I have a 14-year-old son, and he’s starting to ask why his mom and I divorced when he was an infant. How much information should I provide him? I’ve consistently told my son, “Your mom and I just had some problems.” But now he’s pressing for a more detailed explanation. The truth is, one of us had an affair. What do you think I should tell my son? Thank you. –Dennis F., age 41
You are facing a huge temptation—to unburden yourself as the “victim” of your ex’s affair. Or, if it was the other way around—to unburden yourself by confessing. Either way, it’s questionable whether you should tell your son. Let’s tackle each scenario, but first, let’s talk about the reality of affairs.
Reality of Affairs
Affairs happen because it’s easier to cheat than it is to deal with the pain of a marriage going off the rails. Not everyone has the emotional maturity to recognize that if your marriage is struggling, you have a role in it. The easy way out is to blame your spouse for whatever discomfort you are feeling, grab onto the nearest warm body for comfort, and avoid the work of a long-term relationship.
Paradoxically, sometimes people cheat in order to stay married. Things aren’t going well with your spouse, you don’t want to rock the boat by telling your spouse that you aren’t happy, so you attach yourself to another person to get your needs met, putting off the inevitable. Either your spouse finds out about the affair, or the person you’re cheating with demands more, or both.
The real victims of affairs are your children. The biggest failure is in not teaching them—through your own behavior—the value of maintaining a commitment and doing everything in your power to evolve into a better person so you can keep your marriage alive.
To Tell Your Son Or Not About the Affair?
The question is this: Can you now teach your son something valuable by either confessing your own mistake or by revealing hers?
There’s no clear answer, but here are the things to consider. At 14, most people do not yet have the maturity to understand the complexity of how adults arrive at the decisions behind their choices and behaviors. If you’re like most people, you have trouble explaining the issues in your marital failure even to yourself. Your son will seek a simple answer to a complicated human dynamic and you won’t be able to give a simple answer, so it’s likely that he will be even more confused than he was before.
Another consideration is your own personal motivation. Are you carrying resentment toward your ex for her affair? If so, your conversation with your son will be contaminated by your emotional baggage.
Unconsciously, you may be seeking vindication, hoping your son will “side” with you against your ex. That’s a deadly emotional dynamic for him, and I do not recommend it.
Your job is to work through the anger and resentment. One of the most powerful lessons you can teach your child is forgiveness, and when you reach that inner state, you’ll see no purpose in telling your son about his mom’s affair.
What if you’re the one who had the affair? Your motivation in this case might be to feel better about yourself by confessing your mistake and expressing remorse as a way of teaching your son the value of taking personal responsibility. Again, though, understanding all of that takes a high level of cognitive development.
Your job is to work through your own guilt and arrive at the place of forgiving yourself. Years from now, when he’s in his 20s, that conversation may be helpful to him, but odds are it won’t be helpful now.
Why Your Son Is Asking About the Divorce
Now let’s talk about why your son is asking so many questions and seeking answers. The No. 1 concern that children have following a divorce is that they are somehow responsible. Running a close second to that is the fear that they won’t be loved, because if they were, then their parents would still be together.
Irrational, yes, on both counts but nevertheless that is how children process information. That’s because children see the world only from their own, egocentric point of view—if it happens, I must be either responsible, to blame, or at the effect of it.
The best conversation to have with your son is not a conversation about who did what to whom, but instead a conversation about what your son is seeking. In the absence of all the gory details, what is he making up about his parent’s divorce? In what way might he be taking inappropriate responsibility? Find out what his concerns are and address them. Reassure him that he had absolutely no role in the divorce and that he is loved by both his parents.
Talk about the causes of divorce in the generic sense; i.e., “people get divorced because they make lots of mistakes in their relationship, hurt each other, and find it hard to forgive and keep going on together.” If he continues to ask questions about the details, it is OK to tell him that some things are private. In today’s “tell all” world, we sometimes fail to teach children about privacy and boundaries.
Reassure him that you and your ex are healing and learning to forgive. Even good people mess up in a big way, and that is the lesson he needs to learn – that even after making the worst kinds of mistakes, it is possible to find forgiveness and to move forward and do better in life.
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Copyright 2012 by Nina Atwood. All Rights Reserved. Permission granted to www.singledadhouse.com to publish this article.