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I think it made me very afraid of intimacy for many, many years. It did color every relationship I had with women.
I'm not sure if I trusted women, for a long, long time.3
—Sting, referring to his mother's affair, which he discovered when he was a young boy
The pledge to be faithful to one's spouse is our culture's most highly regarded vow. When parents break it, they also break an unspoken promise to their children: to be part of a loving family whose members are forever loyal to each other. Although the effect of marital infidelity on children is an explosive subject that touches millions of homes across America, it is rarely considered or discussed. But whether a child is six, sixteen, or twenty-six, when his parents sexually betray each other, he is left with a host of psychological issues that can plague him for the rest of his life.
As permissive as our society has become since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, children still expect their parents to love each other and treat each other honorably. Infidelity may be the stuff of numerous movies and TV dramas, but most kids want to believe that 'it can't happen here.' Unfortunately, it does, and finding out that one of your parents has cheated on the other is a crushing emotional blow. How does such a betrayal alter a child's relationship to the unfaithful parent—and to the betrayed mother or father? Will a young child's ability to trust his parents be undermined? Will an older child ever be able to trust a romantic partner? Are adult children of infidelity, supposedly wiser to the ways of the world, any less troubled by a parent's unfaithfulness than their younger counterparts? These are some of the core questions we will be exploring together.
Whatever their age, children whose parents have been unfaithful are often pressured to become the caretaker of the betrayed parent, thus adding to the son's or daughter's emotional stress. Young children may be unable to articulate their anger, anxiety, and confusion. They might act out, regress, or withdraw. And when an adult child's family baggage includes lies, cheating, and the breaking of promises, they may have a particularly hard time navigating the rough waters of dating and marriage. The bottom line is that when parents are role models of infidelity, their children can't help but react. We'll be examining the range of those emotional and behavioral responses—and how to deal with them—throughout this book. In the chapters to come, I will suggest ways that parents can minimize the negative effects of infidelity on a child, and I will offer adult children advice for dealing with problems that may have originated with a parent's unfaithfulness.
In this chapter, I want to give you an overview of what children experience when their parents are unfaithful, so I'll be introducing the six core responses to parental infidelity.4 I'll also offer my thoughts on how parental infidelity impacts the stages in a child's social and emotional development, as presented by prominent psychiatrist Erik Erikson. Whether you are the betrayed or the unfaithful spouse, I will help you understand what your child is going through emotionally. If you are an adult child of an unfaithful parent (or parents), you'll begin to gain a deeper insight into how your parent's infidelity has impacted your life and your relationships. We'll also take a look at the relevant statistics on infidelity, attitudes surrounding it, and how parental infidelity figures into our cultural environment. And you'll hear the stories of four children, ranging in age from six to forty, whose lives were deeply affected when one parent was unfaithful to the other.
Millions of adults and children are grappling with the emotional crises that parental infidelity ushers in. Learning about how some of these individuals have worked through their infidelity-related issues will encourage you to take steps to meaningfully deal with yours. In the following chapters, I'll offer guidance concerning those important steps. But first, let's explore the problem.
A Common Family Drama
Statistics regarding the percentage of spouses who engage in extramarital affairs vary considerably. According to psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, whose research is cited in the July 26, 2004, issue of Psychology Today, infidelity occurs in up to 40 percent of marriages. Dr. Haltzman asserts that by age forty-five, two out of every five men and one out of every five women has had at least one affair. In a survey conducted in 2007 by MSNBC.com and iVillage, 19 percent of male survey respondents and 12 percent of female survey respondents reported having sexual intercourse with someone other than their partner; of those women, 37 percent cheated while there was a child in the home.
If we include cybersex, which can involve self-stimulation with an online partner, there are even more instances of infidelity. Although there is no indication of how many respondents were married, an online survey of 38,000 Internet users found that one in ten reported being addicted to online sex. Twenty-five percent stated they had lost control of their Internet sexual exploits at least once or that the activity caused problems in their lives.5 Some married individuals who engage in cybersex don't consider their activities as being unfaithful to their spouse. Only 46 percent of the men queried in one study believe that online affairs are adultery.6
Most of us still believe in fidelity in marriage, regardless of the small percentage who think it is an outdated concept. In a 2000 study of college students' attitudes toward infidelity, 69 percent said they would end a relationship with a partner who was unfaithful.7 And a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 93 percent of respondents rated faithfulness as the most important component of a successful marriage—more important than a happy sexual relationship, shared interests, religious beliefs, adequate income, or having children.
Still, infidelity is a fact of life in both the real and virtual worlds, and it often makes the headlines when powerful people are involved. President Bill Clinton's affair with a young intern nearly brought the government to a halt, but he is not alone among politicians who have cheated on their wives. More recently, incidents of adultery came to light involving a 2008 presidential candidate as well as the governor of New York and the mayors of both San Francisco and Los Angeles. When it was revealed that the mayor of Los Angeles was having an extramarital relationship with a television anchorwoman, his constituents weighed in on the significance of his behavior. Many of the letters to the editor in the Los Angeles Times posed this rhetorical question: If he lies and cheats on his wife, how do we know he doesn't lie and cheat in his role as mayor? There was also reference to the mayor's alleged hypocrisy, since he had presented an image of a family man who cared deeply about the welfare of families—which brings up the point most relevant to this book. With all the attention paid to high-profile cases of infidelity involving politicians and others in the public eye, there is rarely any discussion of how acts of sexual betrayal affect the betrayer's children. And yet I have had a number of clients, themselves children of parents who cheated, tell me that uppermost in their minds when the governor's or the mayor's infidelities were revealed was how the children of these well-known men must have felt. 'I was so humiliated when my father cheated on my mother, I could really feel for what the governor's three teenage daughters were going through,' one client told me recently.
