Last week I began exploring the topic of telling your children after an affair. For Stephanie and me, telling the children seemed like a no-brainer. Because of my profession, my story was becoming more public as I used it in my testimony of the transformation that infidelity had brought to our marriage and the hope that is available. We wanted them to understand the legacy and, hopefully, to learn from our mistakes. For us, the question wasn’t if we would tell them, rather it was how and when we would tell them.
There is certainly more than one approach to telling your children, and there is no perfect way that can be used for every family. We chose what we believed to be the best way for our family. We love our children, and I believe love always acts in their best interest. Our first question was “when” should they know. This was too big of a secret to ask one child to keep from his siblings. For that reason, we chose to tell all three children about the affair at the same time. This presented another consideration since we wanted the youngest to be at a maturity level of understanding. Our oldest was 21 and engaged to be married; we had discussed for a few years that we wanted to share this with her before she made that commitment. We believed it would be a life lesson for her and her fiancé that we wished we had been taught. This meant our youngest was 15. We believed him to be emotionally mature enough to understand the situation and to appreciate the privacy nature. Consequently, we rented a condo on the coast and went on a family trip. At that time our children were 15, 18, and 21.
The kids had no idea what was coming. As far as they were concerned, it was another trip to the coast. I’m not even sure they were surprised when I called them all together on the second night for a family meeting. We began by telling them we wanted them to know the rest of the story of our marriage. Having been given the green light, I proceeded telling the story of my life and how I had an affair. Stephanie and I both spoke of the pain, the things we did that were helpful, and those that were not. I highlighted their mother’s strength and my amazement at her forgiveness. Stephanie spoke of my willingness to do whatever it took to put the marriage back together and to meet with accountability people. We both spoke of how our marriage had not only survived, but what we learned and how we had grown through the trial.
What came next caught me totally off guard. My oldest daughter was furious. Not because I had cheated on her mom, but because we hadn’t told her sooner. She felt it unfair that the youngest would get to hear this information at the same time she did. My attempts at soothing her ruffled feathers seemed futile, and she stormed off angrily into the night. My second daughter was angry because at one point, a couple of years earlier, she had begun to put two and two together and began asking questions about whether or not I had been unfaithful to her mom. Since Stephanie and I had made the decision to tell all three children at the same time, I misled her by not answering the question directly. She felt lied to and manipulated and stormed off after her sister. My 15-year-old son didn’t seem bothered at all, and found it somewhat amusing that both the sisters had gone missing. Amazingly, these hurts were short lived. By the next day all was back to normal, and we moved on with our stay at the beach.
I’m not sure anyone of you should emulate our method of informing your children, but I can say it was one of the best things we’ve done. Trusting our children with the information of our life opened up the door for them trusting us with what was going on in their lives. That’s one of the simple lessons I learned in my own recovery. You can’t gain trust until you first give trust, and trusting them with our story enabled them to trust us with theirs. My kids are far from perfect, but I believe it was our honesty that prevented the disconnection that so often happens between parents and their teens. For that, Stephanie and I are both grateful.
If you are considering sharing your story with your offspring after the affair, here are a few suggestions.
When should you tell your children?
Telling your children in Real time: In the midst of recovery: (this is the exception)
To think that infidelity doesn’t have a profound impact on both children and adult children is naïve. If you’re reading this and you’re in the midst of recovering from an affair, here’s some simple advice about talking to your children. The younger the children are, the more important it is to protect them. The last thing a child needs is to have to carry the burden of your mistakes. If the children have heard things and are asking questions, then you may need to be more open. Secrecy and pretending can be even worse. On the other hand, if they don’t know anything about what is going on, then protecting them from the crisis might be the kindest thing you can do, even if there are adult children. There will come a time to share, but unless it’s in their best interest to know, don’t tell them. There’s too much risk of them being triangulated and impacted by what’s happening. By triangulation, I mean placing the children in a position where they feel they have to choose between you or your mate.
Far too often, parents begin using their children as confidants. Children don’t have the emotional maturity necessary to handle that information, and it robs them of their childhood. Spousification of a child (sharing details and processing information as you would with a spouse) is abusive and creates deep problems for a child.
When parents separate or if they decide to get divorced, they need to decide together what the story is going to be and tell the children together, sitting together on the same sofa. Even though a husband and wife are separating and or divorcing, they will never be able to terminate their responsibility as Mom and Dad. For that reason, the children need to be reassured that they will still be dealing with the children together.
When talking to children, I suggest that the unfaithful person consider saying something like this: "I didn’t love (treat) your father (or mother) the way that married people should love (treat) each other." That’s truthful. It’s not denying the presence of a third party, but it doesn’t rock their world by bringing an unknown third party into it. Eventually, when it’s age appropriate, they should be given the story, but not in a way that gets them involved in marriage, but so they can learn from your mistakes.
Older children, if they know what’s going on in the crisis, need to be told the truth, but they don’t need to be involved in what’s going on. Give as little detail as possible to protect your children. Granting your children the space to live their life apart from yours is one of your greatest gifts to them. They don’t need to be dragged into the pit of your struggles. Take care of yourself and model for them how a mature adult is able to find appropriate support from others their own age. Take the high road and don’t play the victim by throwing your mate under the bus. This allows them to have the relationship they need with both you and your mate.
Telling your children in retrospect, to share life experiences with them:
Another instance for telling your children would be for the sake of the family. Stephanie and I wanted to model openness and honesty to our older children and to help them learn from our mistakes.
What should you tell?
The information your give your children needs to be age appropriate. Telling a six your old that your mommy brought another man into our house and took off all her clothes and let him touch her privates is abusive. As mentioned above, for the six your old it would have been far more appropriate to say, “I didn’t love (treat) your father (or mother) the way that married people should love (treat) each other.”
When children are in early adulthood and have questions, you can give more detail, but even then they only need the 30,000 foot view. If there was a pattern of behavior, tell them about the pattern of behavior, not how many times sexual contact occurred. For instance: “I had a series of affairs from 2001 – 2005.” Details, such as names aren’t important. At the same time, share the story and how you are recovering from the affair; tell about forgiveness and those that extended grace. Use your story to speak of the hope which came from your experience.
Why should you tell?
Real time: You would only tell your children in the midst of the struggle, if they have overheard things and are asking questions, or if they are at risk of finding out from someone else.
In Retrospect: Love always acts in the best interest of another and the first question would be “Is it in their best interest?” If not, why would you tell? There are times that people want to use telling the children as a threat to get their mate to do what they want. This is abusive, destructive, and certainly not in the children’s best interest. If it’s the two of you telling the children, then you’re presenting a safe, unified front for your children, but if you talk with them alone without your mate they may well feel you are telling on your mate and you’ll be seen as the bad guy. Hopefully, the two of you will be in agreement when it comes to telling your children. Here are a few benefits you might want to consider:
Life teaches many lessons. I hope you can find a constructive way to share the lessons you’ve learned with your children.