Should we tell our children that their mother had an affair? We've traveled a rough road and are now on the other side of this painful episode. As a matter of fact, our marriage is stronger and happier than it's ever been. Our kids, however, know nothing about what's happened, and I'm concerned to protect my wife and preserve the children's good opinion of her. At the same time, I don't want them to find out about this from someone else. What should we do?
As you're aware, this is a complicated issue. There probably isn't one right answer to your question. A number of factors are involved, including the ages of your kids, their temperaments and personality types, family dynamics, the quality of the parent-child relationships in your home, and your motives. Since you didn't tell us how old your children are, and since their level of maturity is such an important piece of the puzzle, we'll try to tailor our response to speak to the needs of three different groups: school-age, teens, and adult children.
If your kids are young – toddlers through elementary school – there probably isn't much to be gained by mentioning the affair right now. You're absolutely right to presume that the older they get, the more likely they are to hear the story from someone else. For that reason alone you'll want to make sure that you sit down and discuss it with them someday, possibly when they're transitioning into adolescence. In the meantime, just be prepared to give straight and simple answers to honest, forthright questions.
Depending on exactly what happened and how long ago it took place, you may want to ask the kids if they've been aware of any tension on the parental front. Children are often far more perceptive than adults realize. If they do have a sense that something has been wrong, give them permission to voice their fears and misgivings. 9- to 11-year-olds have a greater capacity for critical thinking, and consequently a greater need for rational explanations. With littler kids, "the less said the better" is probably a good rule of thumb.
It's a different story with teenagers. Where they are concerned, up-front honesty is the best policy. Family secrets easily become big family problems. Naturally, this doesn't mean that you have to reveal all the lurid details. An affair is an affair, and all your kids really need to understand is that an affair has taken place. The unfaithful partner should be the one to make the confession, but it's important for both parents to stand together and present a united front.
Timing is also crucial. Avoid broaching a sensitive subject like this when there's conflict in the air or when people are tired or moody. If it seems appropriate, make the disclosure within the context of a "formal" family meeting. Without getting unnecessarily "heavy," show your teens that you take the situation seriously.
As far as possible, turn the occasion into a teachable moment. Now that your marriage has regained its footing, you're in a great position to share with your kids the steps you've taken to work toward a good resolution, and to illustrate for them that whatever happens in life, forgiveness and restoration are always possible. You can also talk to them about ownership, responsibility, decision-making, and the "ripple effect" of ill-advised choices. Help them apply these principles to their own experience. If your wife is emotionally up to it, it would be good for her to admit that this was a time in her life when she behaved selfishly, and that she deeply regrets her actions now. Teenagers can relate to that. They also appreciate honesty. If you have a good relationship with your children, humble candor can become a bridge to even deeper love and mutual understanding.
Even if the relationship is strained, your openness could help melt the ice and break down the barriers. But be forewarned: there's always a possibility that it might have a very different effect. Accordingly, we suggest you proceed with caution. Remember that your teens are likely to be hurt and disappointed by your announcement, and that in certain personality types these emotions are easily transformed into anger and hostility. If this happens, your kids may react by pointing the finger and casting blame on your wife. They could even turn their backs on both of you, give you the silent treatment, or withdraw into their own private worlds. In that event, let them know that it's okay to be angry as long as they make an effort to process their anger and move beyond it. If they need help with this, we strongly recommend that the entire family seek professional counseling together.
In the case of an adult child, it's equally important to make a full confession. Both parents should sit down with the child and explain the situation from beginning to end. Don't forget to include the part about reconciliation, the renewal of your love for one another, and the power of God's grace at work in your lives. Your testimony in this regard could be an important part of mentoring your grown child and preparing him or her for marriage and some of the other challenges of adult life. You may even be able to turn your story into a vehicle for ministering to other hurting couples.
Whatever the ages of your children, it's crucial to remember that the goal of your disclosure is to bring something positive out of the pain and anguish you've endured. If the motive were simply to criticize your wife or cast her in a negative light (we know it isn't), we'd advise you to stop and search your own heart before saying anything to the kids. But if your intention is to benefit the entire household by strengthening family relationships and bringing glory to God, who has so marvelously redeemed your marriage, we'd encourage you to move forward with confidence. We believe that the Lord will guide you and give you exactly the right words to say to your children if you seek His wisdom and entrust yourselves to His care.
We have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to discuss your situation with one of them, call us for a free consultation.