Cheating can be devastating to any relationship, but what happens when you have kids together? Even if you and your partner decide to work out your issues, if your child somehow finds out about the affair, it can make things even messier. If you’re wondering about
the effects infidelity has on kids, you might be surprised (and relieved) to know that it’s not all doom and gloom — if you handle it the right way.
Everyone in a family is affected by an affair, in one way or another. Whether it’s seeing the parent who was cheated on angry and upset, or seeing the cheating partner feeling guilty, it’s important to keep in mind that these are big emotions for everyone, especially little kids. And while cheating might feel like a deathblow to a relationship whether you decide to stay together or not, you’re still going to have to work out some very real (and raw) feelings that your child might have about it.
Even though it might seem like there’s no relationship rebound from an affair, it’s important to keep in mind that, even in the middle of such a mess, your role is that of a parent. After all, your child’s needs come first. So be sure to put your kiddo’s emotional well-being first as you forge ahead with your life, and understand the ramifications when infidelity makes its way into a relationship so that you can help your child handle their own emotions.
They Might Feel Abandoned
Even if both parents still reside in the same home, it doesn’t deter negative feelings from occurring, the most common one being abandonment. “When a parent strays the feeling is oftentimes translated by the child as abandonment,”
Kimberly Friedmutter, author of the best-selling book Subconscious Power: Use Your Inner Mind to Create the Life You've Always Wanted, tells Romper in an email. “The feeling of abandonment leads to mistrust and the child pulls away from the value of that parent, placing a higher value on the parent that stayed.”
They Might Feel Like They Have To “Win Over” The Cheating Parent
Whether intentional or otherwise, kids often internalize what’s happening in the home, and more to the point, your relationship. So even though they have nothing to do with the infidelity, your child might feel some sense of responsibility to help patch things up again between you and your partner. “Kids are smart and they react to changes in their parents behavior — if they see them acting differently such as sad, angry or shut down, it will have a profound effect on them,” Dori Shwirtz, a marital and family mediator at
divorceharmony.com tells Romper in an email. “They may feel like they need to help make the ‘sad’ parent happy again or win the love back of the cheating parent.” Make sure that your child doesn’t assume this unnecessary responsibility and focus on helping them through this tough time.
It Can Cause Them To Question Everything
When one parent is unfaithful, it can make your child wonder what’s real — and what’s not — in your relationship. “When a parent is unfaithful, it can cause a child to question the stability they felt at home,” Dr. Cassandra LeClair, Ph.D., a relationship expert and author of
tells Romper in an email. That’s why you’ll need to work extra hard to ensure that your child feels stable (and loved) by both you and your partner. Make sure to answer their questions and allow them the time they need to process what is truly a very adult issue. Being Whole: Healing from Trauma and Reclaiming My Voice
They Might Be More Likely To Cheat In The Future kampee patisena/Moment/Getty Images
Not only can an affair can rip a relationship right down to its very core, but it can also set the stage for your child’s future relationships, too. “Depending on the way it's handled, the cheating can have a long-term impact on the children,” says Shwirtz. “Studies show that kids from cheating households are twice as likely to be unfaithful themselves.” And this can definitely be the case: the study, “
Family Background and Propensity to Engage in Infidelity,” found that children of parents who cheated were more likely to cheat as adults, too.
They Might Be Afraid To Be Loyal To Either Parent
When an affair occurs, it often feels like there’s a good guy (the one who got cheated on), and a bad guy (the one who cheated). But things aren’t always so black and white. And for kids who love both of their parents, this puts them in a particularly prickly spot as they try to navigate their feelings. As such, they might feel unsure about who to trust, and more importantly, who to show their love towards. “They may feel a sense of betrayal and confusion about loyalty,” says Dr. LeClair. “If they have been taught to be honest and care about others' feelings, they may question why their role models did not have to follow the same rules.”
They Might Become Depressed
Although it can be hard to separate your own feelings about the infidelity, put yourself in your child’s shoes for a minute. Imagine that you’re the child in the scenario, and you suddenly find out that your parents (whom you love) have not been living an idyllic life. It can cause you to question everything that you thought was real or true about your family, and in some cases, might cause your kiddo to become pretty depressed. “Infidelity can have a detrimental psychological effect on kids and lead to a dysfunctional family, which can then disrupt their life and hamper their potential,”
Tatyana Dyachenko, a sexual and relationship therapist tells Romper in an email. “For example, a kid may become less motivated and depressed, underperform at school or succumb to bullying as a way of expressing their inner anger and resentment.” Make sure to monitor your child for signs of depression or changes in their personality, and give them as much love, kindness, and caring as possible so that they feel safe and protected.
They Might Worry It’ll Happen To Them
Even though your child might be too young to process the gravity of infidelity, they might still believe somewhere deep down that if it can happen to their parents, it might happen to them, too. That’s why you need to help your child understand that just because an affair happened doesn’t mean that they’re automatically doomed to repeat the cycle, Friedmutter advises. “You don't want the child feeling that the same will happen to them when they mate,” she says. “This false belief can steer the child to believing they are unlovable and then continue a pattern of inevitable abandonment.” Even though there might be a greater likelihood that it could happen, try to teach your child that infidelity is not an inevitability.
It Can Help Them Communicate Better
If you’re planning to stay together (and not just for the sake of the kids), then you’re going to have longs talks about the affair and how to move on from it. Lots and lots of talks. The way this helps your child is by teaching them that through communication, understanding, (and yes, love), you and your partner are working together to solve a very real problem, says Shwirtz. “Infidelity can actually have a positive influence on the children if it's a small incident and leads to a reckoning in the marriage where therapy is started and better communication between the parents is initiated,” she says. “Meaning, the cheating event can spur growth and make the family healthier and more bonded.”
The discovery of an affair is gut-wrentching for everyone involved, but especially so for your child. Be sure to allow them to express their emotions so that their feelings are heard and validated. You might even want to seek support if necessary so that everyone gets the care (and counseling) they may need during this turbulent time.
Weiser, D., Weigel, D., Lalasz, C. 2015 “
Family Background and Propensity to Engage in Infidelity” Experts:
Kimberly Friedmutter, author of the best-selling book
Subconscious Power: Use Your Inner Mind to Create the Life You've Always Wanted
Dori Shwirtz, a marital and family mediator at divorceharmony.com
Dr. Cassandra LeClair, Ph.D., a relationship expert and author of
Being Whole: Healing from Trauma and Reclaiming My Voice
Tatyana Dyachenko, a sexual and relationship therapist