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After an Affair:
Should You Tell Your Kids?

QUESTION: My partner had an affair that went on for nearly a year. We have three daughters -- two in their teens and one younger. They know something is up but I haven't told them any details. Should we tell our kids?

ANSWER: Your children are no doubt aware that their parents have been experiencing emotional strain in their relationship. This stress could cause them to feel insecure and should be addressed. Telling them details about a marital affair, however, may bring your children into the heart of your marital discord, rather than keep them out of the middle of your conflict.

While you do not want to ignore reality or cause strain in the family by keeping secrets, it is not wise to involve them in your conflicts. It is possible that this could be treated as an issue of privacy, if your children are not aware or do not want to deal with this information at this time. Putting it "in their faces", if they are not ready or cognizant could be detrimental.

If your children bring up the affair, you should certainly address it. However, be cautious that you protect your daughters from feeling that they must "take sides" in the marriage. They need both of you. Refrain from turning to them for comfort or support involving marital betrayal.

It is likely that at some point, if your children are aware of the affair, they will let you know. A comment about infidelity, coached in vague terms should be questioned rather than ignored. Talk with your partner about how this would be handled. If your spouse knows he (or she) made a critical mistake and can say so, it can help your children learn the consequences of undermining trust in a relationship. If you are able to reinforce the message by expressing the lesson learned in the relationship, such as..."Your father (or mother) and I have not been dealing with our problems as we should, but we feel we are on the right track now", or "It was wrong what your father (or mother) did, but we believe we are able to communicate better and are working on solving our problems without involving others romantically" , they will discover that their parents are not perfect people but they are learning from their mistakes.

If the children do broach the subject, refrain from involving them in any details about the affair. Keep the discussion centered on how they are feeling. It is natural for children to feel betrayed and angry. Being able to express these feelings will help soothe them. They will also want to be reassured that they are loved, despite the betrayal. They will want to know you have dealt with the problem and are dealing with the consequences. Children are often relieved to hear that mom and dad are working things out with a marriage counselor. It makes it less likely that they will feel responsible for making things better in your marriage.

As teenagers, or young adult women, your daughters will be wondering about their own fate in future relationships. Do not shy away from discussing their feelings as they arise. They will need to understand what a healthy relationship is, what their needs are and how to best meet them. Discussion of the affair with respect to its impact on relationship may be an appropriate learning tool in the years ahead.

A marital affair strains your marriage. Children may experience this stress as a fracture in your relationship. Because your marriage is the foundation of your family, your daughters will likely feel some insecurity as a result. Look for signs of insecurity which may be expressed as irritability, a decreased ability to handle frustration (with homework, friendships or challenging situations) or a generalized increase in demands made of you.

Give your children extra support and attention through this trying period in the family, but realize, most importantly, that their equilibrium will be reinstated by the healing that occurs between you and your partner.

If the affair represents an ongoing pattern of coping, ask your partner to seek help. But do not stop there. Work on understanding the emotional meaning of the affair in your relationship and rebuilding trust in your marriage.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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