travel, but he put in the work. He attended a small group specific to recovery, a men's group through church, went to individual and couples therapy, and generally surrounded himself with the Word of God and people who could support him. He still does most of those things today, 18 years after the affair occurred. He views recovery as a lifelong journey and not something that only lasts a few years. He believes it is selfish for any parent to want their kids to think they are perfect and he has made sure that we, his kids, know he is flawed. Every time he took a step in the wrong direction, whether it was in his recovery journey or in the past about dumb mistakes he made in high school, he wanted us to know. The same went for my Mom. They would share some of the things they were struggling with as a couple or individuals when it was appropriate to do so. Appropriate is an important word here. They had set firm boundaries in regard to how they talked to us that still stand today. We were their children first. Of course there were tears after an emotional day or argument, but we were never relied on for solutions. They maintained a safe, healthy environment while still exposing us to very authentic emotional and spiritual growth.

When I grew up and found myself facing the pain of infidelity in my high school relationship, the conversations I had had with my parents helped guide my personal journey. They didn't get too involved in telling me what I should or shouldn't do in the moment because they wanted me to have the freedom to make my own choices and learn from the consequences. I was able to lean on them for support while they maintained healthy boundaries in influencing my decisions. I learned to grow from the pain of my mistakes by turning to friends and openly discussing the reality of my situation. Community had a big part to play in my healing process.

I am forever grateful that my parents were open and honest. I would be a completely different person if they hadn't been. The same goes for our family. Our truthfulness with ourselves, each other, and others has come to be a defining characteristic of each of our personalities and can largely be attributed to the honesty of my parents.

The infidelity has definitely left its mark on my family, but not in the way that I think most parents foresee. There were moments of raw emotion between my parents that my brothers' and I witnessed, sure, but nothing that most kids haven't seen at some point. Instead, my parents kept the infidelity from gripping our lives and took the reins of what could have been a runaway horse. Things would have been a lot different if they hadn't handled the situation in such a healthy way by making the infidelity a chapter of the book rather than the whole book.

My mother taught me to know my worth and, yet, to be forgiving. Resilience shines brighter than any light but can be greatly dimmed by bitterness. My father showed me what it means to give a little grace, to myself and others. To be human is to be flawed and it is unfair to hold yourself or others to a standard higher than that. These lessons, and the way that my parents have chosen to give back to others by leading groups at Affair Recovery has further impacted me, as well as many relationships and people. They have helped me develop character and have modeled the importance of striving for a healthy and authentic relationship. I am anything but discouraged when I think about my own future relationships as a result of the joy and life that my parents now share together.

At Affair Recovery, our mission is to restore those in crisis to extraordinary lives of meaning and purpose. That kind of healing and restoration begins with how you choose to respond to this severe crisis. Our online course for couples—Emergency Marital Seminar Online—can help you and your mate learn how to heal from the crisis of infidelity and use it as a catalyst for transformation.

Continue Your Healing With EMS Online! Registration Opens Soon.

Our Emergency Marital Seminar Online, better known as EMSO, isn't a one-size-fits-all program for couples. Over decades of experience exclusively in the field of infidelity, our methodology has been honed to better serve couples as they address the betrayal, reconnect as partners and restore their lives.

"I would like to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your ministry and the materials you have provided as part of EMSO and Married for Life. We, all five couples that started EMSO, have just completed the Married for Life 52-week course. We are now deciding what to study next as a group, as we so value the relationship we have together as couples. With God, with your materials and with each other, we have saved our marriages." - B. Minnesota | EMSO participant, March 2021.

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Hello, it’s been just over a year now since my wife admitted to her affair. I questioned her over the previous 2 years but she denied it. It wasn’t until last year after she had moved out that she came clean. Even then it was a mistake that I got the truth. She left the family home in May last year saying she needed space. Then she accidentally sent a text to me saying he’d had told his wife everything. The message was meant be be for her friend. I believed that he was moving in with her but panicked once he told his wife. She then told me it was over and they had both agreed. She then told me she wanted to try again but I don’t want to be the booby prize. We’ve had counselling but that didn’t go well. The counsellor spoke to my wife about the affair and how sorry she was but then it was turned on me. I lost my career and identity due to illness. I am unable to work and have suffered with depression since this happening. The blame was shifted to me. I know I’m to blame partly but I don’t think this justifys having an affair. My wife wants to move on but there are too many inconsistency’s in her story. I need help but I’m not getting it from seeing a counsellor. She tells me I’m stuck and she cannot help me until I accept the facts my wife is telling me. Help please

There is nothing you can do

There is nothing you can do that can cause another person to have an affair, put your family through pain and hardship and potential danger. That was her choice alone. You may have areas you can improve but nothing can justify an affair. She was free to divorce you and not have an affair, she chose the affair. She is responsible for her choices as you are for yours.
Maybe try a counselor or life coach specializing in infidelity?
So sorry you are experiencing this. You can’t make her do anything. You can work on yourself and heal and grow though.
In my experience a person having an affair behaves very much like an addict. Nothing they do will make sense to a sane person. The risks, the damage, the lies. You will drive yourself crazy trying to make sense of an addict and what they do or tell you. If you believe in God pray for them and try to heal yourself. She is in his hands. Nothing you do or don’t do can get her to come around. God has his timing.

Always tell your kids

Kids aren’t stupid and eventually will figure out something is wrong. Don’t let this happen as you are betraying them in the process by hiding things.

Instead be brutally honest with facts and stick to the facts, and do this EARLY. You’ll probably show anger, fear, or sorrow and that’s ok- can’t be helped. But DON’T ever use a personal invective that can’t be backed up in a way good enough for court.

Thank you

Thank you for your comment, this was my gut reaction but wandering wife of course wanted to keep things a secret.

What type of affair was it?

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-D, Texas