This is the third in a series of posts addressing children and affairs. In Part I, I described the effects affairs can have on children; in Part II, I addressed the question of whether or not to disclose the affair to your children and started to discuss ways of doing this that are most helpful. Here I focus specifically on your relationship with your infant or toddler around the time of disclosure.
Unfortunately, the intensity of feeling betrayed and humiliated by your partner can make it difficult to care about anything or anyone else. I have heard many stories of outraged discoverers of affairs holding a screaming baby while screaming obscenities and threats at their spouse. Even worse, I have heard stories of parents trying to grab the baby out of each others arms, claiming the baby is theirs and/or threatening to take him/her away. Things can quickly go out of control physically from there, especially if alcohol or drugs are also involved.
It is easy to assume that because infants and toddlers are not able to use language they don’t know what’s going on. However, research has demonstrated over and over again that infants experience exquisite sensitivity to the minute nuances of interpersonal interactions between themselves and their caretakers. For example, an infant who expects to have an experience of gazing into mother’s eyes gazing back at her and is instead met with averted eyes can experience distress and begin to employ strategies to recapture the gaze, such as babbling, fussing, crying, or squirming into a better position to regain the eye contact. Normally there is an interplay between caretaker and infant that renders these strategies successful. The caretaker responds by reestablishing eye contact and the infant learns that s/he can be an effective participant in staying connected and reestablishing a sense of rightness and security with the world. This is one tiny example of the very many important microcosmic interactions that go on all of the time during play, feeding, nursing, bedtime, etc., Most of the time these interactions are successful and occur naturally; parents don’t usually have to worry about learning how to do this correctly.
If one or both caretakers are in the throes of trauma, this systemic interplay can be compromised. The trauma of the discovery of an affair can lead you as a parent to experience increased irritability, anxiety, preoccupations, feeling ungrounded, sick, depleted, empty, and in general less tolerance for any more stress. Holding your screaming baby in order to soothe him or her might have seemed so much easier before. Now it can seem unbearable.
Research has correlated sustained disruptions in the infant’s ongoing felt experience of connection with caretakers with problems in later life such as increased levels of anxiety and difficulties processing thoughts and emotions.
Anything that can be done to decrease the air of tension in the home, and to have available adults who can be physically present and focused on your infant’s ongoing sense of connectedness and emotional safety is extremely important. Taking a few minutes before contact to focus on your intention to connect with your infant and let go of other considerations can be very helpful. If at all possible, staying in close communication with your partner about sharing this important responsibility is best. Reminding yourself that you want to contain the damage rather than allow it to spread can be helpful. If the home environment feels so shattered that you feel you cannot try to work this out, it may be best for your child to stay with a close friend or relative for a few days so that you and your partner can sort things out and figure out a plan for increased support for the family, which might involve living separately for a period of time in order to reestablish a home that feels emotionally safe.
Three year olds are stringing words together and can take you by surprise with what they come out with. Actually, their comprehension far exceeds their ability to represent what they are experiencing with words. In addition to the above considerations, it is important to provide very simple verbal explanations when toddlers want to know why everything doesn’t feel right. For example, “ I’m upset because I think daddy is spending too much time with (name of person if toddler knows him or her, or if not, with a friend). But don’t worry honey, we’re working it out and things will be okay soon.”