Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What about the children?

Imagine this scenario:
A child grows up with two loving parents who have a committed, stable relationship. Despite one of the parents having to travel a lot for work, the pair makes it through some tough times and their three children have a great example of an adult romantic relationship.
But then something goes wrong. After decades of marriage, the parents decide to split. Although some of the children are older and some are younger, they now have divorced parents. As the children, they don’t have say in the dissolution of their parents’ marriage but they know something must have happened to instigate it.
Then almost immediately Dad has a new girlfriend and suspicious circumstances point toward the fact that they may have been dating before the marriage was over. Suddenly the simple times of childhood and the traditional family of five are over.
In circumstances like this it can be hard for children, with no control over their parent’s marriage or the dissolution of it, to figure out what their relationship is now with each of those parents. And the circumstances of that break up can play a role in how easy or difficult that process is. If the break up concerns infidelity, how do the children deal with that?
The scenario I described above is a very simplified version of my family life. A few years ago my parents split up after 25 years of seemingly happy marriage. The impetus for my study of infidelity this semester stems from my experience with my parent’s divorce, because (and there’s never been an official owning up of this) my dad found someone else and that happened to overlap with his previous marriage to my mum.
So far in my study of infidelity I’ve touched on impact of infidelity and how damaging it can be to a relationship but I haven’t discussed the impact on other close to the couple. Cheating doesn’t just affect the cheater’s partner, but everyone else who is connected emotionally with that relationship. And children are the prime candidates to be heavily impacted by a parent’s infidelity.
Various scholars have looked at this topic, with studies looking at how the parent-child relationship is affected, how the method of discovery plays a role and communication strategies used by children to continue relationships with both parents.
There are various ways that children can find out about a parents infidelity. Interestingly, when Allison Thorson studied the effect that different types of discoveries can have, she found negligible differences between the types. This surprised me because some types seem more severe than others:
  • Discovery from the parent who cheated
  • Incremental discovery
  • Explicit discovery
  • Discovery from a family member
  • Third party discovery
Whichever of these discoveries a child had, in this study it had no significant difference on the future relationship between the child and parent. The author speculates that this may be because the method of discovery characterizes the relationship of the child and parent before the discovery anyway, so their relationship would remain the same, regardless of the discovery method.
Looking at communication between a child and parent after the discovery has occurred, the same author determined in another study that children will privately negotiate rules to deal with the infidelity in a way that will cause least harm to the relationship.  
I found the rules about how and when they could talk to the parent about the infidelity most interesting – Thorson calls these access rules. These include context, sex, age, physical environment and code terms.
  1. Context: It is permissible to bring up the infidelity only in certain situations.
  2. Sex: Children are more likely to talk to mothers about the infidelity, possibly because women generally disclose more than men.
  3. Age:  Only when a child reaches adulthood would it be acceptable to talk to the parent about the infidelity.
  4. Physical environment: A neutral space outside of the parent’s home is the best place to talk about the infidelity.
  5. Code terms: It’s best to avoid using value-laden words like “infidelity,” “cheating” and “affair.”
So here are my take-away points for today:  If you’re a parent then remember what effect your infidelity can have on your children as well as your spouse. And if you’re a child, I guess just try to deal with it and maybe use these communication rules if you want to talk about the situation with your parents.

Thorson, A. (2008). The influence of discovery method on relational outcomes: A study of parental infidelity. Conference papers – National Communication Association, 1-32.
Thorson, A. (2009). Adult children’s experiences with their parent’s infidelity: Communicative protection and access rules in the absence of divorce. Communication Studies, 60, 32-48.