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Erica Manfred

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To Tell Or Not to Tell--About His (or Her) Affairs

Posted: 07/22/11 12:50 PM ET

I spoke at a divorce support group recently and heard some interesting stories about adult children of divorce. One woman's ex told her 19-year-old son that he was about to divorce her before he told her. Actually he asked his son whether he thought it was a good idea. I thought I'd heard everything but this was a new twist. The poor kid suffered a breakdown after the divorce.

Another woman shared with the group that her husband was a serial philanderer but she hadn't told her 21-year-old son the real reason they split. It seemed he had a variety of mental health problems and she was afraid of his reaction. Her marriage counselor and his therapist agreed.

However, her son was curious about the reason for the divorce, and what his father had done and kept asking her. Her ex just lied to him, she said. I told her I felt her son deserved the truth. She didn't have to tell him the details, just that his father had affairs, period, but family secrets are toxic.

I shared with her that my parents split up when I was ten, and got back together six months later. I had no idea why they split and neither of them told me. After my dad died, when I was 35, I asked my very proper mother why they broke up and she at first said, "we had problems." I asked, "what kind of problems?" She said, "you know, problems." I said, "mom, I'm thirty-five, you can tell me." Finally she said, looking very embarrassed, "well he had affairs." Strangely, I wasn't shocked although I had no clue he'd ever had affairs. I never saw my dad flirt with other women or any signs that he'd screwed around. But somehow it made sense, considering who they were and what their relationship was like.

She was the domineering wife, who controlled the marriage and took care of him, me and everything else. He was the dependent and resentful spouse, who acted like a rebellious teenager, just like my ex who also cheated. It made sense that my handsome dad would rebel by having affairs. He was too dependent on my mom to actually leave. My ex, on the other hand, left me for his affair partner who became another mommy, a 20-year-younger version of me.

I told the woman at the group that I wished I'd known about my father's affairs. She asked why. I told her it would have helped me understand their relationship, my adolescence which was hell, and my own life. I thought I had a right to know about them, if only to sort out my own problems and issues. After my parents got back together their relationship became even more strained, and I became the target for all their rage and frustration with each other.

Secrets and lies are toxic to relationships--marriage most of all. "Children rely upon the stability of the marriage and family. If secrets keep family members from being close to one another, the family undergoes disorientation," explains Dr. Frank Pittman, author of "Private Lies."

He continues: "Children who experience secrecy and lies cannot trust what they are told, they become insecure and dependent. When the framework of the family finally collapses, there may be no honest relationships to fall back on. The children feel cast adrift."

Parents owe it to their kids to be honest. Just as children can't be protected from illness and death of a parent, they can't be protected from truth of their parents' marriage. When Jesus said, "and the truth shall set you free," he wasn't only referring to religion or politics, but to life.

 
 
 

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