How Infidelity Impacts Young, Teenage & Adult Children
© 2022 Judith Kilborn, PH.D. and Richard Chandler, MA, LPC
The Short & Long-Term Effects Of Their Parent's Infidelity
Whether your children are younger, teenagers, adults, or even aware of the affair, they will be affected short and long-term by how you and your partner respond to your relationship breach. In Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful (a book based upon an extensive survey as well as years of clinical practice), Nogales points out that:
- Children, teens, and young adults may react to their parent's infidelity with shock, confusion, rage, cynicism, sadness, shame, or a mix of reactions. Although they have nothing to do with one parent's decision to cheat on the other, children are often left feeling guilty, hopeless, tainted, or damaged - words they frequently use.
- Children whose parents cheated are frequently less able to enjoy a healthy romantic relationship as adults. Mistrust of romantic partners may plague them. Commonly, those adult children attract and are attracted to partners who cheat. Additionally, they may have a propensity toward infidelity themselves. (Introduction, para. 2)
Many Survey Respondents Reported Feelings Of Betrayal. Nogales Points Out:
- "Seventy-five percent of those who responded to our' Parents Who Cheat' survey reported that they felt betrayed by the parent who cheated" (Introduction, para. 3).
- This betrayal is, essentially, the breaking of "an unspoken promise to their children: to be part of a loving family whose members are forever loyal to each other" (Chapter 1, para. 1).
- Survey respondents younger than "eleven when they discovered a parent was cheating" almost uniformly reported feeling as if they have been betrayed when one parent betrays the other.
The Children Identify With The Betrayed Parent Because They Are Suffering Immeasurable Loss As Well:
- The loss of trust in one or both parents
- The loss of both parents' ability to be attentive
- The loss of faith in the family's cohesiveness
- Loss of innocence. (Chapter 1, para. 12)
The survey revealed six "core responses experienced by offspring of every age—from young children to adults—after they find out that one or both of their parents have been sexually unfaithful."
Nogales Introduces These Six Core Responses In Chapter 1: "When Parents Break Their Promise":
- "Loss of trust (including fear of rejection and abandonment and loss of self-esteem)."
- "Shame (for being part of a family in which at least one parent has betrayed life's most valued commitment)."
- "Confusion (about the meaning of love and marriage). Fifty-eight percent of our respondents stated that their parents stayed married even when the betraying parent continued having affairs and the betrayed parent knew about the infidelity. The effect on the children in such relationships was profound confusion about the meaning of both love and marriage."
- "Ambivalence toward the betraying parent (feeling anger and disrespect, but also needing to love and respect one's mother or father). When infidelity partially defines a parent's character, a son or daughter feels torn between feelings of disrespect and a yearning to preserve the revered status their parent once held. Some children are afraid to express their anger for fear of losing the love of the parent who cheated; others report that it took them years to feel anything other than anger toward the betraying parent."
- "Resentment toward the betrayed parent (for requiring the child to become their emotional caretaker or for underparenting due to preoccupation with the infidelity drama)."
- "Acting out (engaging in aggressive or self-destructive behavior, rather than confronting confusing, sad, or angry feelings directly). Acting out may include behavioral problems during childhood, sexual acting out during adolescence, and intimacy avoidance or sexual addiction during adult years." (Chapter 1, para. 19-25)
These Six Core Responses May Be Present In The Short- Or Long-Term, Depending Upon Such Things As:
- The age of the child[ren] when the partner discovered the infidelity
- The severity of the pain and conflict the family experienced
- The length of the affair
- The number of affairs
Many researchers and clinicians, like Nogales, have noted that children who experience long-term parental infidelity or a lot of disruption in family life or relationships may develop "The proclivity toward infidelity themselves" (Introduction, para. 2).
In "Exploring intergenerational patterns of infidelity," Weiser and Weigel examined "how the experience of parental infidelity is associated with an offspring's own likelihood of engaging in infidelity" (934).
Weiser and Weigal determined that "the experience of parental infidelity seems to negatively impact offspring's ability to trust, which may have consequences for their own romantic relationships."
Those Authors Suggested That Children's Experience Of Parental Infidelity Teaches Them:
- "What to expect from relationships (i.e., breaches of trust and the commonality of non-exclusivity in romantic relationships),
And these offspring act according to their expectations (i.e., engage in infidelity), essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy" (936).
