Dr. Ana Nogales is a clinical psychologist with years of experience helping clients whose lives have been impacted by parental infidelity. She is the founder of Nogales Psychological Counseling, Inc. and Clinical Director of the nonprofit organization that she founded, Casa de la Familia, established for victims of crime. She practices in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, supervising a clinical program of forty bilingual-bicultural mental health professionals. The author of Latina Power! and Dr. Ana Nogales' Book of Love, Sex, and Relationships, Dr. Nogales is also a well known media expert who has hosted her own television and radio programs and written an ongoing column for La Opinion, the country's #1 Spanish language newspaper, as well as other media outlets. Featured at workshops and conferences throughout the United States and Latin America, including at the Omega Institute and the Women's Foundation, Dr. Nogales appeared with Nobel Prize Laureate, Rigoberta Menchu Tum at the 2007 Women, Power and Peace Conference.
Laura Golden Bellotti is a writer and book editor with more than twenty years of experience. She has written extensively about parenting for United Parenting Publications, which includes LA Parent, New York Family, and Seattle's Child magazines.
When Parents Break Their Promise
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 ...