The Lessons Children Learn
by Jennifer Harley Chalmers, Ph.D.
When a parent has an affair what lessons are being taught to the children? What rules of life are being learned?
Julie was a happy-go-lucky eight-year old. She was at the top of her 3rd grade class, loved playing with her friends, riding her bike, and drawing. Her parents loved her and she loved them.
One day after school mom introduced Julie to two girls who were close to Julie's age. Mom said that she was taking care of them for a friend named Josh. Julie enjoyed playing with the girls and looked forward to them coming again.
In fact they would come over quite often with their dad. But it was only when Julie's dad was out of town. Sometimes Josh stayed late -- long after Julie had gone to sleep.
One day dad came home from his trip. As he was hugging Julie he asked, "How is my princess? What did you do while I was away?" Julie started telling him about the new puppy that "Uncle Josh" brought to the house. Dad knew that mom had been helping someone with child care, but when he heard it was "Uncle Josh" he became a little suspicious.
"How often do you see Uncle Josh?" he asked. With a smile Julie said, "Oh, he comes over every day to help mom when you're gone." Mom looked at Julie with a stern face. But Julie didn't understand why she was becoming upset. Her dad started asking her mom questions and their voices became louder and louder. Julie was sent to her room.
As Julie listened outside, her door she heard her mom say, "Josh is just a friend. Aren't I allowed to have friends. Why do you have to be so jealous? Don't you trust me?" Julie finally heard her mom say that she would never see Josh again if that's what her dad really wanted.
After a couple days, mom and dad started talking to each other and mom and dad seemed happy again. They all returned to their routine of life and Julie started to forget about that horrible night.
But the next time dad went on a trip, mom did not keep her promise. She told Julie that the babysitter will be taking care of her that night. But mom wouldn't tell Julie where she was going. As mom left the house she saw Josh help mom into his car. "Why is mom seeing Josh when she promised never to see him again?" Julie asked herself.
When dad returned, mom lied to him. When he asked her if she had seen Josh while he was gone she said, "No." But dad pursued the subject and continued to ask her what she did. Finally she said, "I can't take this invasion of privacy" and that her life was "none of his business." She got up, started to pack her suitcase and gave Julie a kiss with the promise to see her tomorrow. She left that night leaving Julie feeling abandoned by her mother.
Julie didn't understand what had happened. She thought it was her fault -- maybe she had done something to make mom leave and cause this terrible punishment. She cried inconsolably. Dad tried to soothe Julie but nothing helped. She cried herself to sleep.
The next morning Julie went to school but did not say a word. Her teacher asked what was wrong, but Julie wouldn't respond. Her eyes just filled with tears.
When Julie saw her mom she cried and pleaded for her to come home. Julie promised to clean her room every day and wash and dry the dishes. But nothing worked. Mom didn't come home.
After a month mom changed her mind. Julie was so excited when she heard the good news. But her happiness turned to despair when she was told that her mom had forced her dad to move away so she could come home.
Julie had come to trust and depend on her dad in the last month and appreciated him more than she ever had in the past. Now she was about to lose a parent she loved and trusted all over again.
These experiences were only the beginning for Julie. In the months to come mom and dad would unknowingly teach Julie more lessons about life.
Children learn from their parents. In fact parents are the most influential guides in a child's life. Many will see their mannerisms and phrases being used by their child. But parents are more than models for mannerisms and phrases. They are models for crucial aspects of life: a work ethic, intimate relationships, friendships, domestic skills, communication, and problem-solving skills. Lessons about life are being taught when a parent has an affair -- lessons that they usually don't want their child to learn.
The first lesson a child learns is,
- How to deal with emotional pain.
Children whose parents are experiencing marital conflict feel many emotions -- guilt, confusion, loneliness, sadness, fear, worry, abandonment, and many other excruciating feelings. When a child is losing the security base of a strong marriage they are bombarded with pain.
So how is a child supposed to soothe their pain and the feeling of helplessness? And how does a child gain control in an uncontrollable situation? Out of the need to defend against these uncomfortable feelings comes a new rule about life --
If a problem arises it is better to deny that there is a problem than to face it and feel the pain.
