"(A parent) is supposed to be the person a child can trust more than anyone else," she said. "When one parent betrays another, it's a supreme breach of trust. Most of the children felt that they were betrayed by the parent, too."
Infidelity also damages an individual's confidence, Thorson said.
"Sometimes as much as the betrayal itself ... (partner infidelity) shakes how we feel about ourselves," she said. "We sometimes feel a sense of...'I can't believe I didn't know it was going on in front of me.' We felt like we would have known if that was happening."
Some children may have sensed something was wrong but couldn't identify it, while others might have been oblivious, only finding out years later.
Lusterman had one 60-year-old client who recently learned his 80-year-old father had carried on a years-long affair, and the revelation was horrifying.
"(Infidelity) is a terrible disillusion that says 'One of my parents was profoundly dishonest to my other parent. And if they're so dishonest with the parent, why would they be more honest with their kids?" he said. "You begin to question the foundations of your own relationships."
The son could either be crippled with worry that he would become like his father, or he could vow to avoid such behavior and recommit to his own marriage, Lusterman said.
While interviewing adult children whose parents were unfaithful, Thorson said she's seen a range of reactions to such shocking news. Some express relief because they had grown up thinking they were the reason for their parents' divorce. Others say they wish they had never known the specifics.
For parents who need to say something to their children, it's important to avoid the messy details, Lusterman said, adding an example of what parents could say:
"We had some problems — unnamed — because we weren't really working well as a mom and dad, and especially as a husband and wife," he said. "We've talked a lot, we realize we love each other and you'll never have to worry again about someone needing to leave."
That reassurance will help children feel confident, not only in their parents' relationship, but also in their own ability to solve personal problems — just like mom and dad did.
* * *
For Third District Court Commissioner Michael Evans, one of the red flags in a custody hearing is learning that a child has been introduced to a "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" while the parent is still married or not finished with divorce proceedings.
"That can be a direct reflection of one's parenting ability, (the fact that) one is putting his or her own needs ahead of the children," Evans said. "We don't really need to know what had gone on specifically between the spouse and the unmarried person — just (the child) being exposed (to new relationships) is usually an indication that the parent is thinking more of him or herself."
Although infidelity is often a reason for divorce, it is only one piece of the puzzle that Evans and other judges and commissioners must evaluate when they're deciding who gets the children.
According to Utah's Judicial Council Rules of Judicial Administration, custody decisions must be made "in the child's best interest," which means reviewing the child's preference, the possibility of keeping siblings together, the bond with one or both of the custodians, as well as several factors regarding the custodian's character and capacity to be a parent.
Those include moral character and emotional stability, duration and depth of desire for custody, ability to provide personal care and financial ability.
Judges also look at harmful factors such as evidence of child or spousal abuse or impairment through drugs or alcohol. Infidelity is not automatically considered a harmful factor for children.
And that's a problem, says BYU's Wardle, who is frustrated that while harm from infidelity is assumed for the spouse, harm to a child must be proven.
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