The Legacy of Infidelity and Divorce
The following is a chapter excerpt from the new book, After His Affair: Women Rising From The Ashes Of Infidelity, by Meryn Callander. This is her follow up book to Why Dads Leave: Insights and Resources for When Partners Become Parents. As a co-founder of the venerable Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children and an attachment parenting advocate, Callander addresses the very real and frequent issues of infidelity and divorce and their impact on children in her books. You can join Callander to explore this realm of marriage and parenting in her upcoming Parenting As A Hero’s Journey Virtual Retreat. The dark side of family life may be real, but, as Callander teaches, so are the many paths to healing.
The Legacy of Infidelity and Divorce
Infidelity—and the divorce that often follows—is a legacy passed from one generation to the next. As adults, these children of infidelity are more likely to be unfaithful to their own partner, and children of divorced parents have a higher than average divorce rate as adults.
Jennifer Harley Chalmers, Ph.D., Surviving an Affair, believes one of the important lessons children learn when a parent is unfaithful is thoughtlessness: “doing what you please, regardless of how it affects other people.”
Research by Judith Wallerstein, co-author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, shows that experiencing parental divorce during childhood has a sleeper effect. The worst symptoms often appear when children of divorce leave home and try to form intimate relationships and families of their own, but do so with much less ability to trust and little idea of what a lasting marriage looks like. Ana Nogales’s study, reported in Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful, indicates that this sleeper effect applies similarly to children of infidelity.
In 2012, one quarter of adults under forty-five in the U.S. were children of divorce. This means that today, in the U.S. alone, many millions of people are struggling with the residue of divorce in their personal lives. Wallerstein questions what it may mean that a million new children a year are added to our “march of marital failure.” Now if we add the children of parents who separate, and children of infidelity, to those numbers…
Seeing more and more relationships fail or fall to infidelity reinforces the belief that failure is inevitable. Yes, adults have greater freedom and more opportunity than perhaps ever before, but there are hidden costs—and the costs are escalating. It is for each parent to determine the legacy they will leave for their children.
Marriage: To Be or Not To Be?
In a culture inundated with disposable items and the relentless production lines of new and improved models, when something doesn’t work, or doesn’t bring the satisfaction it initially did, people are ever ready to dispose of it. Relationships—like many things—are more easily disposed of than worked on. If a person’s car breaks down, what do they do? Do they take it to the junkyard or to the mechanic? What does it say of a person—of a culture—when their relationship is more disposable than their car?
These dilemmas are exacerbated by the increased pressure we put on marriage. The expectations of marriage have grown as other social networks—with friends, extended families, neighborhood groups and so on—have broken down. In marrying, the expectation is that the couple will form a lifelong bond that is safe, nurturing, loving, financially stable, and exciting.
Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round, believes we have a “schizophrenic culture about marriage.” He explores the American habit of marriage “churning”—people divorcing and remarrying quickly. “We value marriage, but we also value thinking about ourselves—what makes us happy, what makes us most fulfilled. We think if we are not happy we have the right to end our relationships.”
On average, marriages end after eleven years. This raises the question: Have the past decades created such levels of narcissism that we will not tolerate a relationship that doesn’t give us unabating bliss? Psychotherapist Rachel Morris believes that our modern culture is counter-intuitive to sticking with marriage through the long haul; that to do so is totally at odds with modern messages of choice and freedom and ambition.
Despite the seeming incompatibility between marriage and modern messages of choice and freedom, growing numbers of young adults are saying they want a monogamous marriage, and growing numbers of Americans are disapproving of infidelity. Yet we are more likely to accept infidelity in our own relationships, rather than see it as the automatic deal-breaker we saw it as in the past—and more likely to confront it directly with the help of therapists and counselors.
It’s important to help people understand what it means to work on a relationship and to withstand periods of adversity, and to deeply reflect on what they—as individuals, as a couple and a family—lose when they leave.
