For my wife, Stephanie, and me, telling our grown children about my affair 20 years after the fact seemed like a no-brainer. I have been faithful ever since that marital infidelity. Because of my profession, my story was becoming more public as I used it in my testimony of the promising transformation that infidelity had brought to our marriage. We wanted them to learn from our mistakes. For us, the question wasn't if we would tell them, rather it was how and when we would tell them.
This was too big of a secret to ask one child to keep from their siblings. For that reason, we chose to tell all three children about the affair at the same time. At that time our children were 15, 18, and 21. Our oldest was 21 and engaged; we had discussed for a few years that we wanted to share this with her before she made that commitment. We believed it to be a life lesson that we wished we had been taught. And our youngest, at 15, was now emotionally mature enough to understand the situation and appreciate its nature of privacy.
So, we rented a condo on the coast and went on a family trip. The kids had no idea what was coming. As far as they were concerned, it was another trip to the beach. I'm not even sure they were surprised when I called them all together on the second night for a family meeting. I told them how I had an affair. Stephanie and I both spoke of the pain, the things we did that were helpful, and those that were not. I highlighted their mother's strength and my amazement at her forgiveness. And we spoke of how our marriage had grown from it.
My oldest daughter was furious. Not because I had cheated on her mom, but because we hadn't told her sooner. My second daughter was angry because a couple of years earlier, she had begun asking questions about whether or not I had been unfaithful to her mom. I misled her by not answering the question directly. My 15-year-old son didn't seem bothered at all, and found it amusing that both the sisters were so upset. Amazingly, these hurts were short-lived. By the next day all was back to normal, and we moved on with our stay at the beach.
WHEN should you tell your children?
If the children have heard things and are asking questions, then you may need to be more open. Secrecy and pretending can be even worse. But, if they don't know anything about what is going on, then protecting them from the crisis might be the kindest thing you can do, even if they are adults. Eventually, when age appropriate, they should be given the story, not in a way that gets them involved in marriage, but for the sake of the family, or so they can learn from your mistakes.
WHAT should you tell your children?
The information you give your children needs to be age appropriate. Telling a six-year-old that your mommy brought another man into our house and took off all her clothes and let him touch her privates is abusive. When talking to children, I suggest that the unfaithful person consider saying something like this: "I didn't love (treat) your father (or mother) the way that married people should love (treat) each other." That's truthful. It's not denying the presence of a third party, but it doesn't rock their world by bringing an unknown third party into it.
WHY should you tell your children?
You would only tell your children in the midst of the struggle, if they have overheard things and are asking questions, or if they are at risk of finding out from someone else. Give as little detail as possible to protect your children. They don't need to be dragged into the pit of your struggles. If later on you feel like sharing your story with your kids, the first question would be "Is it in their best interest?" If not, why would you tell? To think that infidelity doesn't have a profound impact on both children and adult children is naïve.
BENEFITS of telling your children:
It teaches your children what an authentic relationship looks like and helps prepare them for a real marriage. Why would we want to create an unrealistic standard for our children, one that teaches that acceptability is based on perfection? I think we all want to be loved "as is, warts and all." Life is hard, especially after an affair, and you do them a disservice if you pretend otherwise. Sharing your story with your mature children allows them to both understand and to learn from your mistakes.
Life teaches many lessons. I hope you can find a constructive way to share with your children the lessons you've learned along the way. If you're personally struggling with infidelity, feel free to take the free Affair Analyzer online assessment for insight into your situation.
For more information on what to do after an affair, visit AffairRecovery.com.