"I know my boys love their Dad. But he wants to tell them we agreed to divorce. Eventually, they'll see him for the cheating low-life he is. They might as well know now that he destroyed our family."
These words were spoken to me, between anguished sobs, by a client -- a grieving wife and mother whose husband had recently left her for another woman. I felt for her; her pain was nearly unbearable. She loved her husband. He had been the center of her life. Suddenly, he was gone and her world had turned upside down. All memories of her husband's positive qualities were eclipsed by devastation and rage.
His request that they present the divorce to their children as a mutual decision was too bitter a pill for her to swallow.
Whether or not your partner was unfaithful, if he or she has unilaterally chosen to end your relationship, it makes perfect sense that you might want to force him or her to take responsibility for the choice.
But before you tell your children that their other parent is the bad guy, let's think this through.
- Kids not only need and love both parents, they identify with both parents. If you're critical of your spouse, you're actually being critical of the part of your child that wants to be like your spouse. Your child's self-esteem will suffer.
- To make a good post-divorce adjustment, kids need to feel free to express all their feelings about the experience. If you send your children the message that you want them to feel a particular way (i.e. angry at their other parent), you may force them to hide their true feelings from themselves and/or you.
- Blaming the other parent can backfire; kids often feel protective of the blamed parent and angry with the blaming parent.
- If there is a villain there must be a victim. Kids need to know that both parents are in sturdy enough emotional shape to care for them through this tough time. Think: is "martyr" the role model you want to be for your son or daughter?
- Attempting to pull your child into an alliance with you and against their other parent is soul-rending. It creates a fault line that runs down the center of their being. Do you want your child to grow up feeling bifurcated -- part of two separate families at war with each other? Or would you rather your child grow up feeling whole -- with one family living in two separate (perhaps quite different, but not incompatible) homes?
Obviously, there's no one-size-fits-all formula. What you reveal to your kids about infidelity should be informed by such factors as emotional maturity, "sturdiness" of character, security of attachments to loved ones, and (of course) age. A savvy teenager will need the straight scoop -- but will be harmed by a version characterized by bitterness and anger.
For now, let's assume your kids are school age or younger.
What if your child comes to you with a direct question, such as "Did Mom fall in love with someone else? Is that why you're getting divorced?"
Even if the question hits the mark, it doesn't necessarily follow that your ex has been "over-sharing." Remember: Your child is trying to understand the changes in his life. It may be that he does know about the affair (in which case you'll have to deal with the issue head on -- maybe with the input of a child therapist), but it's just as likely that he saw a movie about an unfaithful spouse and is wondering if the theme applies to your family.
Until you know what your child knows and what he is truly asking, you won't know how to craft a sensitive answer.
The best response to a painfully probing question is an acknowledgment followed by a clarifying question of your own. Try something like "you're trying to make sense of what happened between me and Mom. I'll do my best to answer, but what makes you ask about 'someone else,' honey?"
It's inevitable. At some point your child will stump you with a loaded question to which you have no idea how to respond without lying or revealing the too-painful truth.
It's fine to tell your child you need time to think. A simple "I'm not sure how to answer your question about whether Dad is going to get married again. But it's an important question, and I want to give you a good answer. Let me talk to Dad about it, and we'll talk to you about it again soon."
As unfair as it might feel, I suggest you work with your future ex to share ownership of the decision to separate. A message like "Dad and I have decided we can't be married anymore. We both feel sad about it, but we will always love you and continue to be your parents together" is a good start.
The medicine might go down more easily if you remind yourself that these early discussions are only the beginning.
For now, while the divorce is new, your children need both parents to deliver the same straightforward, reassuring message.
But as they mature through adolescence and into adulthood, your kids' questions and their ability to process your answers will become more nuanced. It will never be ok to bash your ex in the presence of your kids. But when they're older and you're all safely on the other side of this emotional hill, your family story will become more "fleshed out" and your narrative and that of your ex will naturally diverge.
It's hard to imagine, but even if you never fully forgive your cheating spouse, your feelings of anger will likely soften over time. It would be tragic if you sent a destructive message now that you couldn't take back later.
If it helps, remember: you're not doing this to protect your spouse. You're doing it to protect your kids.