While not all marriages can—or should—be saved, no therapist can save a marriage if either partner is not committed to working on the issues brought to the fore through the infidelity. Sometimes too much damage has been done, or reconciliation remains elusive, or the unfaithful partner is unwilling to leave the affair in order to work on the relationship. Couples who have a strong commitment to rebuilding their relationship and have the strength and determination to do so, have a high probability of staying together and renewing a relationship that grows in depth, honesty, and intimacy.
Many parents end their marriage prematurely, believing that the children will “get over it.” As reported in The Unanticipated Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein, et al., the whole trajectory of an individual’s life can be profoundly altered by parental divorce. From the viewpoint of the children, divorce is a cumulative experience.
When the time comes to choose a life mate and build a family, the effects of divorce are exacerbated. Parental divorce affects the children’s personality, ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change. Ana Nogales, Ph.D., Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful, reveals a parallel pattern in children of parents who betrayed. While martyrdom is not a healthy option for children to carry into future relationships, ending a marriage because the grass looks greener elsewhere—or because they are running from conflict, or it just looks easier—says little of a person’s character. Ultimately children benefit from parents who show them how a conscious and loving couple can grow together, through good times and bad.
Children Of Infidelity—How They Hurt, And How They Heal
MARILYN: If two people are in a committed relationship, they owe it to one another to be honest. If they cannot stay committed, they need to extricate themselves from the relationship before pursuing other relations. The consequences of acting otherwise are tremendous—especially when children are involved. When a man is unfaithful to his wife, he is being unfaithful to his children as well. How will the children ever trust again? What kinds of relationships will they have? Will they bring unfaithfulness into their own relationships because that’s their experience in their own family and that’s what they expect?
Ana Nogales, Ph.D., author of Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful, coined the term “children of infidelity” to identify children of any age whose parent or parents engage in one or more acts of infidelity. As permissive as society has become, most children are badly hurt by a parent’s infidelity because, like the betrayed parent, they feel betrayed.
More than 800 grown children whose parents were unfaithful responded to Nogales’s online Parents Who Cheat survey.
- 88.4% felt angry toward the cheating parent.
- 62.5% felt ashamed or embarrassed.
- 80.2% felt that it influenced their attitudes toward love and relationships.
- 70.5% said their ability to trust others had been affected.
- 83% stated that they feel people regularly lie.
- 86% reported they still believe in monogamy.
By and large, adult children of infidelity know, from experience, the extent to which a family suffers with a parent’s betrayal, and so do not want to follow in their unfaithful parent’s steps. A 2007 survey found 93% respondents rated faithfulness as the single most important component of a successful marriage.
Nogales’s survey confirms that children feel betrayed when a parent betrays a spouse. While the betrayed parent may not expect anything from the cheating spouse, their child is left with hopeful expectations as well as a host of fears. Children often find themselves in a nightmare that offers few viable options. One option is to accept the unacceptable: that they have been betrayed by their parent, and hope that by doing this they will ensure their parent’s love and attention. Another option is to express their outrage, and in doing so risk being abandoned by a person whose love they so desperately want and need. Whether six, sixteen, or twenty-six years of age at the time of a parent’s infidelity, these children are left with psychological issues that—unresolved—can plague them throughout their life.
Responses to Parental Infidelity
Regardless of their age, children whose parents have been unfaithful often react with intense feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness, and confusion. They may act out, regress, or withdraw. They may feel pressured to win back the love of the unfaithful parent or to become the caretaker of the betrayed parent. The bottom line is that when parents are role models of infidelity, their children can’t help but react—and they may have a particularly hard time finding their way through the challenging time of dating and marriage.
While every family is different, and each child is unique, Nogales identifies the following core responses experienced by children of all ages—from young children to adults—when they find that one or both of their parents has been unfaithful.
- Loss of trust. When a child learns of a parent’s infidelity, they usually find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trust that someone they love will not lie to them, reject, or abandon them. They very often learn not to put their faith in love, and may also develop the belief that they are not worthy of receiving monogamous love.