How does a teenager who adores both her father and her mother get on with her life when that young life has been temporarily shattered by her father's lies and humiliating indiscretions? How does a young boy make sense of what Daddy did with another woman, something that made Mommy want to separate from him? These are the questions that are too often ignored, both in the public arena and in the fictional dramas that are part of our cultural environment.
Unfaithful on the Screen
The infidelity we may have experienced or witnessed in real life is often mirrored in our popular culture. From opera to blues and country songs, serious dramas to Desperate Housewives, cheating frequently gets star billing. What is rarely featured is adultery's effect on the cheater's son or daughter. One of the first—and only—films to show how a child is affected by his parent's unfaithfulness was the 1944 Vittorio De Sica classic, The Children Are Watching Us, in which a four-year-old boy witnesses his mother meeting her lover in the park and later lying with him on the beach. While in the first instance the couple is merely standing opposite each other and having a conversation, the boy intuits from their expressions and body language that they are intimately connected. In an instant, his face loses its carefree innocence and conveys shock, fear, and rage. Later in the film when the boy comes upon his mother and the man lying together in the sand, an extreme close-up of the child's face reveals overwhelming anguish, as if his entire world is crumbling before his eyes. When discussing the film, De Sica is said to have remarked that, 'Children are the first to suffer in life. . . . Innocents always pay.'
Although societal mores have changed over the last sixty-plus years since this film was first released, the pain a child feels when one of his parents betrays the other continues to be just as devastating. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents to my survey were under the age of eleven when they discovered a parent was cheating. In almost every case I have come across, young children report feeling as if they have been betrayed when one parent betrays the other. The child identifies with the parent who has been betrayed because he is suffering immeasurable loss as well—the loss of trust in one or both parents, the loss of both parents' ability to be an attentive parent, the loss of faith in the cohesiveness of the family, and, of course, a loss of innocence.
If the betrayed parent holds back his or her emotions, as was the case with the betrayed father in The Children Are Watching Us, the child often acts out the parent's anguish and resentment in addition to expressing his own. Many parents, perhaps fathers especially, try to appear 'strong' so as not to communicate their pain to the child and thus exacerbate the young person's anger and sadness. But children cannot be fooled so easily. They pick up on their parents' emotions even when a parent is attempting to keep those feelings in check. And children are also more apt to express their emotions directly, as the child in the De Sica film so achingly displays.
The essential truth that De Sica masterfully brings home to his audience in this film is that children are betrayed when one or both parents cheat. While the betrayed parent, like the film's father, may not expect anything from the betraying spouse once infidelity has been discovered, a child is still left with hopeful expectations, as well as a host of fears. A child of infidelity finds himself caught in a nightmare that offers few viable options: either accept the unacceptable—namely, being betrayed by your parent, who is supposed to give you unconditional love—and hope that doing so will ensure your parent's love and attention, or express your outrage and risk being abandoned by the person whose love you so desperately want and need.
While not always portrayed as sensitively as in The Children Are Watching Us, extramarital affairs continue to figure into the plotlines of countless television and film scenarios. After all, cheating on a spouse makes for an intriguing, suspenseful, sexy story. Will the husband find out? Will the wife feel remorse? Will she run away with her lover and begin a more passionate, romantic life? While we might enjoy watching such dramas unfold, their popularity doesn't mean that the average TV viewer or filmgoer approves of a character's marital infidelity, especially when the cheating spouse is a parent. According to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by author Lionel Shriver, screenwriters are keenly aware of the audience's general disapproval of philanderers. Shriver asserts that for audiences to sympathize with a character who indulges in extramarital sex, the betrayed spouse needs to have a major flaw. For instance, in the film Little Children, starring Kate Winslet as the unfaithful housewife and mother drawn to a handsome, sensitive lover, her husband is portrayed as an unappealing weirdo who is addicted to Internet pornography. And yet, as in other film and television stories featuring unfaithful spouses, the housewife's affair is ultimately abandoned for the sake of the children—hers as well as her lover's. In the end, Winslet's character cannot bring herself to sacrifice her family for the sake of her passionate yearnings. Thus, claims Shriver, 'The audience is relieved.'
Extramarital sex is both a fact of life and a familiar tale featured on the big and little screens, but regardless of how common infidelity appears to be or how thrilling a love story it may present, when it occurs within one's own family, it is never easy for children of any age to understand or accept. As much as we might think that sexual mores have changed radically since the more repressed 1950s, some expectations haven't changed. Most children still want and expect their parents to be a faithful couple. Children are more likely to thrive when their parents are stable and focused on the family rather than on an outside romantic relationship. In other words, kids seem to be hardwired to prefer that their parents resemble characters like Ozzie and Harriet, rather than Kate Winslet and her handsome lover.
©2009. Ana Nogales. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Parents Who Cheat. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442
A clinical look at social problem that has now become the norm. This book gives an excellent examination of a difficult subject.Published 8 months ago by Emmett Goods
I found this book put words to experiences I have had being an adult child of parents who cheated. It helped me see how my parents relationship has played out in my intimate... Read morePublished 9 months ago by Kristy L Burgss
The book was helpful in providing some guidance in assisting my teenagers in dealing with their father's cheating. Thank you.Published 16 months ago by Sonho
Excellent book tied to protective parenting. I learned how much kids do perceive and their quiet response in subtle terms.Published 20 months ago by Linda in Chicago