Heartbreak

Why Your Kids Should Know Cheating Ended Your Marriage — And How To Tell Them

Photo: fizkez / shutterstock.com 
grade-school aged girl watches her dad, whose head is to the camera

The question was blunt: Should he tell his child why he was divorcing their cheating mom?

I replied "yes" without hesitation.

Why would I say yes to that question so readily?

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Why do you need to tell your kids that your marriage ended because of infidelity?

So that you don't victimize them. So that they don't have to grieve twice. So that you model open and honest communication as highly important, even when it's hurtful.

You may believe it's just too difficult to say something that may cause pain for your kids. However, when a family is dissolving, they are already hurting and searching for answers.

Why do kids ask why? Simply, the answers help them make sense of the world. 

Curiosity fosters understanding, reduces uncertainty, and increases confidence and security.

The truth will help them grieve and move toward healthy acceptance quicker. 

Although your instinct may be to protect them from the why in the case of infidelity, and while your instinct to protect them is admirable, the outcome may be unintentionally devastating.

Children may learn the truth at a later date or from another party and be forced to deal with the fact that you lied to them. And, let's call that what it is: confusing.

It sends a message that it was OK for you to be dishonest, but not your spouse. Your child holds you both to the same standard — and you've now betrayed your child's trust, too. 

Broken trust is challenging and, sometimes, impossible to repair.

This doesn't mean they're entitled to know the details. Trust me, they don't want to know about their parents' sex lives. They do, however, want to be seen and heard as a valuable member of the family that is being restructured.

Sharing the truth of the reason for the uninvited change removes any question they may ponder that leads to self-blame.

RELATED: What Having A Cheating Father Taught Me About Men

Now that you know why you need to tell your kids the reason for your divorce, here are 5 ideas to help you break the news.

1. Invite the other parent to participate. 

Well, that's what many experts would say. I say that's an individual choice and is only advised if you can cooperate in the best interest of the children.

This conversation is about being transparent with the children at a time when there has been deception in the marriage. Let's face it, most likely, there isn't a lot of cooperation happening at this point.

However, if you can get on the same page, do. If not, recognize you have a relationship with your children independent from your spouse, and they have one separate from you.

Do advise the other parent of what you share and how the child responds so they can then prepare, ideally using the same rules listed below to support the kids in their solo conversation.

2. Prepare your head. 

Ideally, have a coaching or therapy session to help you process your own emotions, clear any self-interest, and be armed with the age-appropriate language and definitions to convey the truth in the most compassionate way for all.

It's not about condemning or punishing the other parent, so set hostility aside. The goal is about being honest with your kids and what that teaches them. It's about the cheating spouse's choice and that the choice has consequences.

Be prepared to explain why this choice hurt you and changes how you will live and interact with one another.

You will need to be very clear that it does not alter the fact that both parents love the children, and the children will continue to love both parents. 

3. Prepare your heart.

Despite mental preparation, talking about the reason for divorce with your kids could trigger your emotions. That's normal, and it's OK for your children to see that you're sad or even mad.

It's healthy for them to know you feel because they will feel things, too. It's what you do because of your emotions that sends a loud and clear message to them about how to handle conflict and negative experiences.

Just know that part of being honest is to share with them how you feel.

If triggered, focus the conversation on the feeling you're experiencing from the marital boundary being crossed, losing trust, or that you're all going through this difficult time — not on their parent. 

4. Take responsibility for your part in the breakdown of the marriage. 

Infidelity is a symptom of a deeper issue. Reflect and find your role in the demise of the marriage.

This doesn't mean you're responsible or that you should take the blame for your spouse's choices. It just means to take ownership in the partnership for both what worked and what did not.

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However, showing your kids that you are willing to take responsibility for yourself in the relationship teaches them to do the same when faced with something difficult in their futures.

Assure them you will also take responsibility for your healing and forgiveness. 

5. Validate their feelings.

Recognize the emotions coming up for your children and validate them, whether theirs are the same or different from yours. It's common for them also to feel betrayed, lied to, and cheated on.

Don't minimize their feelings and make the experience about you. They could also be worried about the cheating parent and what led them to make such a choice.

Don't discount their concern. It's a great time to show them that you're someone they can talk to about all the complexities of their feelings, including their fears and worries.

Reassure them of your love and support and that although it's a painful time for the whole family, everyone and everything will be OK. 

It's not easy to take the high road when you have been betrayed.

Betrayal is one of the most hurtful human experiences. Let that motivate you to value honesty in all your relationships.

Had your spouse let you know that they were vulnerable somehow, maybe they would not have been tempted to cheat. A different, if difficult, conversation might have produced a different outcome. 

Should this be your experience, using these rules for talking to your kids about a parent's infidelity will help you create a deeper bond and a smoother transition for all those involved.

After all, the relationships are not ending, they're being redefined. Defining your relationship with your children in a foundation of honesty will lead to a lifetime of trust. 

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Ann Papayoti, PCC, is an author, speaker, educator, and coach helping people untangle from their past, heal their hearts, and unlock their best life. To learn more about how she can help you, connect with her on her at SkyView Coaching or pick up her co-authored intimate self-help book, The Gift of Shift

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