Your Spouse Cheated; You’re Divorcing. What Do You Tell The Kids?

Talking to a child about divorce.

One of the toughest things about divorce is breaking the news to your kids. But what do you say when infidelity is the reason for your split?

The answer depends on three things:

1) the age of your children;

2) what they already suspect or know, and

3) your motivation for telling them.

Ideally, you and your spouse should rehearse what you’re going to say beforehand so you’re on the same page. But if your spouse is MIA, or there’s so much conflict that you can’t even be in the same room together, you’ll have to deliver the news solo. In either case, here are some guidelines:

Tailor The News To Your Children’s Age

If they are young (under 5) and aren’t aware of the marital transgression, there probably is no reason to tell them at this time. Little kids understand that Mommy and Daddy are supposed to be physical with each other, but they won’t grasp the complexity of going outside the marriage for sex. Instead, explain that you and their father had “grown-up problems” that you couldn’t fix, which have nothing to do with them. If your spouse will be presenting his affair partner as his new significant other, there still is no reason to reveal the infidelity. [Read more: Answering young children’s questions about divorce.]

Children approaching or already in adolescence know about sex and relationships (and with the proliferation of sexual images and porn on the Internet, probably more than you think they do!), and they understand that monogamy is usually a condition of marriage. Finding out about their father’s infidelity will be painful; if they don’t know about it, telling them may not be necessary now – unless they ask.

When Children Suspect Or Know About The Infidelity

If your kids overheard, or worse, saw evidence of infidelity, then you have to acknowledge the truth. Refusing to discuss it, or, worse, pretending that it didn’t happen will only make matters worse. They will begin to doubt their reality and get the message that denial is an acceptable coping mechanism. This sets them up to recreate the same dynamic in their own relationships: keeping secrets and/or colluding with unacceptable behavior.

As painful as this situation is, make it a teaching moment: you are showing them what it’s like to admit a problem and to act like an adult in the way you deal with it. Explain that there was an infidelity. If there was more than one, make it plural. Assure them that you did your best to work through the problem, but you couldn’t. As hard as it may be, try not to blame your spouse. And try to modulate any emotional charge in your voice or body language. If you fall apart or lash out, your kids will be scared and may feel that they need to take sides.

If your spouse has left the marriage for his affair partner, children may ask if he or she was the one he was having the affair with. Pretending she wasn’t will only end up as a betrayal. They will eventually find out and be angry with all of you for covering up the truth. So what do you say? Acknowledge the truth – that your spouse stepped out of the boundaries of your marriage when he began the affair – but do so without blame and palpable anger.

What’s Your Motivation?

You have every right to be hurt and furious with your spouse, but you don’t have a right to let your feelings bleed over onto the children. Before you say anything, be honest with yourself about your intention. Is telling them about their father’s infidelity necessary at this time? If they already know, or if they suspect and ask you, you need to tell them something.

But check your intention. You should tell them because you need to acknowledge their reality, not because you want revenge against your ex, or because you want emotional support from your kids. They don’t need to hear explicit details, and they shouldn’t feel triangulated into the conflict with you and your STBX. That will just set them up for dysfunctional relationships in the future.

Taking Care Of Yourself

Being cheated on is traumatic, and it will take time to heal. If you find yourself struggling to contain your emotions, or to function at work or home, it’s time to get help. See a mental health professional who specializes in treating betrayal trauma. This will give you the support you need, so you don’t treat your children like your therapist. Healing and empowering yourself will also help your kids work through the disruption caused by the infidelity, so they, like you, can move on with their lives.

How can you best smooth the divorce transition for your children? For assistance with child custody and child support issues, and all other matters related to divorce, our compassionate family law attorneys are here to help. Please call us at 888-888-0919 to schedule your initial consultation, or click the button below. 

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talking to kids about divorce