In my many years as a psychotherapist and more recently as a consultant to a family law firm, I have seen this dilemma played out in various ways. I recall a distraught and angry mother tearfully telling her nine- and 11-year-old children that their dad “had sex” with another woman and “doesn’t love us anymore.” The kids were understandably frightened, confused, and angry. That was obviously a situation in which a parent told their children about an affair in an unhealthy way.
But I also recall another situation in which a dad was having a thoughtful discussion with his college-aged son about the various issues that led to his divorce, including infidelity, which in this case was very helpful to the boy’s understanding of his parents' relationship. These are two extreme examples, and most situations fall somewhere between them. What are the variables that might influence the validity of such a discussion?
The most important factor, which is often difficult to tease out, is the reason behind making this kind of disclosure to your children. If it is out of anger or revenge toward the unfaithful partner, and done to turn the children against that parent, it is obviously the wrong thing to do and damaging to the children. As difficult as this is to do, you must work to separate the hurt and anger you feel toward the unfaithful spouse and their relationship with the children. Someone can be both a very good parent and a deceitful partner. Children, whatever their age, are entitled to an explanation of why their parents are no longer together. Young children, in particular, may blame themselves if not given some sort of age-appropriate explanation.
The second variable is the age of the children. Explanations of divorce must always be age appropriate, and it would be unusual for a child under the age of 16 to be able to understand infidelity in a meaningful way. Even children in their late teens might be damaged to learn of a parent’s affair, particularly if they are idealistic about relationships and/or inexperienced themselves. So it is not just the age of the child, but their developmental level and their relationship with the parent that must be taken into account before making this kind of disclosure. A child who has a distant or contentious relationship with the unfaithful parent might be more damaged than one who has a closer relationship and could see the other, more positive aspects of this parent.
Another consideration before making a disclosure of infidelity is the kind of relationship we want to have with our spouse or ex-spouse in the future. The intense hurt that usually accompanies discovery of infidelity is easy to act out in destructive ways (such as telling the children). Keep in mind that many marriages do heal from infidelity and become stronger life-long unions. But even if divorce occurs, you still share a partnership with this person as parents, so you need to do what you can to foster some harmony for the sake of your children and yourself as well. Infidelity, as traumatic as it might have been, does not need to define your future relationships.