Should You Tell Your Children About the Affair in Your Marriage?


Our children are ages 11 and 13. Since I found out about my husband’s affair, unfortunately I know there are times when they have overheard us arguing, and I feel ashamed about that. I’m afraid they may have overheard the word “affair.”

Should we talk to our children about the affair?

There is no set rule about whether you should tell your children or not. Each couple, each situation and each family is different. I recommend that as a mother and father, both parents get as much information as they can, then come together and discuss your unique situation and the best course of action for your family. Ideally as husband and wife, you should decide and agree together on whether or not to talk to your children about the affair.

The most important thing to consider is what is in the best interest of your children. The age of your children is an important factor. Young children (0 – 5) are not likely to comprehend what’s going on, or even to understand what an affair is, so if they are below school age they likely don’t need to know. They may however, sense that mommy and daddy are not getting along, and the tension in the home resulting from the affair can be affecting them. Everything should be done to minimize the negative effect of the affair on your children. As much as possible, every effort should be made to keep their daily lives the same. Both parents need to reinforce the message to children that they are loved, and if it’s true, that they love each other. Never lie to your children.

Even when you’re children are young, you may not be able to completely hide the affects of the affair from them, so you might admit that you feel sad, and then encourage them by letting them know you are getting help to feel better soon, and that they do not need to worry.

School age children (6 – 11) will be more aware and in tune with tension in the home. By this time, most children are already aware that some of their friends at school have parents who are “divorced” and they are scared to death that this might happen to them. The important thing is to speak to their fears and reassure them that they are loved and their lives will stay the same (as much as you are sure they will). If there is a good chance that your children are aware that something is wrong, it is better to address this, then to say nothing.

Children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. If they can tell something is wrong, but you refuse to be honest about that, it will add to their sense of insecurity. That said, children do not need details of an affair. Sometimes it can be quite appropriate to say something like, “yes, mom and dad are having some problems. This happens to most moms and dads at times. Don’t worry though. We are getting help.”

If you’ve already made a decision to stay together, let them know that nothing is going to change. Reassure them that they are loved and that this has nothing to do with them. When parents are fighting (or just not getting along), children have a tendency to blame themselves and somehow think that they are the cause. They need to be told this is not the case.

If you’re dealing with teenagers, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s not likely that you and your spouse are going to survive an affair in your marriage and your teenagers aren’t going to notice. What is happening in your marriage is happening in lots of their friend’s parent’s marriages as well. Teenagers know about affairs. Not only do they experience it from friends they know whose families are going through it, many teenagers personally deal with affairs. They get into dating relationships, and then find themselves cheated on, and it’s every bit as devastating for them as it is for an adult married person. Teenagers don’t have the benefit of a more developed self-identity and self-esteem to help them cope. If your teenager is aware that something is wrong, and you try to hide it from them, it may serve only to increase rather than decrease their sense of insecurity.

Telling teenagers about the affair can be an opportunity for increased closeness in the family. One thing that makes teenagers so angry with adults is hypocrisy. They want us to be real, honest and consistent. They don’t want us to expect one thing from them, while we do something else.

In our situation, our children were all teenagers at the time of the affair, and especially our oldest daughter was far too perceptive to keep it hidden from. In the early days following the affair, my oldest daughter (then 16) seemed to have a sudden need to be with me all the time. This is because she could sense something was wrong despite my heroic attempt to hide it, and the fact that I wasn’t sharing made her feel intensely insecure.

Peggy Vaughan writes of her own situation:

“In our own case, our children were 11 and 13 when we told them about my husband’s affairs. We did it together, reassuring them that we would work it out. Our kids are now grown, and the strongest lesson they gained from “knowing” was learning to appreciate the importance of honesty. Children can best learn honesty by seeing it in their own families. So as to whether/when/how to tell the children, it’s probably not so much a question of whether as of when and how.”

In deciding to tell or not to tell your children, one of the most important things to consider is “What are your motives for wanting to tell your children?” Be honest with yourself here. If your motive for telling is because you, the betrayed spouse, want sympathy and want your children to know what a dirt-bag their other parent is, DO NOT TELL THEM. If your motive is anything less than to improve their lives, and create more closeness with them by gifting them with truth, you should not tell.

