- Talal Alsaleem is a marriage counselor who specializes in infidelity counseling.
- Children are affected by their parents’ infidelity, in both the short term and the long term.
- This is Alseleem’s story, as told to Lauren Crosby.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Talal Alsaleem. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I started practicing as a young clinician, I soon realized that the population I’m passionate about working with is couples. Couples are complicated to help as a therapist because you’re dealing with two individuals with vastly different experiences and, sometimes, opposing agendas.
As I sat down with couples, I found out most of them were coming to see me because they were in crisis. Roughly 50% of people on my caseload were dealing with the aftermath of current or past infidelity, and in 2014 it led me to set up a practice exclusively working with these couples.
There is a myriad of reasons infidelity might occur in a relationship, but they can be separated into three categories: environmental, relational, and individual factors. The fallout from affairs can be cosmic between the two people in the relationship. They may feel as if they are in the middle of a tornado they don’t know how to get out of, with intense emotion, a great sense of despair, and confusion about how to proceed.
Within this tornado, the people often forgotten are the invisible victims of affairs: children.
Even though there is very little research done about the impact on children, I have observed in my clinical practice a series of long- and short-term effects infidelity has on children.
When the betrayed partner discovers their partner has been unfaithful, it is likely to be uncomfortable in the house. People are sad, angry, and scared. Every part of life is affected by the discovery, including their ability to parent, because of the emotional intensity hovering in the house.
Children often may have poor grooming and hygiene because parents aren’t paying attention. They could miss school and sports and appear exhausted from long nights of parental arguments. Teachers sometimes see children acting out at school to get any kind of attention, even if it’s negative.
As children are exposed to emotional distress, they will respond with similar distress, often feeling depressed, sad, tearful, or irritable. They don’t know what is going on in their house, and their cognitive and emotional bandwidth is really preoccupied with what is going on with their parents.
Their worry about the outcome may present itself as a change in appetite, too little or too much sleep, and lack of ability to concentrate.
The most detrimental short-term impacts on a child are parentification and triangulations. Parentification is when children take on adult responsibilities because their parents are preoccupied with the discovery. Triangulation is when the child gets stuck in the middle between two parents at war with each other. The child becomes a pawn to be played for each parent, becoming entangled in the mess and pain of their parents. Both are huge responsibilities for kids to carry, especially considering they are already dealing with so much in their own development and life experiences.
When children have found out about one parent being unfaithful to the other, there is a potential that their own sexual development will be called into question. Questions about what sex means for them and their own identity are often asked in later years after the event has long since happened.
I’ve also seen that children who grew up in a home with infidelity may be more likely to bring that infidelity into their future relationships. They could be less likely to trust others, doubting a partner even if they have shown no proof of having cheated.
Or they go on to be unfaithful themselves, not having had a high value placed on fidelity growing up. It becomes part of their cultural norm.
How parents can protect their children
If there has been infidelity in a relationship children are involved in, the best thing parents can do to protect their children is to minimize discovery to other people. Even though parents may want to tell their close friends and family, I advise it to be kept to themselves and professional people hired to help.
This includes telling children. Even though there is no way to hide the emotional impact the affair has had, children do not need to know the details of what has happened. Parents should simply explain to children they are dealing with some issues and doing everything possible to fix them.
Most importantly, kids should be assured that they are not at fault for any friction in the house.
In the recovery process, I highly suggest in addition to specialized infidelity-recovery couples therapy, parents engage in family therapy to include children. There is potentially a lot of damage, and children need a place to safely explore the impact an affair may have had on them.