No marriage is perfect, and while most couples don’t enter their marriages expecting infidelity to happen, the hard truth is that it happens more often than most people realize. Because infidelity is often kept secret, it’s difficult to ascertain how many married people end up cheating, but experts estimate that anywhere from 2-33% of married couples engage in infidelity.
Infidelity certainly has significant impacts on marriages. It’s a top reason couples divorce, for example. If couples stay together, working through infidelity may be the most difficult thing they do. The hurt and pain it causes often lingers for a long time.
But what about when children are involved? How does infidelity affect children — both in the midst of infidelity, and long-term?
How Infidelity Impacts Children
Infidelity impacts children in different ways, depending on the circumstances. Many kids — especially younger ones — won’t be aware of their parent’s infidelity, though they will be able to pick up on the painful feelings and anger that infidelity may unleash in their parents. Even if older children aren’t explicitly told what is going on, they may pick up on the signs of infidelity — or at least understand that their parents feel hurt or betrayed in some way.
If infidelity is an isolated incident, and the child’s parents are able to work it out amicably — very often through couples counseling — there may be minimal ramifications for children. If working through the infidelity leads to a deeper understanding and healing of wounds between parents, this can actually be a good thing for the children.
When infidelity leads to months or years of antagonism, broken trust, or a contentious divorce, children will likely be more strongly impacted, especially if they are not given emotional support or offered counseling services to help them move through their feelings.
Other factors that can negatively impact children include parents designating their children as “confidantes,” oversharing details of the affair or their hurt feelings to their children. If a child accidentally finds out about the affair, this can also have lasting impacts.
Long-Term Effects of Infidelity
What about when these children grow up? Do they carry the wounds of infidelity with them, and how does this impact their own relationships and marriages?
Some unsettling research published in the Journal of Family Issues found that children whose parents were unfaithful were twice as likely to be unfaithful themselves. Of course, any kind of childhood trauma can increase the likelihood of infidelity, so it’s important to keep this statistic in context.
The long-term effects of infidelity go deeper than future relationship behavior (i.e., cheating or not cheating). According to clinical psychologist Ana Nogales, author of Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful, growing up in a family with infidelity has lasting impacts on children in terms of how they view their romantic relationships and their ability to trust future partners.
Nogales’ research has found that 75% of children experience lingering feelings of betrayal toward their cheating parent, 80% say that the infidelity shapes their outlook about romance and relationships, and 70% describe the infidelity as affecting their general trust in others.
These are sobering statistics, but it’s important to keep in mind that, while the hurt and pain is real, there are things adults can do to heal and mitigate the negative impacts on children. Simply being mindful of these issues and connecting them to your own feelings about a parents’ infidelity is a first step. In-person or online therapy is a wonderful way to work through these feelings and learn how to build more emotionally stable and trusting relationships.
How To Help Your Child Heal After Infidelity
It’s never fun to deal with a partner’s unfaithfulness, and if you are in the thick of it, you’ll likely be feeling hurt, overwhelmed, and confused. You may be uncertain as to whether your marriage is going to survive. You are probably putting all your emotional energy into mending your marriage, or figuring out how to end it.
It’s important not to let your children get lost by the wayside during these trying times. Their feelings matter and they will be impacted by the infidelity whether they know exactly what is going on or not. Children are little emotional sponges and they absorb everything that is happening in their homes, whether you want them to or not.
Many parents wonder how much they should or should not reveal to their children about the infidelity. There is no set answer to this question. Most experts agree that children need not be given too many details about what happened, but that honesty is important nonetheless.
For younger children, just saying that mommy or daddy did something wrong that was hurtful might be enough information. Children can be aware that their parents are not perfect. If they see that you are working through your mistakes, this can actually be a positive and important life-lesson.
Older children may suspect that something more is going on, or may even find out about the infidelity. Experts agree that you should not lie to your child if they find out. But you also don’t need to provide too many unnecessary details or pull them into you and your partner’s drama. Reassuring them that they did nothing wrong and that their parents will work through this is important.
If you see signs of increased anxiety, depression, anger, or behavioral issues, you might consider therapy for your child. A good child therapist will be able to help your child freely express their feelings, understand them, accept them, and begin to work through them.
Infidelity is not something any of us wish to burden our children with, but if it happens, we have to acknowledge the impact it may have on our children. We can’t just hope against hope that our children will be unaffected. It will be a delicate balance for sure, but honesty and compassionately addressing our children’s questions and feelings, is the best way to go.