Infidelity among one’s parents can have profoundly negative impacts on a person as they develop into an adult. It can impact how a person approaches commitment and close relationships, and how they can trust others. We’ll discuss some of the ways this can impact a person and how to deal if ever in a situation where it’s discovered that a parent is being unfaithful in their partnership.
Infidelity can damage the entire family, not just the marriage or relationship between two adults.
After infidelity between your parents occurs, it’s important to focus on processing your feelings and emotions with a trusted friend and/or therapist.
Infidelity between parents can feel like a betrayal to the entire family, but with time, open and honest conversations, and strong boundaries, you can rebuild the bonds that are broken if you decide that’s the path that you want to take.
According to a research study conducted at Adelphi University, 23% of undergraduate students were aware of parental infidelity. This is something that can contribute to adult-child estrangement. A child or betrayed parent typically discovers the infidelity. While it’s natural to feel betrayed and to want to side with the betrayed parent, it’s not healthy or beneficial for the betrayed parent to tell their children about the infidelity, as it’s typically done with the intent to turn the children against the unfaithful parent.
When discovering that a parent has betrayed their significant other, it can also feel like they betrayed the entire family. This can cause those who are betrayed to seek punishment toward the unfaithful party by withholding love and distancing themselves.
What is infidelity?
When thinking of infidelity, we often associate this with being physically intimate with someone outside the relationship and without permission. However, infidelity doesn’t have to be physical. It can be emotional as well. Even the desire to be physically intimate outside a relationship with another person could be considered infidelity. It happens in the mind before it’s expressed physically most of the time.
Leading causes of infidelity
There are a variety of reasons why people cheat. These are typically unique to each individual. However, common causes of infidelity can be attributed to a lack of intimacy or satisfaction in one's current relationship, not having enough time with a partner, and spending long hours either at work or in the community with someone who is attractive while lacking boundaries.
Other causes of infidelity could be having parents who were unfaithful or divorced, being shaken by something traumatic such as one's partner getting sick with a life-threatening disease, or a mental health condition.
Additionally, sex addictions can lead to infidelity. The causes of this widespread behavior can be explored on a more individual level with a therapist. Sometimes people cheat simply because they think they will get away with it, sadly.
Consequences of cheating
There are both short-term and long-term consequences associated with infidelity for both the betrayed parent and their kids. In the short term, a partner may feel sad, angry, and betrayed. It is also a trust breaker — it takes a long time to rebuild. A person who has been cheated on may develop negative thought patterns about themselves, and it can have a negative impact on their self-esteem long-term.
It can also cause a person to have a difficult time trusting other people if they end the relationship and start another one. As a result, they may punish their future partners for the mistakes of those in their past.
It may also cause a person to engage in infidelity as a response to even the score. If one's feelings are not properly processed after this occurs, it can lead to greater issues down the line, such as anxiety and depression, paranoia, the fear of being cheated on again, and of becoming emotionally vulnerable.
Infidelity & negative effects on kids
When a parent cheats, it impacts the entire family negatively. It can cause children to feel abandoned by their parent’s mistress, and these feelings may intensify long-term if a divorce or separation follows the unveiling of the deceit. It can also trigger people-pleasing behavior and mistrust in others that causes the children to feel as though they have to work hard toward winning the affection of the unfaithful parent and as if they can no longer trust anyone. Kids can sometimes blame themselves when they discover that their parents are separating or having marriage problems, and this simply is not the case. The best way to handle this situation as a parent is to put the kids first, above all else, and refrain from making them take sides or become your therapist. Allow them to be kids, and try your best to keep them out of it.
What if you catch your parent cheating?
Catching a parent cheating on your other parent or stepparent can be a very tricky situation to be in. On the one hand, you may feel like you owe your other parent the truth and may feel compelled to tell them. However, on the other hand, you may not want to upset the betrayed parent and may feel responsible for any pain or separation that follows in delivering this news. In addition, knowing this truth can cause a person to question everything.
The best thing you can do if you catch a parent cheating is to sit down and talk with a trusted friend or therapist. It’s important for you to process all that you are feeling in this difficult moment and evaluate your options with someone with experience with these types of situations. Speaking with a marriage and family therapist is a good option when you catch a parent cheating. You may also talk with a school counselor. This is essential for processing your feelings and beginning to heal. It may also help to write in a journal.
Try to keep an open mind
All marriages are different, and all people have different rules and norms for their relationships. This is especially true today. Some marriages allow one another to have extramarital affairs, while others seek monogamy. It may also be helpful to learn about the things that often cause a parent to cheat. This can oftentimes be the product of feeling neglected in the marriage or another issue beyond the pure act of having a romantic relationship with another person outside the family.
Take a stance on the issue
Decide where you stand on the infidelity and if or how you plan on telling your parents, but refrain from snooping through your parent’s phone or credit card statements to find proof. You may want to have a separate conversation with your parent if you do not believe your betrayed parent is aware of the infidelity. However, you may be surprised, as it can be common for the other party to know about it and choose to keep the family together anyway. Other times, it may be in your family's best interest to let the unfaithful parent break the news to their significant other.
Be open and honest about your feelings
Express your honest feelings to your parent who has been unfaithful and decide if you’d like to forgive them and rebuild your relationship. Regardless of what you decide, that’s your decision and no one else’s, but once you do, refrain from bringing it up to your parent to use as ammunition when you are upset or in an argument. It’s best for you to move forward and forgive, but only you can wholeheartedly make that decision.
After infidelity, the bonds between your parents, and between you and the parent who cheated, will have to be rebuilt if they are going to survive. This means starting over and metaphorically wiping the slate clean. It may help to visit a marriage and family therapist as a family, or with the parent who cheated during this time. It’s also important to set boundaries with your parents, stating that you do not wish to be in the middle of their conflict and refuse to take sides. Likewise, it’s unfair for them to ask this of you or to put you in the middle of their marriage issues.
Suggest family and couples therapy
While no single person can force another into therapy, it's always a good idea to suggest therapy for not only your parents but for the entire family as well after infidelity happens. Attending family therapy is beneficial for the children and their relationship with their parents. Furthermore, couples therapy can help parents explore their feelings and options moving forward should they decide to rebuild and repair their relationship to stay together, or if they choose to divorce.
A marriage and family therapist allows parents to discuss these options in a safe space and help them move forward in the healthiest ways possible. There are a variety of therapeutic methods that may be used, some are more helpful with repairing bonds after infidelity than others. Each therapist is likely to have a preferred method or methods they specialize in. It's important to discuss this and your options with your therapist. Since the most healing aspect of therapy is the bond between the therapist and clients, it is okay to shop around for therapists until you find one that is the best fit for you and your family. You may even choose to visit one therapist for family therapy and another for couples therapy. Do what feels best for your family, and stay committed and consistent in attending.
It's never easy when you know that a parent is cheating. The most important thing that you can do for yourself in this situation is to focus on yourself, process your feelings, take a stand on your thoughts surrounding the issue, set boundaries, and rebuild bonds. Cheating can destroy a marriage and family, but with some work, you can begin to repair and rebuild a new relationship with your unfaithful parent in a healthy way that works best for you.
- American Psychological Association. The dynamics of infidelity: Applying relationship science to psychotherapy practice.
- Contemporary Family Therapy. A Family Affair: Examining the Impact of Parental Infidelity on Children Using a Structural Family Therapy Framework.
- Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. Communication and Parental Infidelity: A Qualitative Analysis of How Adult Children Cope in a Topic-Avoidant Environment.