The High-Stakes Price Children Pay When a Parent Sneaks Around

Whether or not an adult decides to cheat when married (or in a committed relationship) is basically his or her business.
I am a firm believer that consenting adults should be free to do anything they want, within reason.

After all, as adults, they possess the freedom of choice,  and in choosing to cheat, one presumes that the participants are also cognitively choosing to suffer the consequences. One also hopes that anyone making the decision to cheat considers how his or her actions will affect the person they used to—or still—love.

Unless they are totally clueless, a potential cheater understands that discovery of their behavior will cause their spouse or partner to suffer hurt feelings and feel a range of emotions from rage to grief—that’s why they sneak around and lie to forestall disaster. Many delude themselves, however, about how it will affect their children—whether or not the children know about the cheating.

What About the Children?
Even if the cheater manages to hide the truth, it often becomes a pink elephant in the room, and children have radar packed into their little bodies that can be exquisitely sensitive to what is going on underneath a veneer. They may not cognitively know what’s going on—though often the older ones do!—but they may feel subtle changes in a household. They may sense that something is just not right; they don’t know what they know just that it feels wrong. Like it or not, bad vibes are filling both the house and their little bodies. And if no one talks about what’s happening, they may begin to doubt their own perceptions, and/or place blame on themselves for not being worthy of holding your attention. And if you cheat and all hell breaks loose, your children will experience emotions they have little or no ability to and shouldn’t have to handle it or cope with it.

Worse yet, hiding secrets thrusts the children into a crazy-making position of ambivalent feelings concerning loyalty and anger, and enduring a morass of other emotions. Dependent upon their age, these feelings could include confusion, anxiety, disappointment, sadness, anger, shame, or even a sense that they have done something wrong that caused you to withdraw emotionally. Some children may not show signs of this cauldron of emotions and stuff it inside. Unfortunately, those stuffed feelings can lay dormant, and resurface later—when they begin forming relationships. It can lead them to make decisions and assumptions that are often erroneous regarding intimacy, trust, and even what love means. The children always pay a price, and it’s a high one.

Keeping The Family Secret
I have had adult patients discuss the pain they experience as a result of heeding their cheating parent’s spoken or unspoken instruction to keep whatever they know secret. By asking these children to keep their secret, the wayward parent fosters codependency. The children are not only asked to be complicit, they are thrust into a parental role of protecting the mother or father who is being cheated on. These children soon learn that it’s a bad idea to speak of the “pink elephant in the room” that no one points out but on some level everyone knows about.

I have treated women and men who were used as “beards” throughout their childhood years, unwillingly abetting their mothers or fathers as they had a multitude of affairs. Some endured being left alone in hotel rooms in foreign countries while their mothers snuck off to spend the evening with their latest paramours. Some trailed behind their dads and their “lady friends” on afternoon bike rides knowing they would have to return home and lie to their mothers about what they’d done that afternoon—particularly with whom!

In some dysfunctional family systems, where one or both parents deny their responsibility for the family pain, one family member—usually a child—is pathologized, labeled the “sick one” or the family’s “problem child.” The cheating parent may convince the child and the spouse that this “problem child” makes things up, or doesn’t have a grasp on reality. This type of deceptive behavior is called gaslighting or crazy-making, as eventually the child starts to believe that they can’t trust his or her own senses or truths. In the truly toxic families, the cheating parent attempts to convince the world that the child’s words cannot be trusted, in case the child musters up the emotional courage to tell the truth or unburdens himself or herself by daring to break the “no speak” rule that the family used to identify the child as crazy, a liar, or just someone who imagines things.

Typically, serial cheaters are both unusually selfish and narcissistic. The most pathological ones are able to convince themselves that their kids don’t know (aren’t aware) what’s going on and thus cannot be harmed. They would be very, very wrong.

Immediate Consequences
How a child responds to a cheating parent will vary according to the children’s age and the child’s emotional capacities—and each child is different, even within families. Some older children may be somewhat healthily able to separate the parent’s actions from his or her identity, placing blame solely on the one responsible. Most children, however, experience anxiety, insecurity, sadness, depression, anger, abandonment, shame, and other confusing and unsettling emotions. Some may not be able to identify or express what they are feeling, but may act out, drawing attention to their behavior rather than that of the cheating or deceived parent.

Long-Term Consequences
Often adults are unaware of the effect their parents infidelity has had on their intimate relationships—until they find themselves caught in the painful pattern of attracting and/or selecting romantic partners who are incapable of being emotional and/or physically faithful.

Many of these children grow into adults who find it challenging to be both honest and vulnerable with their mates. Some find themselves incapable of accomplishing or embracing emotional and/or sexual intimacy. They may retract (distance themselves or choose partners with whom a loving, honest, and intimate relationship is impossible, or choose unavailable partners similar to the parent they either wanted to rescue or similar to the one who cheated. Unconsciously looking for a second chance at fixing what they couldn’t fix or being drawn to a mate who is similar to the first one they feel in love with or admired (Dad or Mom) may cause them to suffer a series of unsuccessful or unfulfilling relationships.

Others adopt an erroneous belief that marriage or commitment just can’t work or simply isn’t worth the potential pain and effort. These beliefs are an effort to protect against the pain they experienced or witnessed as a child or young adult, usually because one or both parents were cheating around the time they formed their original beliefs about marriage or commitment.

Many adult children who had cheating parents present in therapy as sex addicts, using other people and sex as a process of self medicating or attempting to fill the void they’ve felt since childhood or to protect against true intimacy.

What’s the Breaking Point?
After years of losing or abandoning relationship after relationship—as a result of their infidelity or inability to be authentic, present, and really committed—some adult children finally recognize and confront the pain around the original trauma.

For many, recreating their family of origin over and over simply becomes tiresome. A trauma occurs or they wake up for some other reason and finally realize that they are responsible for choosing the familiar, albeit painful, “home” where they cheat or where they hide from the reality that they choose partners who cheat, or are unable to form intimate attachments for some other reason.

Eventually, they realize that they have allowed their fragile sense of self to be eroded and that they are depriving themselves of the peace and peace of mind a healthy relationship affords. Once they commit to treatment to resolve and heal both the wounds and the resulting sense of powerlessness, they can heal festering wounds and learn new behaviors. Most importantly, they can then create the loving, caring and safe relationship they yearned for as a child (or were deprived of as a child).

Are All Children Destined for Problems?
Some children are able to use reframe the experience as a model of what they will not be or create. For some, the exquisite radar they developed (that likely caused them pain as a child or teenager) is now a gift they can use to immediately sniff out, identify, and avoid serial cheaters. Some can use the lessons of their painful past to consciously avoid being a part of a dishonest and hurtful system. They learn to reframe the initial experience and create the very opposite (antithesis) of what was modeled in the family of origin. Also, at a very early age, because of innate sense of right or wrong, some children grow into extremely moral adults who make a very deliberate choice to be faithful to their partners. They may carefully and very consciously choose a partner with the same set of values.

The Good News
If you grew up in a family contaminated by infidelity, toxic secrets, mistrust, or crazy-making gaslighting, it is very possible to heal and experience healthy and satisfying intimate relationships. You have the ability to create the family you would have wanted to be in and take the most gratifyingly and profoundly healing opportunity to be the parent you wanted as a child to your children.

Like the cheating parent, you have a choice—you can actively choose to do whatever it takes to heal and go on to create the type of loving marriage and home filled with love that you deserve. After all, it’s never too late to be happy—or to nourish your inner child by creating the childhood you wished you had, for you and your children as well!

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