Your Role as Parents
No matter how devastated you are, you are still faced with the task of keeping it together for the children. This can be a double-edged sword. The immediacy and sometimes enormity of children’s’ needs can function as a welcome distraction from the pain you are in on the one hand; on the other, you may be feeling depleted emotionally and physically and not have much to give. With regard to the latter, it is very tempting to then turn to the children for support, which is a role reversal that is, in the end damaging for children. Whatever you end up disclosing to your child, the overall message should be, “This is our problem, it does not involve you and we are taking steps to deal with it. You are still in capable hands”
It is crucial to set aside some time with your partner to discuss your child’s needs and agree on a plan together. If the discussion strays from the question of what is best for the children and moves into conflict about the affair itself, each partner can take responsibility for reminding the other of the purpose of the discussion. If emotions are running so high that you are unable to do this, it might be useful to get help from a professional.
Frequently the discovered feels so guilty that he or she doesn’t feel any right to be included in these decisions, and relinquishes all control of how and what the children will know to the betrayed spouse. The betrayed spouse can feel self-righteous about this and go along with the split. However, the children still belong to both of you, and acting as a parenting team during this time is an overarching way to minimize the psychological damage your child may experience as a result of disclosure.
So Should We Tell Them? And If So, How Much?
If at all possible, the children should not be told. This is the consensus of most family therapists. However, this is only true if both of you truly believe that the children are completely oblivious to what is going on. It is important to remember that this is your problem and not theirs and your goal is to protect them from emotional trauma if at all possible.
Whether they know, or “know but don’t know they know,” should be assessed not only by what they might be saying to you, but also by any changes in behavior or mood that they may be showing, even if you think it’s unrelated. You can read about behavioral and other changes children demonstrate before disclosure in Part I of this post.
Not telling your child about the affair does not mean that it is not important to acknowledge that “we are having some problems in our relationship and are doing everything we can to take care of it.” If your child can tell something is not right, it is important to confirm their experience. What they imagine in a vacuum will most likely be much worse than the truth and they are vulnerable to blaming themselves for whatever they imagine is going on. However, if any of the following conditions exist, disclosure of the fact of the affair itself is very important.
1) If the child has overheard parents talking or arguing about the affair. (It is very tempting to act like that didn’t happen, but that’s a mistake and can lead to alienation between you and your child)
2) If the child has witnessed direct evidence of the affair, for example, has heard conversations between the person who had the affair and the other woman or man, or has seen them together . (It is very tempting to deny what is now obvious, but you really wouldn’t want to be treating your child as if he or she was stupid, or discouraging them from trusting their experience.)
3) If the other pereson is likely to make contact with the child, or call the house, or already has a relationship with him or her.
4) If the the child has a relationship or goes to the same school as the other person’s children or spouse.
5) If there is likely to be gossip, or public scandal about the affair. (It adds gasoline to the fire if your child hears about this from someone other than you.)
6) If the child asks if there is an affair. (If they are young it is good to find out what they think an affair is.)
Children need to be told about the affair in language that is age appropriate to ensure that they can understand and process what they are hearing. And there are ways to help them cope once disclosure has happened. I will begin to address these issues in Part III.