Everybody knows how much cheating can hurt a relationship and wreck a marriage. But when there are kids involved, it can also hurt them. Experts usually focus on the damage that occurs to children during and after divorce, when the other partner has discovered the infidelity. But damage can occur much sooner, during the affair itself.
The type of damage depends on the type of cheater. Unfaithful partners come in two basic types: the “accidental” cheater and the “serial” cheater. The accidental cheater may fall into an affair through unusual circumstances. Often, something is going wrong between the cheater and the other partner and the cheater looks for comfort (subconsciously or not) outside of the relationship. The serial cheater, on the other hand, cheats because he or she cannot or will not stay faithful to one person. The accidental cheater may stop after only one affair; the serial cheater won’t stop, ever.
Damage varies according to the type of cheater. Accidental cheaters often feel great shame and guilt, so they cover up what they’re doing. They hide it from both their partner and their kids, but it’s the partner, not the children, finding out that is usually the deal-breaker. Should the child find out about the affair, the cheater may swear the child to secrecy, under the threat of “breaking up the marriage”. Even if the cheater says nothing, the child may feel honor-bound to keep quiet to keep from rocking the boat. This puts the child in the terrible position of having to lie for one parent to the other.
The serial cheater may also cover up the affair and enlist the child in doing so. But some serial cheaters go further. They may confide in the child about their affairs and even introduce the child to their new girlfriends or boyfriends as surrogate parents. For the child, accepting the affair becomes part of being accepted by the cheating parent.
Needless to say, this can cause terrible damage to the child, who learns that love and relationships are conditionally based on the other person’s interest and approval and that they are a game of one-upmanship. Children learn that when you become bored with one person, you simply turn to another one.
The reaction of the injured partner doesn’t help. A parent may respond to infidelity by the other parent with rage and possessiveness that includes both children and possessions. They then continue the game by denying the cheating parent access to their children in punishment for the affair. The cheating parent may also try to gain sole custody of the kids to completely deprive the other parent of control and to complete the fantasy of a new life with a new partner.
The problem is that in relationships where someone cheats, both partners often become childish and selfish. But parents can’t afford to be selfish. Cheaters, consider what you’re risking when you cheat. Your children do not deserve to be caught up in the drama of your mistake, enlisted in deceiving the other parent, or blamed or punished for the affair’s almost inevitable discovery. Nor should you even consider choosing the person with whom you’re cheating over your children. Your children are, above all, the innocent parties here.
Similarly, injured partners, while you might feel much justifiable rage at the other partner, you have no right to take it out on your children. They didn’t pick your partner-you did. Just because you don’t want to see the lying, cheating rat ever again does not mean that your children are willing to cut Daddy out of their lives. You have to respect their wishes as long as it’s safe.
And be honest about safety issues. Don’t invent a false concern for safety as an excuse to cut off contact. You should also avoid comparing your child to the cheater. When the child defies you, don’t ever let the words, “You’re just like your mother” cross your lips. Children pushing boundaries is a normal part of growing up and has nothing to do with your partner’s infidelity.
Children, don’t blame yourselves. Avoid getting involved in your parents’ drama and no matter what they say, remember that it’s not your fault. Parents are human, which means that they make mistakes, too. Even if one parent leaves, that’s not because of anything you did. Too often, even adult children blame themselves for a parent’s affair. But people don’t cheat because of their kids. Both parents and kids need to remember that.