Sex, Lies and Telling the Kids
Infidelity: How Do You Tell your Children about the Affair? You Shouldn’t, Experts Say
When former presidential nominee John Edwards admitted he’d cheated on his wife, the question on some minds was how someone touted as a family man told his wife — and his three children — about the affair.
So how do you tell your children about the affair? You don’t. Rosalind Sedacca, author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! said, “Unless they are celebrity’s or politician’s kids who unfortunately learn about it in the news, this is not a topic to discuss with your children unless they are over 18 or even older. This is adult business of the most complex nature and cannot be assimilated into explanations for children.”
Edwards has admitted have a brief affair with Rielle Hunter, a film producer, who was paid more than $100,000 for webisodes about Edwards’ run for president. Edwards is accused of being the father of her baby daughter, though both he and she have denied the allegations. She also has refused to take a paternity test to disprove the allegations.
Elizabeth Edwards’ friend, Hargrave McElroy, told People magazine that she made the decision to stay with her husband after discovering her breast cancer had returned and was terminal. ‘She couldn’t say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll work through this for years, or maybe we should separate for two years,’ McElroy told the magazine. ‘[Cancer] forced her to choose whether to move forward.’
McElroy said her friend made the decision that she didn’t want her children, Jack, 8, Emma Claire, 10, and Cate, 26, to be without both of their parents. Elizabeth’s brother, Jay Anania, told People magazine that the couple have not discussed the scandal with their children. ‘The kids are, to a certain extent, oblivious,” he said.
That’s not necessarily true, according to relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle, author of How to Win when your Mate Cheats. She said, “The kids already know on some level that mom and dad are not getting along and there is family tension.So it’s just a matter of sitting them down and giving words to their instincts if they’re old enough.”
Divorce expert Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., of Long Beach, Calif., said the couple should work out their personal problems before involving the children. “In Edward’s case, the media make it impossible to keep it secret from the kids, but most couples don’t have that problem,” she said. “The betrayed spouse, of course is upset, but needs to be careful who she tells in her anguish.”
In cases where the cheater isn’t a public figure, Tessina says, “It’s much better to have a confidential and objective support person, like a counselor, to talk to. I have worked with couples where the angry wife told everyone, and now that the couple have reconciled, her family are making things difficult. Pick a person or two who can be trusted not to tell, and use them for support — but don’t indiscriminately tell a lot of people the gossip will be difficult for you later, and for your children.”
Why does she think this is important? “So many couples recover from this and decide to stay together, but you can’t know at the outset how you’re going to feel later,” Tessina said.
However, she does think there are some cases, like in the Edwards affair, where the children might learn about it despite a couple’s best efforts to keep the matter private. “Older children, like the Edwards’ adult daughter, might be told, but younger children should be told only that ‘Mommy and Daddy are having a problem, but we’re working to fix it.’Your children are not your confidantes,” she said.
Dr. Gilda suggests couples who talk to their children about marital problems should not mention cheating or an affair. “That’s too much information.It’s best if both parents could explain that they have been having problems as a couple, but they still love the kids. The kids will probably blame themselves in part and try to fix the couples’ ills.Let them know this must be worked out by both parents on their own.The kids will have questions as time goes on, so answer them honestly, but without going into detail.The most important thing is to make the kids feel secure at a time when you might not feel so secure yourself.”
Sedacca thinks most couples, who do not have to deal with public notoriety, simply shouldn’t bring children into the equation. “It’s not fair to them and it can only create pain and sorrow in their lives,” she said. “Affairs are not black and white issues with simplistic explanations involving good guys and bad guys. The subject should not be broached and children should never be forced to condemn or feel guilty about loving one of their parents.”
“When your children are adults you can talk to them and explain the circumstances along with why you made the decisions you made at the time,” she added.
WHAT TO TELL YOUR KIDS AFTER YOU’VE LIED AND THE CAT IS OUT OF THE BAG
By Dr. Mark Goulston, M.D., clinical psychiatrist and author of a number of books, including”The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship: How to Fall in Love Again…and Stay There.”
If the goal is to do the least harm to the children, parents should work together on what and how to tell the children in a way in which their fears (which will still be considerable) should be allayed as much as is possible. That may include using a therapist to meet with family to translate if necessary or draw children out. Also if there is more than one child it is a good idea to speak with them together so they can talk to each other about it. If however, the children or others already know about the affair (a la John Edwards), a conversation between the cheating spouse and the children (with the other spouse present) might be called for. The general rule with kids is that it is less important what you tell them than what you get them to tell and ask you. Here are10 tips:
1. Ask them if and what they have heard about the situation?
2. Ask they what they have thought or felt about what they have heard?
3. Tell them the facts of what happened that are appropriate for their age. In other words, don’t tell them more than they need or want to hear.
4. Answer what they are asking as specifically and honestly as you can and tell them you are sorry and you were wrong with no excuses or explanations. (Later on in their lives you may go into explanations if and when they might want to understand your motives which you can write about in tip 10 below.)
5. After they ask you whatever they ask you and you answer them, ask them what they are most upset about?
6. After they go into that, if they don’t cover the following, ask them what they are most worried about, scared about, and disappointed about?
7. When they answer look them in their eyes, because they need to see that their upset has caused you real pain. Their seeing this is what remorse is and it is critical for them to feel that if you promise to not do it again, you won’t. If all they see is regret, it doesn’t ring true.
8. If they ask you why you did it, give them the honest answer, even if it is: “I don’t know,” or “I was selfish,” or “I was not happy and instead of talking it out with mom/dad and trying to fix it, I did what I did” (which is one of the lessons they and you should learn from this) again looking them directly in their eyes. Keep in mind that as disappointed or angry as your children are in you, they want to forgive you, but they need a reason to do it. If they see that true pain (referred to as agape meaning experiencing pain when you see someone else in pain). They are more likely to forgive you, but don’t expect them to ever forget.
9. Accept that once you have this conversation it is not over, because as they grow older they will revisit it depending on thier current age.
10. Keep a special notebook with each of their names on it where you write down thoughts about them including your hopes, worries, concerns, fears about and for them and your regrets. At some point either age 18, if they are reasonably mature, or age 21, give each of them that notebook. Don’t use this as an opportunity to try to get them to feel sorry for you or let you off the hook. This will serve as evidence that you thought about them as they grew up and will counter their feeling that you are a narcissist who can’t think about anyone but yourself.