An affair can tear apart a family, and what you tell your children about it can impact your relationship with them now and in the long run. There is no simple solution, but one expert offers advice on the right way to talk --or not talk -- to kids about infidelity.
In 1984, Rick Reynolds cheated on his wife. The couple's journey to recover from the affair led them to develop AffairRecovery.com, an online service helping couples overcome the consequences of infidelity.
Should you tell the kids?
There is not a simple answer to the question, "Should we tell our children about the affair?" Whether you tell them -- and how much you do share -- depends on the circumstances.
"If the infidelity is a current event and the children don't know about it, then absolutely do not discuss it with them," says Reynolds. "Children don't need to be involved in their parents' marriage."
When the kids suspect something
"If your young children are aware that something is wrong, it's still not in their best interest to tell them about the infidelity," say Reynolds. "Rather you'd say, 'I didn't treat your father (or mother) the way that married people should 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 that unknown third party into it."
Answering kids' direct questions
"If they are under 10, don't lie," says Reynolds. "Tell them they are asking about an adult problem and it's not something you are going to discuss with them. Just because they ask doesn't mean you need to answer."
You can be more forthcoming with older children, "but keep the answers simple and don't give details about what has happened," adds Reynolds. "Kids need to be told this is an issue that mom and dad are working through on their own."
What not to tell
Share age-appropriate information. "Telling a 6-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," says Reynolds.
You can give teens and young adults more information, but even then they don't need details. "If there was a pattern of behavior, tell them about the pattern, not how many times sexual contact occurred," says Reynolds. "Details, such as names, aren't important."
When there's a separation
"It makes no difference whether or not the parents stay together when it comes to telling the children about infidelity," says Reynolds. What's more important is making sure the kids know that both parents are going to be there for them and that it's okay to maintain a healthy relationship with both parents. "Telling them anything more brings the children into the marital relationship, which is nothing short of emotional abuse," says Reynolds.
The bottom line
"Unless the child is at risk of finding out or is aware of what happened, it will almost always be wrong to share about the infidelity," says Reynolds. "Children do not need to be involved in the marriage. They need to have the opportunity to have a healthy relationship with both parents regardless of whether someone has made the mistake of having an affair."
Has your family dealt with infidelity? How did you talk to your children -- or did you?