It's not just about the couple; infidelity can cause lasting damage to children

Published: Monday, May 30 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

PROVO — It's no surprise that cheating on a spouse causes serious marital problems, including shame, embarrassment and anger. Yet many professionals worry the shame surrounding the topic may be preventing more discussion about how infidelity affects children.

"It's not a problem that a lot of people want to address," said BYU law professor Lynn Wardle, who has written about infidelity and its impacts in custody cases. "The facts are pretty well-established ... but it's a problem that people don't want to talk about. It's sort of a taboo."

Yet talking is inevitable when a parent confesses publicly about being unfaithful, as in the case of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently admitted to fathering a child with a household staffer more than 10 years ago.

Experts say children who learn about parental infidelity react similarly to children whose parents divorce, except the emotional responses to cheating are deeper and can have greater, longer-lasting impacts.

"(Infidelity) violates everything they know about their parents as people," said Don-David Lusterman, a marriage and family clinical psychologist and author. "(Their parents) have told them to be good, tell the truth...and suddenly they discover that their parent is doing something way out of the promises they know that their mom and dad have made to each other."

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It's difficult to know statistically whether infidelity is actually increasing, or whether it's just being reported more, given today's media-soaked society.

In one the most comprehensive studies regarding sexual practices in the United States, 25 percent of men and 15 of women admitted to having sex with someone other than their spouse while they were married.

While this 1994 study is instructive in many ways, it doesn't address emotional infidelity, nor whether these spouses had children, said Allison Thorson, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of San Francisco.

If emotional infidelity were considered, Thorson said some have predicted the rates could be as high as 70 percent for both genders.

And a quick glance at pop culture seems to support, at least on the surface, those alarmingly high numbers, as movies and television shows portray couples in bed together 10 minutes after they first meet, Lusterman said.

"People get fooled into believing that's the way it is," he said. "Especially kids."

It doesn't help when public figures like Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and Tiger Woods — who all have children — discard marital vows for extramarital wanderings.

"With all these messages we're giving to our children, our (future) society will be different," said Ana Nogales, clinical psychologist and author of "Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful." "What is important is to create awareness that cheating in the marriage or a serious relationship is not just something about the two people, but it may affect, at some point, the whole family. So when people think 'This doesn't involve my children. It has nothing to do with my children,' they're lying to themselves. When this is known, the children are seriously affected."

One indication is how those children will view future relationships.

In a survey Nogales conducted of more than 800 adult children whose parents had been unfaithful, 96 percent of respondents said cheating was not OK, even if their partner didn't find out, yet 44.1 percent had been unfaithful themselves.

Nogales believes children are most dramatically affected by infidelity through of the loss of trust — which doesn't always happen with divorce.

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