- A child may feel as if the cheating parent’s sexual transgression is a black mark against them and the rest of the immediate family. If the child has been pressured by the cheating parent to keep the secret of infidelity from the betrayed parent, the child is left with the added and unwarranted burden of guilt.
- A child often draws the conclusion that marriage is a sham and love an illusion. Additionally, when parents stay married even while one or both continue having an affair, children are profoundly confused about the meaning of both love and marriage.
- Anger and ambivalence toward the cheating parent. When infidelity partially defines a parent’s character, a child often feels torn between feelings of anger and yearning for their love.
- Resentment toward the betrayed parent. Some children resent the betrayed parent for requiring them to be their emotional caretaker, for under-parenting due to preoccupation with the drama of the infidelity, or for not preventing the infidelity in the first place.
- Acting out. Rather than confronting sad, angry, or confusing feelings directly, children may exhibit behavioral problems during childhood, sexual acting out during adolescence, and intimacy problems or sexual addiction during adult years. Issues of promiscuity may arise in an attempt to play out what a child perceived from their parents about the casualness of sex and the impermanence of love.
In an attempt to protect children from the realities of infidelity, a parent may fail to offer any explanation, minimize the situation by telling a half-truth, or simply lie—this then becomes a second betrayal. It is best when the parent discusses the infidelity in a way that is both honest and age appropriate.
The younger the children are, the less a parent needs to say about it. If the children have heard or suspect something is wrong, and are asking questions, then it is very important to recognize that a factual—rather than emotional—response is needed. It is worse for children to feel there are secrets being withheld from them, especially when these secrets are affecting them. When they have no idea about what has happened, it may not be necessary to tell them—even if they are adolescents. The caution here is that parents usually greatly underestimate what the child suspects or knows. It is best when parents who are separating agree what they will tell the children and then do this together, perhaps with the support of someone known and trusted by the family. It is easier on the children knowing that their intention is to continue to parent them together.
Nogales reports that when one parent betrays the other, a child’s inner world and sense of the world at large are shattered. The personal environment in which a child lives and from which she draws her sense of safety and security—namely her family—is fundamentally changed because the most important people in that environment have become unrecognizable.
When children learn that the most important people in their world are untrustworthy, their ability to trust others can be seriously impaired. They may be overly suspicious, emotionally distant, or refrain from committing to a relationship because they can’t trust the other person will act honorably and be there for them. Wanting to avoid being hurt in the same way they witnessed a parent being hurt, they may do whatever it takes to protect themselves from being emotionally vulnerable.
Learning to Trust Again
Is it possible to relearn how to trust? Nogales believes that trust is a need and a feeling, but also a skill that can be learned. She outlines a process whereby even when a child has been subjected to infidelity, she can learn to trust again:
- Acknowledge the need to trust. We all need to trust and to feel safe, to develop and express ourselves, and to give and receive love. A young child learns to trust when there is someone she can rely on to provide structure and be there for her unconditionally. Without that sense of security, she is afraid and tentative. An older child and young adult needs to be able to trust in order to develop healthy relationships and the sense of security that allows her to fulfill her goals. Admitting to herself that she needs to trust others in order to be emotionally healthy, paves the way for her being able to do so.
- Each person goes through the process of developing trust at her own pace. With time, a person can learn to make wise choices about who she trusts, and to what degree. Trustworthiness is not black and white. While it is crucial to have people in our life that we can trust, we hurt ourselves if we allow ourselves to trust everyone unconditionally.
Each of us needs to remember that we always have the option to trust, even when that trust was shattered by a parent. We don’t have to trust everyone, but we don’t have to mistrust everyone either. A person can decide to be trusting of those who deserve her trust. Being aware of how others demonstrated or failed to demonstrate their ability to make her feel respected, listened to, and safe will help her hone her skill at choosing who to trust.
Dealing With a Child’s Anger and Ambivalence
Nogales offers guidelines for parents dealing with a young child’s anger and ambivalence toward an unfaithful parent:
- Be willing to listen to what your child has to say, even if it’s expressed with anger and hurt. Anger is a normal human reaction and, expressed appropriately, it is healthy.