Julie came to believe this rule. She would think,
"This is how married people lived. Nothing was wrong about this situation. There really isn't a problem here. Just look the other way."
A child can defend themselves from the bombardment of emotional pain through the defenses of denial and justification.
But this new rule did not help teach Julie how to solve crucial problems that would face her later in life. Instead of facing and solving those problems, she would deny their very existence and look the other way as it would grow and eventually overwhelm her.
Julie was also being taught a second lesson,
- How to lie.
In order to maintain a secret second life, wayward spouses need to keep up the deceit. After Julie started living with her mom, she was asked not to talk to dad about Josh. She was further instructed to tell dad that she hadn't seen him. Mom explained that it is better that dad just doesn't know "because we don't want to make him upset." Julie remembered how upset dad was when he found out about Josh. She didn't want him to get angry at mom. So with this newly learned habit of lying for mom, came a second rule about life --
Lying is allowed if it spares another from pain or spares yourself from punishment.
Another rule from this lesson on deceit is that
Lying is allowed when it protects your privacy. Everyone has a right to privacy in their life, even if it involves hurting people behind their back.
Julie was told over and over that it was not dad's business to know what mom does. This was meant to justify the fact that mom was lying to dad. Although Julie's mom was a very honest and open person before the affair, mom became quite an expert at deceit and privacy. Julie was watching her model every step of the way.
A third crucial lesson is,
How to be thoughtless -- doing what you please regardless of how it affects other people.
Julie would learn how to take advantage of her friends and family when there was something in it for her. She would learn how to disregard others' suffering because she had a right to enjoy life to the fullest. All wayward spouses hurt the people they care about the most. Wayward spouses rationalize that they had to look out for themselves which is why they developed the relationship outside of their marriage in the first place. Their actions seem to benefit themselves in the short term, but it has disastrous effects on members of their family.
Marital discord is hard enough on children. It undermines the basic security needed for them to learn and grow. But to add infidelity to a troubled marriage turns a problem into a disaster. Parents who have an affair are teaching their children very important rules that are likely to be followed for the rest of their lives. It ultimately not only undermines their marital relationships but it also seriously hurts their own chances for success in most other areas of life.
Parents have a responsibility to teach their children the importance of honesty and the importance of thoughtfulness -- considering other people's feeling when decisions are being made. To do otherwise is not only terribly irresponsible, but may tend to perpetuate the learning of these rules of deceit and thoughtlessness for generations to come.
But even after the mistake of an affair, it is possible to make a conscious choice to change the disastrous consequences. I have counseled many parents who could see what they were teaching their children by having an affair. It motivated them to end the affair and explain to their children how wrong they had been. Although it was extremely difficult and very humbling, they were not only able to save their marriage, but also able to correct the lessons they had taught their children.
They followed a step-by-step guide that is now available in the book I wrote with Dr. Harley, "Surviving an Affair" (Harley/Chalmers, Revell, 1998). They first took extraordinary precautions to separate from their lover. Then, with their spouse, they followed the Four Rules that Guide Marital Recovery. As they followed this plan and modeled new behaviors they started to teach new lessons:
- How to solve conflict through negotiation;
- How to be open and honest about every part of life;
- How to protect their spouse from their own thoughtless behaviors; and
- How to be an expert at caring for their spouse.
A person involved in an affair, whether is it secret or not, must take a hard look at the messages they are sending their children. Are they s eeing mom and dad living secret lives where privacy and lying are the norm, making choices that are thoughtless to their spouse, and accepting infidelity because it looks out for #1? Or are they seeing mom and dad spending time to love and care for each other, protecting each other from painful behaviors, being honest, working out conflicts together, and modeling faithfulness because it protects loved ones?
What lessons are you teaching your children? Are you protecting your marriage from infidelity? Are you making sure that your children will not learn the unwanted lessons of denial, deceit, and disregard for others?
Children can learn unwanted lessons from an unfaithful parent. But these lessons can be changed. A wayward spouse can decide to model new behaviors and teach new lessons. Think about it -- it could be the greatest gift you will ever give to your children.
Dr. Chalmers is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the co-author of "Surviving an Affair" (Harley/Chalmers, Revell, 1998).