How do cheating spouses impact their children’s emotional health?

Children are highly intuitive and perceptive beings, and therefore extra-marital affairs can be harmful even if the child is not told about them. Changes in parents’ behavior can be unsettling to children, and affairs take the straying spouse’s time and attention away from the family unit, thereby depriving the child.

If the children find out about the affair (from a third party), the trauma for children can be eased if parents display emotional control and explain that these things are unfortunate but can be overcome. According to some researchers, the worst thing a parent can do is to ask the child to keep the affair a secret from the other parent. Placing the burden on a child can alienate them from the other parent, breed resentment and/or change the power dynamics between the parent and child. If there is a confrontation with the other spouse or a child discovers the truth, the researchers advise an explanation and an apology.

Children can feel pressure to become the caretaker or protector of the wronged parent, which increases their emotional stress. Shame, loss of trust, confusion, resentment, ambivalence towards the betraying parent and acting out are common experiences for children of cheating spouses.

These issues can manifest in children of all ages, from toddlers to adult-children. Young children may act out, withdraw, self-inflict harm or regress. For older children, the model of the parental romantic relationship being tainted with an affair may complicate the already difficult tasks of dating and marriage. Some studies indicate an increased likelihood of infidelity in adult relationships when children come from homes with infidelity. Similarly, these adult children can face challenges trusting others in romantic relationships.

Ultimately, if you find yourself in a situation where you or your spouse has been unfaithful, offering your child support, attention and resources can help reinforce feelings of security and love. It may be wise to consult a family counselor about how to discuss difficult topics with your children without placing additional emotional burdens upon them. A counselor may be able to offer guidance about how to balance being honest with your children with sharing too much information.

Suggested Resource: Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful by Dr. Ana Nogales, a clinical psychologist.
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