What to Do with a Child of an Affair
by Willard F. Harley, Jr.
I have spent most of my professional career studying human decision-making and its consequences. That’s because the choices we make in life have such a profound effect on our welfare and the welfare of others. Having diagnosed and been involved in the treatment of over 50,000 people, I’ve found that most mental health problems are a direct result of decisions that place people into predictably stressful and unpleasant situations. As a clinical psychologist, I have tried to help people change the way they make decisions so that they learn to make choices that maximize their benefit to themselves and others.
One of my earliest observations as a clinical psychologist was that those who are married are far less likely to have serious emotional disorders than those who are single. One might first guess that the reason for this difference is that those with serious emotional disorders are less likely to marry. But I’ve found that marriage itself can have a very positive effect on a person’s mental health. The reason, I believe, is that marriage is a very important opportunity to bring another person into the decision-making process. Instead of having only one perspective on life, a person as has another point of view to help make wiser choices – if they both respect each other’s perspectives.
But there are some choices in marriage that leave both spouses scratching their heads. That’s when none of the choices are good and a couple must decide which one causes the least damage. One of those choices is what to do with the child of an affair. How can a couple arrive at a wise decision when all of the options seem to be so distasteful?
An affair itself is a bad decision, certainly from the perspective of the betrayed spouse. He or she knows that what pleasure their unfaithful spouse may have gained cannot in any way compensate for their suffering. It’s one of the most thoughtless decisions that can be made in life.
The children and the extended family are scarred by an affair. But even the unfaithful spouse doesn’t emerge unscathed. When the affair finally ends (95% of the time), the unfaithful spouse is left having seriously injured those he or she cared for, all for nothing. When the realities of life shine on the affair, it is eventually seen for what it is – a very bad decision.
In spite of how thoughtlessly painful an affair is, I’ve witnessed the complete recovery of thousands of couples who have made very wise decisions following the very unwise choice of an affair. It’s a testament to the ability we have to make adjustments in life that can turn disaster into triumph.
An affair is difficult enough to survive with the wisest of choices. But if a couple must deal with the child of an affair, it often seems as if nothing they do will result in triumph. If they keep the child, they are forever burdened with a constant reminder of the worst experience of their life. But if they abandon the child, they are left with overwhelming guilt.
I’ve had the advantage of witnessing the effects of a variety of choices couples have made when faced with this dilemma. I’ve seen, first hand, what happens to couples when they make the decision to keep the child, and the decision to leave the child in the care of others. With that experience, I am in a position to offer guidance to couples that come to me for advice. And the advice I have given has proven over time to be remarkably effective. The alternatives, on the other hand, have not.
There are two basic situations to consider: A child of an unfaithful wife, and the child of an unfaithful husband. I have already written two Q&A columns regarding the former situation, What to Do When You (or Your Spouse) Becomes Pregnant with a Lover's Child. But I have not written my recommendation to a couple when it is the unfaithful husband having a child. In this article, I will make a recommendation for both situations.
Let me begin by reviewing one of my basic recommendations for surviving an affair: The unfaithful spouse is to never see or communicate with other person. Extraordinary precautions must be taken to ensure that outcome because if there is even unintentional contact, an affair can easily be rekindled. I’ve witnessed that mistake with many unfaithful spouses who considered themselves completely free of any attachment – until contact was made with the other person.
The threat of rekindling an affair is not the only reason I recommend no contact. I also recommend it for the protection of the betrayed spouse. Any contact sets the betrayed spouse back to the beginning of recovery. The fear, the anger, the resentment, the betrayal, all comes back full force, making a full recovery almost impossible.
With this very basic and essential recommendation in mind – absolutely NO contact – it’s easier to understand how I would advise couples who have a child of an affair: At all costs, the other person is never to make contact with the unfaithful spouse. So then, how can that recommendation be followed when a child is involved?
When the wife is the unfaithful spouse
In the case of a wife being the unfaithful spouse, I recommend keeping the child in the family. I know of no cases where trying to separate the wife from her child has led to the recovery of the marriage. But I know of many recoveries if there is absolutely no contact of the other man with his child.
In some cases, the other man doesn’t want anything to do with the child. Or, he may not even know that he is the father. In these cases, I do not recommend reaching out to him to help raise his child. But even if he wants to raise his child, I recommend that you do what you can to keep him away from your family.
Granted, this recommendation seems on the face of it to be very difficult to achieve, and even terribly misguided. Shouldn’t the child have the care of the natural father? In this case, I have found that the betrayed father can do a much better job raising the child as long as the marriage is successful. Children, in general, thrive in a marriage where a husband and wife love and care for each other. The imposition of the other man in their lives is a constant reminder of the suffering caused by the affair, and presents a very confusing parenting arrangement to the child. It would place the marriage under a great deal of pressure that the couple would eventually find intolerable. A loving and caring marriage would be very difficult to create under that condition.