Another factor to consider is how many other people know about the affair? How likely is it that this affair will remain a secret? You do not want your children to find out that “Daddy had an affair with Mrs. Jones” from the other kids on the playground, or even from their cousin. Sometimes everyone seems to know except the people whom it directly affects.

Finding out about family matters from other sources is extremely hurtful and feels like another betrayal altogether. If there is a relatively high risk that children could find out from others it is better that you and your spouse sit down and tell them yourselves. Then you have control over the way they first hear this information, and can reassure them and put to rest their fears as much as is truthfully possible.

If the marriage ends in divorce because of an affair, clearly the kids will have to know that a divorce is taking place. If you profess a religious faith that prohibits divorce except in the case of adultery, and adultery is your reason for the divorce, it is reasonable to tell the kids why if they are old enough to understand what adultery is. It is fair for the person who had the affair to bear the appropriate consequences of their choice to have an affair. It is not the duty of the hurt betrayed spouse to keep the secret of their unfaithful spouse’s adultery so that the unfaithful spouse does not have to bear any negative consequences for their actions.

Telling may not be the best option for every family.

One woman wrote:

“When I was about twelve, my mother confessed to me that she’d had an affair when I was a year old.  She contemplated leaving my father for a man she thought was her soul mate, although she changed her mind about leaving.  I was horrified–I was a naive pre-teen….the first thing I asked was “how did Dad feel?” and she said “he was hurt. To this day, I don’t know why she told me or how she thought it would benefit me.  I felt bad for my Dad and I judged my mother harshly for what she’d done.  I think she should not have told me.”

Will your children still respect the unfaithful parent if/when you tell?

This really depends on what the unfaithful parent does or doesn’t do to heal the marriage, and on whether or not the betrayed parent truly forgives. Does the unfaithful spouse take full responsibility? Do they change? Do they make amends? Or do they just shift blame onto the faithful parent? Or do they “Clintinize” the affair by not taking responsibility?

It’s really not the fact that Bill Clinton had an affair that caused the American people to lose respect for their president. It’s the fact that his initial response was to deny and minimize. Had he just said, “Yes, I did that, I was wrong. I will now do everything within my power to make amends.” He would’ve maintained respect.

People (including our children) don’t really have a problem with the fact that we screw up sometimes in life, because no one is without fault. What we have a problem with is people who shift blame, wimp out by failing to take responsibility, people who make excuses for and justify their bad behavior, and people who do nothing to make amends and change.

If children know about the affair during the chaos, they likely will disrespect the unfaithful parent, and they may be unwilling to attend family functions if the unfaithful parent is there, etc. But if the unfaithful parent does the right thing to restore the family, they can earn the respect of their children again.

In the beginning, while our family was surviving the affair aftermath, one of our three children lost respect for her father. However, because he has earned it, he has more of her respect now than he did before the affair. Children will mirror the attitude of the betrayed parent towards the unfaithful parent. When you struggle, so will they. If you respect the unfaithful parent, so will they. My husband earned the respect of our children back by manning up and doing the work needed to help me (their mother) heal.

My husband is our children’s hero, even more so than before.

Everyone has character flaws whether you know about them or not. When people come off as “perfect” I find myself wondering how huge their flaws are that they must be kept totally secret. I don’t respect people who appear “perfect” because I know full well they are hiding something. Rather I respect people who are transparent and real. It’s people who’ve been through major challenges but have overcome them and become better people whom I respect the most. I don’t look up to flawless people. I look up to people who right their wrongs.

When should you tell your children?

If the affair is having an immediate effect on the children’s lives (such as in the case of separation or divorce) it may be necessary to inform them right away. If you are able to heal the marriage with minimum affect upon the children, it may be preferable to keep it a private matter between husband and wife, at least until healing has taken place.

Why should you tell your children about the affair?

There is tremendous benefit for families who choose to be honest about such issues that are past tense later in life. The fact of the matter is everyone has pain and difficulties in life and that includes your children. No matter how much you as a parent desire to protect your children from all pain and suffering you will not be able to achieve this goal. As a mother, I desire to create a relationship of openness and honesty with my children where when they are faced with life’s difficulties, I will be one of the first ones they turn to for help.