- Listen to your child’s angry feelings with respect, even if it means putting aside your own emotional distress.
- If you are the betrayed parent and your child expresses understanding or longing for the other parent, allow them to do so without interjecting your own bias.
- Listen to your child’s questions and respond with the truth, even when it may not be pleasant. Lying perpetuates the lies of infidelity. Be up front and direct—usually, details are not necessary.
- There is no need to insist the child talk about what has happened, but being a good listener lays the foundation for your child’s questions and venting of feelings.
LINDA: What a horror it was for me to feel like I not only had to protect my son from the drama of my husband’s betrayal, but from overwhelming him with my own grief and anger. I remember my anger just grew realizing how my relationship with my son had been broken and contaminated by the whole sordid nightmare. I knew I protected him as a mother from the world, but it was a horrible feeling to realize I had to protect him from my own rage and sorrow. The only good news is that I did heal.
Helping Adult Children of Infidelity Deal With Their Anger
It is important that adult children of infidelity feel able to share their thoughts and feelings with another person—be it a parent or trusted other—rather than hold onto any anger they feel towards the unfaithful parent. Often, expressing anger or hatred leads to deeper feelings of sadness, hurt, and fear. Working to understand the main issues they are facing and the emotional impact of their parent’s betrayal is an important part of the healing process.
A Native American story tells of a grandmother talking to her granddaughter. The grandmother said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” The granddaughter asked her, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandmother answered, “The one I feed.”
Dealing With a Child’s Sympathy For or Resentment Toward the Betrayed Parent
Nogales offers guidance for dealing with a child’s sympathy for, or resentment toward, the betrayed parent. In summary:
- It is common for the betrayed spouse and children to stick together in the initial phase of the infidelity crisis. Once that time has past, children need also to relate to their own support system—friends, and extended family.
- Both parent and child can benefit from counseling during the crisis. It is never the child’s responsibility, regardless of age, to take care of their parent emotionally.
- Children of every age need to maintain a positive connection with both parents.
- Never encourage your child to “take sides” or feel animosity toward the cheating parent—even though you may feel it yourself.
- If you need to vent your feelings of anger and hostility toward your unfaithful spouse, do so with a trusted friend or therapist, not in the presence of your children.
REBECCA: I never thought that I would ever hate, or be disgusted by, the father of my children. But this is where I find myself. I am bewildered as to what to do. I can feel this way—my feelings are justified, but I don’t want my children to grow into adulthood and their own relationships with men, hating their father, or knowing I hated him. Or, maybe it’s healthy they do. Maybe it’s healthy that they know men cannot be trusted. I don’t know. I just know how I feel. I hate him.
One side of a woman may say, I hate him. I want to poison the children’s relationship with him, and for them to refuse to have anything to do with him ever again. I’d love to get even. The other side may know that the children need a dad, and that she does not want them to live with this bitterness in their hearts. And so she may worry, Will they be afraid to commit to intimate relationships of their own? Will this turn them against the world? Will they blame themselves for what happened?
In the face of a woman’s hatred for her husband, for her to open her heart and find the courage to make the children’s welfare—which includes supporting them in developing a healthy relationship with their father—the priority over her hurt, outrage, and desire for revenge, is no small thing. Questioning whether it’s healthier her child grow up not trusting men, reflects both a level of self-absorption and also a truth in that it is appropriate her children learn all people cannot be blindly trusted—this, however, does not mean it serves to hate them.
It is important for a child—and woman—to be aware that because she loves someone, does not necessarily mean that person is worthy of her trust. It is neither safe nor wise to immediately give yourself over to what is in the moment seductive, especially when entering a sexual relationship. Trust is cultivated over time, and through self-inquiry. Do I feel respected by this person? Are their words and actions congruent?
