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.


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  2. Hi Tabbi,

    I really liked your scenario at the beginning as well as the title. I grabbed my attention immediately. My parents divorced when I was about 9 and regardless of the reasons behind the divorce, I think it’s probably the second biggest event (after the one of moving to the US) that has impacted my life. You stated “. . . children are the prime candidates to be heavily impacted by a parent’s infidelity” and you couldn’t have said it any better. It was interesting to read that the study found no significant impact on the relationship between the cheating parent and child. I would have thought that would have depended on many factors including child’s age and understanding of the events. But at the same time, I can see how the child would want to continue having a relationship with both parents. It seems to be that trust would be a big issue in that relationship. Did the study mention anything about the children’s age and how that may affect their own beliefs? Divorce is hard no matter what for children (regardless of age) but when you add in infidelity, it can shape the child’s beliefs in many ways (or at least I think so).

    Based on my own experience, my mother never had an issue with my father seeing other women as long as he eventually came home. I knew this at a very young age (and by the way it was not infidelity that brought down my parents’ marriage) and I had a hard time understand the concept (then and now). As a result, I think I’ve shaped my own beliefs and opinions about infidelity. That would be one thing I would never overlook in a relationship.

    Another great blog.. :) and I really like the pictures you used. :)

    1. Ramona,

      Thanks for your comment, I'm glad the intro was able to grab your attention as that was the intention ... I've liked the other blogs that started with visualizing a scenario so thought I'd give it a go! Also glad the pictures worked out well, I could only find ones with a small child so it doesn't quite convey the idea that adult children can also be affected but I think they still worked.

      I think your personal experience is interesting here. I like how you mention how impactful your parent's divorce was on your own life as, even though it's only been three years since my parents split, I am still seeing how impactful that is on my life (mainly trying to avoid the same mistakes they made in their marriage, hence my study this semester!). I think you hint toward the same idea when you talk about how your parents divorce and actions has shaped your own opinion of infidelity.

      For clarification, the study that said there was no significant impact on the child-parent relationship referred only to the lack on impact in relation to how the child found out about the said parent's infidelity. So other factors may play a role, this study just didn't look at other things that could impact the relationship. Although it didn't talk about age, I think you're right that it's likely a factor in how the child is affected.

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    1. Good afternoon Tabbi. It’s a cold day, so I have my hot tea to help me warm up.
      I was sad to read your personal reasons for researching this topic. I had wondered why you decided on it, but never did it cross my mind that you were affected by it because of your father. I’m so sorry.
      I wonder how the children’s reaction to a divorce varies according to the reason for the divorce. In other words, does the reason for the breakup really matter to the child? I do suppose the age of the child at the time makes a difference. But I think a child would just feel their world is falling apart—reasons why might not matter. Does the reason being infidelity change the reaction or future relationship that child has with the parents?
      There are so many variables involved. The age of the child at the time of the divorce, and I believe that the child is affected by how the parents deal with the divorce and deal with the child. Then, as a child matures and understanding increases, time passes and wounds heal, relationships can be renewed. But, I think the nagging question would always be, “what if this hadn’t happened”. How would my life be different?
      Excellent research question you are investigating. Happy Thanksgiving with your hubby!

    2. Nancy, thanks so much for your comment and your compassion. It's been a bit of a rocky road with my parents (and continues to be) but it's not as bad as many divorces I hear about so I'm not too bad off. My husband and I have a wonderful relationship despite (or maybe because of) that and, since my parents are far away, it makes it easier to separate my happiness from their disfunction! (well, most of the time at least ... haha)

      I think your comment on how much the reason for the divorce really matters to the child or children is very insightful. I would hazard a guess (and this was not covered in my research this week) that the child's age and how close their relationship with their parents is would both play a role in that. An teenage or adult child may be more upset about infidelity, probably because they have a better understanding of what that means. For a younger child, a break up is a break up. Also, I think the manner of the break up is less important than the after effects. From personal experience, my dad's infidelity caused my parents break up to be a lot more complicated than it could otherwise have been. Even though my dad was the instigator for the divorce, my mum was not sad to break up with him, but she was very upset by the infidelity and the baggage that comes along with that.

      There are so many factors that can play a role in the formation and break up of relationships, that's why all of our studies are so complex: Relationships are messy!

      Thanks for your comment and hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving too :)

      P.S. Your comment inspired me to go brew a mug of tea too and it's making me feel much cozier on this chilly day so thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Wow some powerful issues raised here. I also was a children from a 'broken' ho,e because of parental infidelity (amongst other issues). The child often has no real understanding of infidelity, depending on age of course, so that plays into the context and access rules involved in disclosure. In my experience I have seen the mother become certainly the object of sympathy from the child, because like you said, the woman seems to open and disclose more and men in this situation might shutdown and become distant. I would hope the person who committed the infidelity would take it upon themself to decide when it may be right to disclose and how much. It is also concerning in that the person contemplating cheating, usually doesn't think about the other people being affected by their decision. The children don't seem to be consciously thought of before or during the infidelity....afterwards maybe.

    1. Mike,

      I'm inclined to agree with you, the level of understanding the child has (probably dependent on age you say and I mentioned the same thing to Nancy) about the infidelity definitely plays a role in how they deal with a parental break up due to infidelity.

      Also, as you say, it would be great if the person who committed the infidelity took it upon themselves to disclose information appropriately. The problem is partly what you say, that the person cheating isn't thinking about the ramifications of their actions. I would guess there is a problem with disclosing that information because it requires an acceptance of blame on the part of the cheater. From my personal experience, my dad has still not managed to own up to any wrong doing (despite copious evidence that convicts him!) so there can't really be any discussion, even using those access rules, until he would take ownership of the situation. Doesn't stop me from trying to communicate though :)

      Sorry to hear about your personal experience too. Try giving those access rules a whirl and let me know if they work out for you!

  5. Also, I found it brave and fitting how you related the topic to your personal life. I appreciate your disclosure and now see how your personal perspective weighed in on your topic of choice. Well done

    Did you see the new chemical on the market that apparently prevents men from cheating on their spouses? I guess it helps them keep self control and distance themselves from women they find attractive....hmmmm

    1. Thanks for that :) It was definitely a little difficult to write this week given my personal connection but this class feels safe for me to open up so I figured I'd give it a go.

      That chemical sounds interesting (I'm speculative as to how well it would work!) ... I guess it implies that men are the likely ones to cheat and that their motivation for cheating is based on opportunities with women they find attractive ... maybe those assumptions are ones I'll have to look into before the semester is over!

  6. Tabbi, such good work. First of all, the moment I read your title (knowing your topic) a felt a lump rise up in my throat. I just hadn't thought about 'the children' in relation to this topic and your blog showed me (all of us) that we should think about it. It's just now occurring to me how many young lives are affected by this. I also wonder whether children are systematically differentially affected by their own sex and the sex of the parent who cheated. Anyway, excellent job of blending research with personal experience.