As someone who helps others in affair recovery, it amazes me how often we deal with older couples married 25 – 40+ years who say “oh we never want our children to know, they would be so disillusioned if they knew we have problems.”

Meanwhile I deal with the younger generation, married only a few years who are dealing with an affair, and when I suggest reaching out to parents for support, they are horrified. “Oh no, I could never talk to my parents about this. They’d be too upset. They have perfect lives. They are such wonderful people. They would never understand.”

I wonder how often the parents and the adult married children are both my clients! Both convinced they can’t tell each other, so the family secrets continue to cause pain and perpetuate themselves from one generation to the next.

I never want my children to view me as so perfect that I’m no longer a safe place to turn in their time of deepest need. My greatest respect is not for people who never have problems. Those situations are unrelatable (and probably not true). My respect is for those who’ve had problems and have worked through them.

How to tell your children about the affair?

If you decide to tell, it’s best for you to sit down as their mother and father and tell them together. You should agree together in advance about what you will say. Try to anticipate questions they may ask, and plan in advance how you will address those questions.

Be sure and keep sharing with your children age appropriate. Kids, even teenagers, do not need to know details of an affair.

If you choose to share with your children share factual information only – no sordid details or emotional recollections. Do leave it open for and be willing to answer any questions they may have.

Ways to tell your children about the affair?

For younger children, you may say something as simple as, “when a mom and dad decide to get married, they make a promise to love only each other. Sometimes moms and dads make mistakes and hurt each other. Dad loved another woman in a way that he should have only loved mom. That’s why mom is so sad.” … then go on to explain what is being done to right the situation.

You might say, “mommy and daddy are having some serious problems, but don’t worry we are dealing with them. Sometimes even grown-ups make really bad decisions that hurt other people. What matters most in life is not being perfect, but taking responsibility when we do wrong things, being willing to you’re sorry, and making sure we don’t do the wrong thing again, and that’s what we’re working towards.”

One couple shared with us:

“We both told our 5 year old that daddy had lied to mommy and we were in a time out.  We explained to her that adult time outs take longer than kid’s timeouts and that it is normal and lots of parents take time outs.  She said whew!  She was glad to know it was normal.  She knew something was not right and had overheard conversations.  She asked if time outs end up in divorce and my husband told her sometimes, but not to worry about that right now.  We were careful to keep it age appropriate and focus on daddy’s behavior and say “lied” instead of “liar” because kid’s identity is so tied into their parents and to call daddy a liar, makes her feel like she’s a liar too.  Our job was to make her feel safe and secure and know that we loved her, but we both felt to ignore the elephant in the room would have been irresponsible of us.”

Well done! This is a great example of sharing with children in an appropriate way!

Remind your children that mommy and daddy both love them and that that will never change.

In the midst of the pain and chaos of an affair, there is actually an opportunity to teach our children important life lessons. Our children learn what we do, more than what we say. The affair becomes an opportunity to teach your children about taking responsibility, about telling the truth, about facing life’s challenges instead of running away, and about forgiveness.

Kids need to know about affairs only to the extent that it affects them. If things are going to be changing around your house, that’s what the kids need to be informed about. Are you going to continue living together or is one parent moving out? Will you continue to have meals together as a family? Who will be driving them to soccer practice (or whatever)? Are there going to be changes? Is someone going to be sleeping on the couch? Children need to be informed about things that will affect their life.

If you do tell your children it’s very important to avoid allowing your children to take on the role of parent, confident or counselor. Children, especially teenagers, will often try to take on this role. Don’t let them. This burden is not theirs to carry. You are still the parent. You need to be there for them and to reassure them and provide for their emotional needs, not the other way around. Don’t let your roles be reversed. This robs them of their right to be a child, even a teenage child. Make sure you are getting the emotional support you need from good friends or a counselor you trust, so that you are not tempted to lean on your children emotionally.

©Copyright 2008 Anne and Brian Bercht. All rights reserved.