In the first of my series of articles titled "Lessons I Learned from My Parents," I discussed six of the lessons my parents taught me in a very painful and destructive manner. This portion of my series will be limited to the lessons children learn from their parents' extramarital affairs. As a person who happens to have been an older minor child and later dependent adult child of divorce, I must express the fact that in our society, we don't take many important things into consideration with regard to the "best interest of child" standard.
As I mentioned previously, my parents' marriage was miserable from the outset, even though they remained married for over 20 years for the "sake of the children." While I realize that my parents were unhappy in their marriage, they decided to remain married under some artificial time frame, rather than divorce. When one or both spouses make such a decision, does that somehow justify either or both of them having extramarital affairs? If the spouse having the affair does consider it somehow justifiable, in whose opinion? When minor children are involved, does anyone actually consider the impact such an affair has on them?
As I mentioned in my prior article, I had the pleasure of reading a book titled "Broken Circle -- Children of Divorce and Separation," Photography by Karen Klein and Commentary by Broken Circle participants. "The Broken Circle project gives voice to young adults talking about how their parents' divorce or separation impacted their lives then and now." A parent's extramarital affair was mentioned by five of those now young adults. It is important to consider the words used by those children to describe their feelings and the impact the affair had on them. They used the following words and phrases: "lying," "deceit," "hard time forgiving," "dishonest," "hurt," "betrayed," "heartbroken," "I've forgiven, but I'll never forget," "heartbreaking," "lack of respect," "cheating," and each of those children expressed how this caused them to be distrusting of everyone in their life from that point forward. One of the children, Emily, said, "The day I found out my father was lying to me, the day he told me what he had done to my mother, all the nights he came home late, the nights he didn't come home at all because he was sleeping with her -- something inside of me shut off." Annah said, "Due to this, my relationships have always had a constant presence of anxiety, stress, and lack of trust." Hanna expressed it as follows: "Finding out about the affair changed everything. I didn't speak to my dad for many months, and to this day I have not yet fully reestablished that relationship. Unfortunately, my dad didn't realize that he was cheating on my sisters and me too. I have never felt more betrayed in my life. My dad's actions have made me a much more cautious person, and I have a harder time fully trusting men in my life." Finally, Samantha said, "My father was cheating on my mother. It's made the relationship with my father miserable. I want, for many reasons, to forgive him but I just can't find it within myself to do so.... I always think if my father could be with my mother, the woman he called his soul mate, and cheat on her, that is enough for me to believe that anyone I will ever be with can and will do the same thing to me."
In my parents' case, our father had numerous affairs, many of which were with the single mothers of my sibling's friends and with our mother's friends. In the beginning, he would end the affair with any one of these women after our mother learned about it and expressed to him her humiliation and embarrassment. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before he moved on to the next woman. If the above-mentioned quotes convey the typical impact an affair can have on minor children of the marriage, imagine how much worse it is when the affair is with your friend's single mother or with one of your mother's oldest and closest friends. I can certainly tell you that I experienced very strong feelings, similar to those mentioned by the other similarly situated children. How do you think that the knowledge of an affair will impact a person's spouse? How likely is it that the children would be sheltered from such information? In our case, we most certainly were not sheltered from it. In fact, the day after the ink was dry on their divorce decree, our father married my mother's childhood friend. My goodness, our respective families used to take trips together. How do you think that played out with regard to the destructive nature of our parents' divorce and their inability to co-parent thereafter? How might our father's choices have impacted our future relationship with him, or lack thereof? I know one thing for certain -- it was only a matter of time before none of us had any further contact with our father. As will be addressed in future articles in this series, while the end of our relationship with our father may not have been directly related to the affair, it was most definitely related to his inability to realize how his actions or inactions impacted his children and his need to destroy our mother at any cost, including the welfare of his own children.
The following quote from Sarah, another now adult child whose story is set forth in "Broken Circle," truly resonated with me regarding my reaction to my father's inability to comprehend that he had done anything inappropriate and the consequences of his actions: "My father constantly accused my mother of putting false ideas about him into my head. The truth is, she never spoke ill of him. She wanted me to have a chance to make up my own mind about him, and at every turn, I saw the awful truth she never shared with me. I was forced into adulthood at a young age and made several attempts to have any relationship with my father. I called it quits at age twelve. My spirit became lighter once I let him go. I realized that I couldn't make him be the father I needed him to be."
Knowing how minor children may feel when one of their parents cheats on the other, shouldn't such things be taken into consideration when parents, their professionals, or judges design parenting plans? Is ignoring a child's feelings about an affair and other such things in the child's best interest? Depending upon the age of the child, should the parent who had the affair, discuss the matter with the child in the most appropriate fashion, or simply ignore it? Does ignoring the elephant in the room increase the likelihood that the other parent can successfully poison the child against the parent who had the affair? Which option leaves the parent who had the affair most vulnerable?
There is something to be said for being authentic. Isn't a parent more vulnerable, when they leave their fate in the hands of the parent on whom they cheated and/or in the mind of a child who is experiencing feelings of betrayal and the like? Assuming that the other parent has not been intentionally or unintentionally alienating the child against the parent who had the affair, might it be best to address these issues before forcing a child to spend time with that parent?
I am by no means suggesting that a parent who had an affair should not be able to spend time with their children. However, I am suggesting that we begin to look at things from the child's perspective. We really shouldn't ignore such important factors when making decisions for ourselves or for others, including our children. By the way, when a parent manages to systematically alienate themselves from their child(ren), as our father did, nothing can be done to solve the problem. After all, pointing fingers and attributing blame and fault to anyone other than yourself has never been known to solve anything. Once people have children, maybe they should place the needs of their children ahead of their own. This is the seventh lesson I learned from my parents and hopefully others can learn from their mistakes.