Monday, November 22, 2010

What do you tell the kids?

Not only have you discovered your husband is an A-List A-hole, your kids know something is up. Your husband is begging you not to tell them because...well...because it makes him look bad. Like someone who cheats on his wife. Which, incidentally, he is. Or was. Depends who you ask.
And you are still in the stinky robe you put on three days ago, the one that has chicken noodle soup stains and smells like tomorrow's armpits.
But your kids are confused. So you need to muster up as much dignity as you can and tell them... What?

How old are your children?
Young children don't need to know the details. Please, please, PLEASE remember that children are the innocents in all this. They need protection and guidance and are NOT to be made pawns in a game of "make Daddy pay for this pain", however tempting that is.
However, young children (age 9 and under) likely sense a tension in the household. They may have heard fighting. Or know that Mommy is angry or sad or both. It's critical, I believe, to acknowledge what they're sensing. Check in with them and ask them if they're wondering what's up. Confirm what they suspect by being a point. They don't need to know that Daddy is dating the homewrecking whore at work. But acknowledging that Mommy and Daddy are having a tough time getting along – that even grownups sometimes struggle – is a good place to start. Reassure them that NONE of this is their fault. That Mommy and Daddy aren't angry with them. And, if it's true, reassure them that you're seeking help to learn to get along. And that, no matter what happens, their parents will always love them and spend time with them. At this age, their big concern is "what does this mean for me?" Simply assuring them that they'll be taken care of, and that the adults have matters well in hand (even if that's a bit of a stretch) can go a long way toward reducing their anxiety.
With older kids, it's a bit tougher. In some cases, they already know, thanks to neighborhood gossip. At 12, I spotted my friend's dad with his mistress who was definitely NOT my friend's mom. Long before the marriage finally dissolved in divorce. Again, let children take the lead and ask them what they  know. If you can sit down as a couple, that's ideal. If the affair is over, it's important to let them know that. If your husband has taken responsibility for it and is working on ensuring it doesn't happen again, let them know that too. Don't focus on the sex aspect, which can be confusing for kids who are approaching (or immersed in) their own budding sexuality. Besides, affairs are far more frequently about escape than sex. Again, it's critical to assure kids that Mom and Dad are doing what they can to take care of themselves and, if it's true, the marriage. This frees kids to focus on being kids...instead of parenting the parents. If necessary or prudent, seek counselling for the kids. An objective listener can go a long way toward giving kids an outlet for their anxiety.

How honest should you be? 
There's honesty. And then there's Too Much Information.
As noted, let them take the lead. Don't give them more information than they want. This can be enormously confusing for kids in part because it means discovering their hero has clay feet. They can feel conflicted about still loving this person who's hurt the other person they love. As much as you can, do NOT get them involved in what's happening between the two of you. Bite your tongue right off if you have to!
As  a general rule, listen more than you talk.

Keep yourself okay (or as okay as possible)
Do your very best to keep yourself upright, sober and relatively functional. Watching Mommy fall apart is terrifying to a child – of any age. If you need to sob for a few hours, book a sitter and try to schedule it in. I generally managed to get my kids to school before falling apart. Then I'd wash my face and brush my teeth before picking them up. Scheduling in SOB-time (to sob over the S.O.B.) allowed me to buck up when the kids were around.

Again: This is NOT about picking sides
There's no right way to deal with this as there are so many variables. Is your husband still involved? Have your children met the Other Woman? Have you separated?
Though you can feel such rage toward your spouse, remember that your kids have a right – indeed it's healthy for them – to remain connected to and love your (ex)spouse. Even if he is a cheating bastard. Speak about him with respect, even if he doesn't deserve it. Don't make apologies or excuses for him. There's nothing wrong with letting your kids know that sometimes adults make choices that aren't the smartest, healthiest or kindest. But that, hopefully, we learn from them. Be dignified. Or as dignified as someone in a stinky bathrobe can be.

And finally? You'll all survive this. I promise.

Have you told your children? What did you way? What would you do differently if you had to (God forbid!) do it again? What worked? Or didn't?


