I am probably going to ruffle some feathers with this post, and I may not even sound very compassionate, but I have had a somewhat upsetting month from a therapy standpoint. That’s saying a lot, considering the emotional challenges I face with people on a daily basis. I feel a responsibility to address this topic.
Infidelity cases are a very typical presentation for a marriage therapist. Considering the hours of therapy and supervision I have completed, I can easily say I have seen hundreds of these cases. With an increase in ways to perpetuate infidelity through technological means, I’m not anticipating the phenomenon slowing down any time soon.
The emotions are always very painful. It’s hard to sit with the emotions and not feel a great deal of compassion for the victims. I am highly motivated to assist couples in healing severe betrayals, and I have high belief that marriages can heal and be stronger than before, despite the deep and unpredictable emotions.
However, something that is even harder than sitting with the pain of a betrayed spouse is sitting in front of an adolescent who has discovered that his or her parent had an affair. Watching a teenager try not to cry while explaining the impact of a parent’s infidelity is heart-wrenching. I have seen several of these cases in the last month, and the devastation heaped on children is inestimable.
Our culture encourages individual “fulfillment,” and downplays the real impact of marital dissolution on children—otherwise you might feel incapacitating guilt and shame about your betrayal—and we wouldn’t want that. Aren’t you meant to be “happy,” after all?
Most teens find out by accident. In worse cases, they are the ones that discover the affair and either feel responsible to hold the secret or feel guilty about blowing their families apart with the disclosure.
Here are common symptoms I anecdotally witness in teens and children who are exposed to a parent’s betrayals and related marital distress:
- Episodes of enduring worry and anxiety with associated panic attacks; in short, the children are TERRIFIED of what will happen to them and to their families.
- Increased nightmares
- Intense grief and anger about the conflict and/or dissolution that follows a marital betrayal; clients routinely explain that their parents’ infidelities had a relatively traumatic impact that changed their lives.
- Lost focus at school and difficulty maintaining academic success
- Self-harming behaviors
- Increased substance use
- Decreased confidence about eventually maintaining long-term relationships
- A feeling of personal betrayal and rejection; they perceive that the parent was in many ways choosing the affair partner over them and their family, i.e. “He/she cares more about (the affair partner) than about me and our family.”
- Unpredictable crying episodes
- Increased aggression and externalizing behavior
- An increase in stomach distress and other types of somatization
- Parentification; in an attempt to reduce stress in the marital system, they will increase roles of caretaking and comforting younger siblings.
- Disconnection from their own emotional needs because they don’t want to add more stress to the family system
- Generalized distrust in people and future love relationships
- Embarrassment, guilt and shame and feelings of unloveability
- Increased sexual promiscuity
That’s for starters.
Even if children don’t know explicitly about the affair, affairs have a direct impact on children. Spouses who are having affairs are less emotionally and physically available to their children. In short, infidelity has a very real and devastating impact on everyone in the family.
So, before beginning or continuing your extramarital affair, sit your children or and/or your affair partner’s children down and say, “Just so you know, I’m about to SHATTER your world. You’re going to be really sick, sad, fearful, rejected and just absolutely devastated for an unknown period of time. You’re going to lose confidence in pursuing your own relationships, but I really, really, really want to pursue this dopamine rush I get when I’m around this person who’s not your mom (or dad). I really like how it feels.”
Some of you are thinking, “Oh, I could never do that.”
Your marriage is not just about you, or even just about you and your spouse.
Seriously—just stop it.
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