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.
"(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.
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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.
Such proof might be that an A student had dropped to a D student, or that a child is regressing to things like wetting the bed or temper tantrums after learning about a parent's extramarital affair. Often such evidence requires expensive expert witnesses like child psychologists — whom the non-offending spouse must provide at high costs. Family members, friends or schoolteachers could offer testimony as well.
"We have tolerated for much too long the fiction that adultery generally does not harm children," Wardle wrote in a 2002 article in Catholic University Law Review. "Although our law and our courts may not be able to protect children from the tragic pain and long-term suffering caused by parental infidelity, the least the courts can do is recognize and speak the truth that children do suffer from parental infidelity."
Yet others argue that there are enough protections in the law to ensure that children are protected, even in cases of infidelity.
"There's no question in my mind that (adultery) is going to have negative ramifications, but from a legal standpoint, (the court is) just going to go down the (list of) factors," said Provo-based attorney Eric Paulson, who handles domestic-relation issues. He believes that if there are serious issues with a parent they'll almost always be addressed under one of the other factors.27 comments on this story
"I think it's a quantum leap to say because the spouse isn't meeting the other spouse's needs, or because they betrayed their spouse, that therefore they're a horrible parent," he said. "I don't think any court is going to draw that conclusion."
What the court is most concerned about is conflict, no matter how that occurs.
"It's difficult for me to envision a situation," Evans said, "where one parent could be having an affair and that not be suggestive of heightened parental conflict."