  1. I told my kids but the youngest was 18 at the time. I never intended to tell them but my husband decided to take a 2 step approach to destroying my life. D-day was Jan 26, 2009, he told me about the affair. I yelled , screamed, cried, etc. but in the end he called the OW and told her it was over. In my befuddled mind we were on the road to recovery. A week later he ambushed me when I got home and announced " I have to make sure she is alright" Two hours of screaming, hitting , throwing, begging (sorry), threatening didn't change his mind. As he is leaving I told him that I was going to have to tell the kids. Two of them still lived with us and self-absorbed as they were they would notice if their father was not there. So, he's standing in the hall waiting for his friend to come pick him up and in walks my 18 year old. He looked at the scene which must have been something, his father with suitcase in hand and his mother looking like she had just battled an army. And so I just said "Your father has had an affair and he is leaving." He was stunned and came over to me and hugged me and asked if I was all right. His father just left without a word.
    I did tell the others, ages 20 & 22. They were shocked and definitely on my side. They were a great support to me. The oldest took it the hardest, he had always wanted to more like his dad. So here was his idol not just falling off the pedestal, but taking a swan dive off. We did have a family meeting a while later when my husband and I decided to try to save our marriage and told them just so they would know what was going on. They of course wanted to know why. His response "My needs weren't being met." My daughter asked if he had ever told me to which he replied "I tried some subtle things." She replied " I may not know about these things but it seems that this is not something you should be subtle about" I did something right with that girl!
    Anyway I regret I had to tell them but I think they had to know. Now going on 2 years later they have good and I think more realistic relationships with both of us. I only hope that they also took away the pain that an affair can cause and will think twice if ever put in that situation

  2. Thank-you for sharing your story. I think, in your case, your children were essentially adults. And it sounds as if you simple stated facts -- rather than bad-mouthing. And yes, it certainly does sound as if you raised your kids well! Such wisdom!
    It's important to note that, handled with dignity, these incredibly painful lessons can teach all of us. (God, I sound so ridiculously clinical...sorry!) But, as a child of alcoholic parents who NEVER talked about it until it couldn't be ignored, I think it's really important to validate kids' own suspicions or anxiety. Telling them that everything's "fine" when it's clearly not simply teaches them to ignore their own intuition.
    It's sometimes hard for me now when my husband and I are having a disagreement (he's an avoider, I'm a confronter) and my kids rally to his defence because he always seems to be the "good guy". Nothing serious – like who doesn't EVER put their shoes away at the door, for example. And it's so hard NOT to blurt out something like – "You kids think I'm HARD on him???? Ohhhhhh...." But, I bite my tongue. They're too young and it's in the past. At least, most days. :)

  3. I feel awful for my children. Just turned 1 and 3 when this happened. The see and hear almost everything. I hope that the eldest has very little memories of the early days as I don't intend to tell them. Not to save face for my husband, but because it is not for a child to be burdened with this information. What are they going to do with it anyway?
    Perhaps if it comes up when the are older, teenager and beyond I will tell them.

  4. Wow, lots of great advice here. Thanks a lot for the wisdom of your experience.

    I've dealt with quite a bit of infidelity over the years from my wife and though I've found some way to forgive her each time, our kids are getting older now and it is getting much harder to hide it from them.

    Here's to hoping I can have the grace and dignity to follow your excellent advice.

  5. Dark Horse,

    Thanks for posting your comments. And I'm so sorry for what you're been dealing with.
    I'm wondering though if you've truly forgiven her (and whether she indeed wants forgiveness) or if you've simply become good at overlooking her actions and burying your pain. If she has so little respect for you as to continue her betrayal in light of your knowledge of it...and presumably your request that she respect your marriage, why do you tolerate it? I think you have a lot of grace and dignity...I'm wondering where the outrage and self-respect is.
    Nobody deserves to be treated as if their feelings don't matter. And nobody deserves to be consistently disrespected.
    I would guess, too, that on some level your children are aware that things are not quite right. Depending on their ages, they might not understand why. But kids are incredible barometers of their parents' emotional state. Their instincts are fine-tuned in order to protect themselves and they undoubtedly sense some tension. What you don't want is for that to become their "normal". They won't feel comfortable with healthy relationships if their only experience is an unhealthy one.
    Please validate their own experience by talking with them. Not about infidelity necessarily but about what they sense.
    And please, for your own sake, insist that your wife seek help (if she isn't already) to figure out why she's willing to risk her family for infidelity. And, if you're not already, please seek help for yourself to get to the root of why you're tolerating it.
    Please understand that I'm not trying to berate you for the way you're handling it. I understand that we all cope in the best way we know...and you've only given me a few sentences of your situation so I apologize if I've misunderstood. But I hope you're able to achieve a situation in which everyone is committed to preserving the integrity of your family...whether intact (without infidelity) or apart.

  6. When we told our kids, I refused to give in to the rage that I felt. Even though I despised their father at that point, I would not let it affect my children. If I stayed strong, I knew they would be too. I wrote about my experience here -



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