If the other man is able to prove parentage, they may not have any choice in the matter. However, the law assumes that, in the case of a married couple, the husband is the father of any child born to the wife during the marriage. A couple dealing with the child of an affair should take full advantage of the legal situation, and say nothing to indicate that the husband is not the father of the child. Ideally, the affair would end without the wife ever telling the other man that she is pregnant and that the child might be his. However, if she has already told him, the couple must remember that they are under no obligation by law to provide DNA samples, unless so ordered by a court.
Without proof of parentage, the other man cannot claim visitation rights, and any efforts to impose himself on the family can be dealt with by a restraining order for the entire family. In all my years of counseling, however, I have never witnessed a man who cannot prove parentage go to such lengths as to require a restraining order.
If the other man is determined to prove parentage, he will need to persuade a judge to grant him a court order for a DNA test. Few men go to those lengths, but should he obtain a court order, the test should be supervised by the court.
In the case where parentage has been proven by a court-ordered and court approved DNA test, and the other man insists on visitation rights, the success of the marriage is usually seriously impaired. Some couples are able to overcome some of the negative effects by making sure that there is a mediator to deliver to and pick up the child from the other man. But such a couple is constantly reminded of the affair. Her attraction to other man, and his resentment about what she did, will often cripple the marriage in this situation.
When the husband is the unfaithful spouse
In many ways, based on my initial recommendation that all contact with the other person end completely, it’s easier to make a recommendation to a couple with a child born to an unfaithful husband: He should not have contact with the child. Such contact would not only increase his temptation to make contact with the other woman, but would also increase fear, anger, and resentment in his wife.
But as you might expect, that recommendation is extremely controversial. It’s only when you see what happens to couples that allow contact between an unfaithful father and his child that it’s apparent that a choice must be made between the child and the marriage. If a couple wants their marriage to thrive, his contact with the child must end, in spite of the negative effects that might have on the child. If contact is made, the marriage is under constant threat of divorce.
The other woman may not want the unfaithful spouse to get out of her life so easily. She may not only want him to provide financial support and parenting, but she may also want to have him back as her lover. She may use the excuse of parenting to try to win him over. She may even offer to forgo financial support if he were to spend some time with the child – and with her.
But proving parentage can be very difficult for the other woman. Even if an unfaithful husband has admitted parentage, he can deny it later if a court-ordered and court-approved DNA test has not been given. If parentage cannot be proven, he is under no obligation in most states to provide financial support or parenting support. The woman who has sex with, and gets pregnant by a man she knows is married, might well have been having sex with someone else as well. We often see this played out on TV shows where a mistress who was certain that a particular married man was the father of her child turned out to be wrong. A married man should not take the other woman's word that he is the father of her child, and neither should he give in to her demand for a DNA test. He should do nothing unless the other woman obtains a court order for a DNA test. Attorneys who specialize in parentage issues are essential in helping an unfaithful husband find his way out of this mess he has made for himself and his family. But even if the court were to order financial assistance for the child, the father should not have contact with that child.
As I mentioned when it is the unfaithful wife that has the child, my recommendation would seem terribly misguided. Many people would argue that the child should have the care of the natural father. But such care is almost certain to ruin the marriage. The suffering caused by the affair would be re-triggered with each visitation. For most couples, it can’t be sustained.
When the unfaithful husband and the betrayed wife have children together, the decision to have no contact with the child of an affair is much easier than when there are no children. My argument is that any contact with child of an affair puts the security of the other children at risk because it greatly increases the likelihood of divorce. Whatever benefit there might be to the child of an affair would be a disadvantage to the children of the marriage.
I lose that argument when there are no children in the marriage. In that case, the marriage itself must be seen as more valuable for it’s own sake than the welfare of the child. Many couples without children have made that decision, and have agreed to have no contact with the child of the affair.
But many others have decided that the child is more important than the marriage, and have divorced to give the unfaithful husband a chance to be a father to his child. If the mother of the child is unmarried, and is willing to marry the child’s father, the child has a chance to be raised by its biological parents with all of the advantages it offers.
When the other woman is unwilling to marry the unfaithful husband, many unfaithful fathers without other children are unwilling to forgo contact with his child. And that eventually leads to divorce for most couples. As difficult as it is to imagine, if a marriage is to thrive, a husband should have no contact with the child of his affair.
Those who hear my recommendation and decide to allow contact with the child have usually let me know that I was right to have recommended compete separation. But occasionally I hear from a couple that have just begun the contact, and report that things are going well. But later, I find that even these couples run into the same barriers for marital fulfillment, and their marriage eventually fails.
On the other hand, I have witnessed many couples that have followed my advice, and report a very positive outcome. As I make this recommendation to an ever-increasing number of couples, evidence keeps arriving that supports this very controversial plan. So from my perspective, I’ve discovered a choice that can save a marriage, albeit a very difficult choice.