Infidelity is a complex issue for all parties involved. Those who have had an affair must decide whether to continue the outside relationship or end it entirely. The situation is similarly complex between married spouses. When infidelity is discovered, spouses must determine how they will move forward and if the marriage can survive. These situations are tough, and they are often eclipsed by an even greater concern: the children. It is not unusual for divorcing spouses to ask “when and how should we tell our children about the infidelity?” In this author’s opinion, the short answer is “never.” The intimate and private dealings of a child’s parents are, quite frankly, none of their children's’ business. Many children lack the maturity to even understand what infidelity means, let alone the intellectual and emotional framework within which to process that kind of information, especially regarding their own parents.
So, what we are really talking about here is “what is the best way to tell the children about the divorce?” That, of course, is not an easily answered question. With older children (teenagers) it can sometimes be as simple as sitting them down together, as a couple united in the best interest of their children and explain to them in an adult and civil manner that mom and dad have been experiencing trouble and issues in their relationship and have decided between themselves to do something about it, and that something is divorce. Many (most, probably) teenage children will already know there is trouble in paradise, and you may even find yourself on the business end of their question “what took you so long?” It has been said that children don’t want to live in a broken home; they want to come from a broken home.
In other words, kids suffer when their parent’s relationship has deteriorated to the point of divorce. There is stress and tension and anger and hostility, possibly even abuse in a home beset by divorce, and frankly, the children are not the cause of it nor are they the solution; they just wish it would stop, and very often divorce is the best, if not only way for it to stop. In many cases, you may find that your children are actually relieved to hear that the two of you are finally acting like adults and addressing the conflict and turmoil at home.
Of course, whatever conversation you have with your children to tell that you are divorcing must be age-appropriate. You can, for example, tell your 17-year-old daughter a lot more about the dynamics of the divorce and the plans to come than with a ten-year-old child; with young children, a conversation of that level of candor is simply inappropriate. Young children have relatively straightforward needs at that level of their development: they want to know they are loved and cared for. They want to know that there will be stability and predictability in the future. They want to know their parents will be ok. They need to know that it is not their fault (they will immediately think that it is, so be sure to address that point and put any such fears to rest). They don’t want to know (nor do they need to know) who the “bad guy” is, so don’t go down that road. These are your children; they are not your friends, they are not your support network, they are not your confidants, they are not your therapists; they are your children, and you must treat them as such.
No matter what parents tell their children, parents must offer reassurance that they love their children just as much as ever and the divorce is not their children’s fault. When handled correctly, parents can maintain a close and trusting relationship with their children, even after divorce.
If you want, you can enlist the aid of a child therapist or a custody expert in the mental health community to prepare you for an age-appropriate conversation, one that considers the needs of the children without the needs of the parents interfering. The conversation that you and your spouse have with your children to alert them to the divorce is probably the single most important conversation both of you will have in the context of your divorce, and it definitely has the most at stake: the well-being of your children. Approach it after much thought and careful consideration with your advisors, therapists, and yes, with your spouse. Present a united front to your children. Show them by your example that responsible and mature adults and parents can come together and put their personal differences aside for the benefit of your children. Children learn not from what we say, but rather by what we do, so do right by your children and prepare for and then compassionately deliver this news to them as a united parental front. You will be rewarded for this act of putting down your swords long enough to help your children for years and years to come. Your children are your legacy; how that legacy plays out is up to you.