- Weiser and Weigal believe it's "clear that in families where infidelity occurred, offspring receive particularly memorable messages indirectly (offspring observing a parent's behavior) and directly (a parent justifying their behavior by telling offspring that infidelity is acceptable)" (947).
These communications affect their children's beliefs about behavior and relationships - for instance, "that monogamy is not a reasonable expectation for their relationships and that there are personal rewards to be reaped by engaging in infidelity" (938).
Finally, Weiser and Weigal indicated that "Offspring who knew about a parental infidelity were significantly more likely" to engage in infidelity themselves" (947).
Signs That Children Need Help Due To A Parent's Infidelity
Whether your children are adolescents or adults, be watchful of signs that they may need help dealing with their parent's infidelity.
Nogales' six core responses typical of offspring of all ages are a good starting place, including her observations about lack of trust. She points out:
- "Lacking in trust and becoming doubtful about love's staying power, some children of infidelity may feel the need to constantly please their parents and others to win the love they need.
- "Older children also develop problems with trust. Identifying with the betrayed parent, they may no longer believe that anyone could truly love them because love seems conditional at best.
- "They may feel that the betrayed parent must have made some mistake to warrant the infidelity, and they fear that they themselves might do something that will trigger a loved one's rejection and abandonment.
- "To prevent their parent or others from betraying them, children of infidelity may think that they have to hide their emotions and be cautious about what they say and how they act.
- "As they become adults and are involved in romantic relationships, they may avoid commitment for fear that getting too close to someone will make them vulnerable to betrayal.
- "Or they may become overly suspicious and drive away a partner whom they unfairly believe is unfaithful." (Chapter 2, par. 4-5)
Shame and embarrassment are also significant, particularly once the infidelity goes public. Nogales emphasizes the impact of public awareness of an affair on both young children and older offspring:
- Children are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame when they have discovered a parent's affair. Neighbors, classmates, and friends want to know, "Why did your dad (or mom) leave?" or "Why is your mom always crying?" thus pressuring kids to divulge information that deeply embarrasses them.
- Or they may lie to save face about what's happened between their mother and father. Sixty-two percent of Nogales' survey respondents said they felt ashamed or embarrassed to talk to their friends and others about their parents' infidelity. (Chapter 3, par. 1)
Older Children, Teens, And Young Adults May Develop A Sense Of Shame Due To Comments And Attitudes Of Others. While They're Old Enough To Be Aware Of Sexual Issues And To Assume That Infidelity Is A Fact Of Life, They Can Find It Difficult To See:
- Their parents as human beings who might "fall out of love"
- How the affections of another partner could tempt their parents. (Nogales, Chapter 3, par. 7)
And finally, the child's perspective can result from his perspective of the parent's behavior. Nogales points out that "When a parent "misbehaves" by having a sexual affair, the child nearly always disapproves of the behavior, but very often that child also ends up feeling ashamed—of his parent and himself" (Chapter 3, par. 49-50).
In Addition, Many Children And Adult Children In Nogales' Survey Report Feeling Guilty:
- When they tell the betrayed parent about the affair
- When they choose to keep the secret
Nogales reports that she heard numerous children and adult children say how guilty they felt for "telling on" their unfaithful parent or withholding incriminating information from their betrayed parent.
Sadly, many children of infidelity play a role in their parent's adultery scenario by either keeping or divulging the secret that one parent is cheating on the other. Either one can't help but bring about feelings of guilt.
An Adulterous Parent Whose Child Inadvertently Discovers "The Secret" May Enlist That Child's Support By:
- Advising them to "let this be our little secret."
- Imploring them not to reveal the secret to the other parent because "it would hurt Mom (or Dad) too much." (Chapter 3, par. 60).
Overall, it's essential to watch for the signs, emotional and behavioral, that your children are hurting so that you, your partner, and perhaps a counselor can assist them in healing from the pain of holding or disclosing secrets about the affair.
