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To Tell or Not to Tell: How to Take the High Road with Your Kids When Your Ex Had an Affair

When it comes to your kids, taking the high road requires putting their best interests first. But in this situation, it can be hard to tell what that means, exactly. Blind curves and poor signage make it difficult to tell one road from the next.
09/15/2014 12:38pm ET | Updated November 15, 2014
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"My husband had an affair and now we're getting a divorce. Should I tell my kids about the affair?"

This is a question that many people face -- and figuring out the answer can be as tricky as it is no fun. Your divorce and the reasons for it are your business, of course, and that means this is your story to tell. But just because you can, doesn't mean you should -- especially when it comes to your kids. Because you know what trumps your ownership of the story? Your kids' emotional well-being.

People always talk about wanting to take the high road when it comes to divorce -- especially in situations involving their kids. When it comes to your kids, taking the high road requires putting their best interests first. But in this situation, it can be hard to tell what that means, exactly. Blind curves and poor signage make it difficult to tell one road from the next. Which road is the high road? And how many different roads are there, anyway? Turns out there are a lot.

There's Context Cove, for example: That's the road you've veered off of when you tell your kids that the reason for your divorce is their dad's affair, but you fail to mention that the two of you drifted apart as a result of the emotional affair that you got mixed up in four years ago when you reconnected with your high school sweetheart on Facebook. By not putting his affair in context, you've painted a lopsided picture, and that lopsided picture unfairly interferes with their relationship with their dad.

And look out for Self-deception Drive: That's what you're barreling down when you deceive yourself into thinking that you're telling your kids about their dad's affair for their sake, but in reality you're telling them because you want them to take your side. You think that if they know that their dad cheated on you, they'll like you more and him less.

The best way to avoid making a wrong turn is to ask yourself why you want to tell your kids about the affair. If you want to tell them to boost your popularity, undercut your ex's, or otherwise secure your position with the kids, you're taking your kids down a dead-end road.

Then there's Martyr Avenue: Many people mistake this road for the High Road, but they lead to very different places. Martyr Avenue is what you're on when you sacrifice your own relationship with your kids for the sake of their relationship with their dad. This happens when you decide to withhold information that your kids need to make sense of the divorce that's wreaking havoc on their lives.

You might actually believe that you are protecting your kids by not telling them about the affair. But when kids who are struggling with their parents' divorce don't get any answers (or get only vague answers), it can be hard for them to accept the divorce and move forward. Your kids end up assuming that your refusal to give them a solid reason for the divorce means you don't actually have one.

That can either give them false hope that you'll "come to your senses" and get back together, or it can make them really angry with you for going through with a divorce for no good reason. It can even result in them mistakenly assuming that their dad is also the victim of your capricious and cavalier change of heart.

The goal is for your kids to be able to accept the divorce and continue to have a good relationship with both of their parents. If your kids are not searching for an explanation for why you're getting a divorce, and they're not angry with you or blaming you for it, there's no reason to tell them about the affair. If that's your situation, not telling your kids about the affair constitutes taking the high road. If, however, your kids are searching for answers, taking the high road requires explaining the reason for the divorce, because the explanation is the key to enabling them to come to terms with it.

But even if you do need to tell them about the affair, you don't need to give them all of the tawdry details. It's best to simply say something like, "Your dad had an affair, and that was against the rules that we agreed to in our marriage. That caused me to lose trust in him as my husband, and trust is a necessary ingredient in a marriage. I can't be married to someone I can't trust. He will always be your father, though. What happened between your dad and me does not change that. You will always have two parents who love you very much."

Don't go into how their dad and the new sales rep half his age were caught conducting a glue stick inventory in the supply closet. No kid wants to hear a story that involves their dad and his glue stick. Save those details for when you're having cocktails with your BFFs. (But make sure to schedule that not-so-happy hour for when the kids are at their dad's house, of course.)