We’re now on the other side of that painful time, and our marriage is stronger and happier than ever. However, our kids don’t know about the infidelity. I want to protect my wife and preserve the children’s good opinion of her — but I also don’t want them to find out from someone else.
There probably isn’t one right answer to your question. But that’s only because a lot of factors are involved, including the ages of your kids, their personalities, family dynamics, the quality of parent-child relationships in your home — and your motives.
Whatever the ages of your children, we realize that your goal is to bring something positive out of the pain you and your wife have experienced. You want to strengthen family relationships and glorify God. With that in mind, 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.
Since we don’t know how old your kids are, we’ll speak to the needs of three different age groups (school-age, teens, and adult sons and daughters) because maturity is an important piece of the puzzle.
Should you tell young kids about a parent’s past affair?
If your kids are young — toddlers through elementary school — there probably isn’t much to gain by mentioning the affair right now. Still, you’re right that the older they get, the more likely they are to hear the story from someone else. So someday, possibly when they’re transitioning into adolescence, you’ll want to sit down and discuss it with them. In the meantime, just be prepared to give straight and simple answers to honest questions.
Children are often far more perceptive than adults realize. Depending on what happened and how long ago it took place, you may want to ask the kids if they’ve been aware of any tension between you and your wife. 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 so have a greater need for rational explanations. But with younger kids, the less said the better.
Should you tell teens about a parent’s past affair?
It’s a different story with teenagers. For them, up-front honesty is the best policy because family secrets easily become big family problems. (This doesn’t mean that you should tell all the details. An affair is an affair; the only thing your kids really need to understand is that an affair did happen.) 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.
Pay attention to timing
Don’t bring up a sensitive subject like this when there’s already conflict in the air or when people are tired or moody. Instead, if it seems appropriate, make the disclosure within the context of a formal family meeting. You don’t have to get unnecessarily heavy or dramatic. But this conversation will show your teens that you take the situation seriously.
Turn it 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. You can also illustrate for them that whatever happens in life, forgiveness and restoration are always possible.
Talk to them about ownership, responsibility, decision-making, and the ripple effect of unwise choices. Help them apply these principles to their own lives. For example, 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. Teenagers can relate to that.
Remember that teens’ emotions can be all over the map
If you have a good relationship with your children, humble candor can become a bridge to even deeper love and mutual understanding. And even if the relationship is strained, your openness could help melt the ice and break down the barriers.
But there’s always a possibility it might have a different effect. Your teens are likely to be hurt and disappointed by your announcement; in certain personality types, their emotions easily turn into anger and hostility. If this happens, they might react by blaming 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 OK 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.)
Should you tell adult children about a parent’s past affair?
In the case of an adult son or daughter, it’s equally important to make a full confession. Both parents should sit down with children 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.
Where to find more help
If you’d like to talk more about your specific situation, call us for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our licensed or pastoral counselors would welcome the chance to hear your story and help you take further steps toward healing. They can also suggest referrals to ongoing support from qualified counselors and Christian therapists in your area.
In addition, we want to mention Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored retreat intensives. These three-day, four-day, or five-day retreats are one of the primary ways we minister to couples who are in crisis — or who may be past the immediate struggle but need guidance to make lasting change and growth. All our intensives are led by highly trained professional counselors. Learn more at HopeRestored.com, or call the Hope Restored staff at 866-875-2915.
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.