Rebuilding Children's Stability After A Parent's Infidelity
Experts on the effects of parental infidelity on offspring recognize the need for open and honest communication with children and some carefully thought-out disclosure about what's happened. For instance, in their 2016 article, Negash and Morgan summarize what researchers had said about the burdens children experience when infidelity conversations have not occurred:
Under-informed children may become burdened by unresolved feelings that stem from avoiding the discussion of infidelity (Brown 1991). Some children may draw their own conclusions about the reasons for their parents' changing relationship and blame themselves for their parents' conflict... (Ablow et al. 2009; Fosco and Grych 2010; Grych et al. 2004).
Nogales—Stressing The Need For Clear, Honest, Age-Appropriate Communication—Provides More Concrete Advice As She Focuses On How You Might Help Your Offspring To Deal With The Infidelity And Rebuild Lost Trust:
- Nogales indicates, "Once sexual infidelity has affected your family, you'll need to face the issues of honesty and credibility with your children." And she acknowledges that "This will not be easy, because regardless of your children's ages, they are likely to feel upset, confused, angry, and disappointed in you and/or your spouse."
- She points out, "Although it is the betrayer who owes the family an explanation for his or her infidelity, it is the betrayed parent who is most likely to talk with the children about what happened and why." No matter who talks to the children, consider "some kind of explanation as a sign of respect for your child; not providing one will be even more emotionally damaging."
- This explanation should focus on an offspring's needs, not your partner's or your feelings and resentments about the relationship and the infidelity.
Use "I Statements," Which Take The Responsibility Off The Child's Shoulders And Put It Firmly On The Speaker. For Instance, Nogales Suggests That A Parent Who's Cheated Might Say Something Like This To Their Child:
"I am very sorry for the pain that I am causing you and your mom/dad. I behaved in a selfish manner because I only thought of myself—and not how much your mother/ father and you would be hurt. I kept the relationship with someone else a secret because I did not want you to be ashamed of me. I am ashamed of myself now. I will do everything possible to make it up to you, but there is one thing that I want to assure you: I love you, and as your parent, I will do my best to never disappoint you. Sometimes things happen between adults, and even when we are grown-ups, we do not handle ourselves in the best way. I am learning from this mistake, and I promise to exercise better judgment from now on.”
(Chapter 2, par. 92-98).
In her book, Nogales provides many examples of open and honest communication that might serve as models for trust-building and healing conversations for children impacted by a parent's infidelity. Whatever you say should be truthful. Make sure that if you say you'll do something in the future, you do it. Statements of what you'll do are promises.
Your Promise To Your Children And Your Action Plan Will Depend On Your Circumstances:
- You may be in the wrong relationship and decide to end the marriage.
- You may decide to work on your marriage by going to couples counseling or employing some other means.
- Be mindful that a parent's betrayal of their husband, wife, or romantic partner impacts children of all ages.
- Their ability to trust you and others with whom they'll have future relationships depend on how you handle the current crisis. (Chapter 2, par. 93).
Your children may need reassurance that you're considering their needs and are willing to rebuild trust so that your relationship with them stays on solid ground —whether or not you and your partner stay together, separate, or divorce.
Furthermore, consider that your children could likely benefit from additional guidance or counseling, especially if they exhibit what Nogales calls "self-inhibiting behaviors."
Nogales Points Out That Without Counseling Therapy, Children Of Infidelity May Maladapt By Engaging In Self-Inhibiting Behaviors, Including:
- Protecting themselves from further disappointment by cutting themselves off from friends or opportunities.
- Playing it safe by not opening themselves fully to friends or lovers.
Expecting less from love and marriage.
- Seeking partners with whom they can replay the infidelity drama (either as the victim or the transgressor) to resolve or make sense of it.
Of course, this is not what parents want their children to go through. But children are generally not the focus when choosing to have an affair. What my clients and the hundreds of survey respondents confirm, however, is that when the betrayer and the betrayed are also parents, marital infidelity is never a private affair. (Chapter 1, par. 63-64)
- Negash, S., & Morgan, M. (2016). A family affair: Examining the impact of parental infidelity on children using a structural family therapy framework. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 38(2), 198–209. https://doi-org.scsuproxy.mnpals.net/10.1007/s10591-015-9364-4
- Nogales, A. (2010). Parents who cheat: How children and adults are affected when their parents are unfaithful [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
- Weiser, D. A. and D. J. Weigel. (2017). Exploring intergenerational patterns of infidelity. Personal Relationships. Vol 24, pp. 933-952, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/pere.12222.