Advice for Older Children and Adult Children of Infidelity
Nogales advises older children and adult children of infidelity who are tempted to hold their betrayed parent responsible for the cheating parent’s unfaithfulness, to remember that they don’t know the whole story behind their parents’ marriage and what may have led to the infidelity. It is also important that they be assured it is not their role to offer their parent ongoing emotional support. They may be sympathetic and comforting, but an appropriate emotional boundary should always exist between parent and child, regardless of the child’s age.
Supporting Children in Facing the Impact of the Infidelity
What can parents do to open lines of communication with their children and help them face the painful truth of how a parent’s infidelity is affecting them? Nogales asserts that the unfaithful parent must admit wrongdoing, if only to win back some of the respect from their child. When a parent refuses to offer any genuine apology—for the betrayal, for breaking up the marriage—and to acknowledge his child was profoundly affected by the infidelity, it makes it very difficult for the child to come to any kind of healthy resolution. When wrongdoing is admitted, this may encourage children to open up and talk about their feelings surrounding the infidelity.
“Most parents don’t understand how severely their children are impacted by their infidelity.” —Ana Nogales, Ph.D., Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful
Children need time alone to process what has happened, but also the opportunity to be together with a parent, even if the infidelity isn’t brought up. When children finally do speak out, they need to be free to talk without an adult’s commenting or judging what they say. Assure them that their feelings are valid, and that there is no such thing as a right or wrong feeling, and no shame in having emotions. When children bury their feelings, the rage, sadness, and confusion will spill over into other relationships without their being aware of it.
Jennifer Harley Chalmers, Ph.D., author of Surviving an Affair, likewise believes that when a cheating parent is able to end the affair and explain to their children how wrong they had been, as difficult and humbling as this may be, they are more likely to be able to alleviate to some extent the lessons they had taught their children.
Adult Children of Infidelity Forgiving the Unfaithful Parent
It can be easier for children to think of forgiving the unfaithful parent when they understand that forgiveness does not mean ignoring or condoning what the parent did. It means coming to terms with what happened, and allowing themselves to move through the negative emotions that they find themselves in the grip of.
Forgiving is not condoning. Nor is it an agreement to ignore wrongdoing. Forgiving is about accepting human frailty—even that of a parent whom they looked to as their primary role model. Nogales emphasizes that to come to this place of acceptance as an older child requires going through a process of understanding, expressing, and letting go of their resentments. This includes understanding how they and their family were affected by the infidelity, working through and expressing their feelings about it, and finally relinquishing their anger and resentment.
This requires confronting difficult questions such as: Can I accept that someone I love and trusted has breached my trust? Can I accept my parent failed to live up to his/her professed moral values? Can I accept that one parent deeply hurt the other?
Counsel with a skilled professional or wise and trusted other can be very important, as can journaling, or some form of expressive arts therapy. To the degree a child of infidelity is able to come to a place of understanding and acceptance, they will be free of the weight and the shadow of all those unresolved feelings that otherwise follow them into their own intimate relationships with others.
The Parents Who Cheat Survey
One of the most striking findings in Nogales’s Parents Who Cheat survey of more than 800 grown children whose parents were unfaithful, is that while 87% of respondents said they still believed in monogamy, and 96% said they don’t believe that cheating is okay even if one’s partner doesn’t find out, nearly half—44%—had been unfaithful themselves. Most of those who were unfaithful were so during the first stages of their relationship, after which time they realized that infidelity did not resolve their problems, nor did it fulfill their emotional needs.
Nogales is not alone in believing that the intense insecurity in children and adult children that being exposed to parental infidelity provokes, may create the need to resolve unfinished emotional business by engaging in the same pattern of behavior. Many adult children whose parents had been unfaithful repeated the same behavior as a way to act out, understand, and/or overcome what took place between their parents. So, although these particular statistics tend to indicate a contradiction between respondents’ attitudes and their behavior, it may be that their unfaithfulness was an attempt to work through their feelings concerning their parent’s infidelity.
Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., in After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, proposes that adult children of infidelity may have an affair to create a safe distance between themselves and their partner, so as to protect themselves from being violated again.
The Unacknowledged Legacy of Divorce—and of Infidelity
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce by Wallerstein et al. brings to light the largely unrecognized and unspoken reality that when children of divorce become adults, no less eager than their peers who grew up in intact families for love, sexual intimacy, and commitment, they are badly frightened that their relationships will fail—just as their parents’ did. The strongest consequences of marital disruption do not appear until they confront the challenges of early adulthood. Now while Wallerstein is talking here of divorce, Nogales’s study indicates that children of infidelity struggle with psychological problems similar to those of children whose parents have divorced. And of course, many of the parents of these children separate or divorce.
Wallerstein writes that while the myths persist that children are resilient and resourceful, that “most of the kids in their class are from broken homes, they’ll get over it”—the fact is that they perceive the world as a far less reliable and more dangerous place because the closest relationships in their lives can no longer be expected to hold firm. One might think that the grown children of older couples who experience infidelity or divorce would feel sad but not devastated. After all, they’re adults. But grown children, too, are profoundly distressed and suddenly propelled into examining their own relationships and worrying what and whom they can rely on and for how long.
KRISTI: It’s important our children see that while our marriage isn’t perfect, that every relationship goes through its up and down periods, we can communicate and work on it together—even that we can get help when we need it.
Wallerstein found that the contrast between children of divorce and children from even moderately unhappy intact homes as they reached adulthood and went in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment was striking. Now while it is true that Wallerstein is talking of children of divorce, not infidelity, the parallels are clear and surely few would argue that the implications similarly hold true for children of infidelity. The children from even moderately unhappy families, as young adults, had an understanding of the demands and sacrifices required in close relationships—and memories of how their parents struggled and overcame differences. Adults from divorced families were at a greater personal disadvantage. Anxiety about relationships was the “bedrock of their personalities and endured even in happy marriages, as they lived in the shadows of their fears of disaster and sudden loss, of abandonment, betrayal, rejection.” Be they children of infidelity or of divorce, seeing the breakdown of one relationship after another intensifies the fear that their relationships will fall to a similar fate.
Denis Ortman, Cheating Parents: Recovering from Parental Infidelity, finds that many have only vague, if any memories, of that time and little insight into the impact on their own marital life. The impact will not be evident until they begin themselves to engage in intimate relationships.
In Chapter 2: The Nature of Infidelity, we saw that young adults still expect fidelity and loyalty between their parents, and that adult children whose parents cheated still want monogamous relationships themselves. In fact, 93% of them believe marital fidelity is the most important element in a successful marriage. Wallerstein reports that despite their first-hand experience of seeing how marriage can fail, adult children of divorce sincerely want lasting, faithful relationships. They believe divorce in a family with children should be the absolute last resort.
KRISTI: The frontal lobe region of the brain is not fully developed until twenty-five years of age, so much of our behavior before this age is driven by impulse. Children and young adults are constantly observing us, and learn so much from what we say and especially from what we do. Being healthy, positive role models is the best way we can support them in making healthy decisions.
Again, this is not to say that anyone should remain in an unhappy, unhealthy relationship. Rather, it highlights the importance of a couple realistically looking at what divorce entails for the family, and the importance of exploring every possible avenue—including counseling—before making the decision to separate. And of course, with respect to infidelity, it highlights the importance of being aware of the repercussions on the family—and doing what’s needed to protect the marriage.
We have seen, in many of the stories in this book, the struggles children of infidelity experience as adults in forming healthy and intimate relationships. The women here have emerged stronger for their struggles—but not without tremendous courage, pain, perseverance, and a willingness to learn from their own failed relationships. Many have gone on to form healthy relationships. Similarly, as reported in Wallerstein, many children of divorce have emerged eager to rewrite history, not repeat it. The women who have shared their stories of infidelity here would hope too, that their children may grow to rewrite, and not repeat, the past. They have chosen to do their very best to serve as healthy role models for their children.