Unfortunately, as many as fifty percent of marriages face challenges associated with infidelity. Much research has been conducted on the effects to marriage and future relationships, but not as much focus has been placed on the child survivors of marital infidelity. The present article addresses such findings.
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth researched and wrote extensively on the topic of child attachment to parents, and how these attachments affect development of personality and emotional regulation. In the past thirty years, much has been learned through research into attachment, and recent investigations have revealed the effects of marital infidelity on the offspring of the unfaithful.
According to Fish et al (2012), children of parents struggling through infidelity receive less parental regulation for emotional support, and may tend to have difficulties learning to self-regulate their own emotions. Instead, of self-regulation, these children tend to develop negative emotions such as distress, anger, and anxiety. Additionally, they are at increased risk of developing poor behavioral coping strategies such as drug use, risky early sexual behavior, and generalized acting-out (Lansford, 2009). Sadly, these effects may take place even when infidelity is not revealed in the home, as children are so keenly tied to parents for care and guidance, that they respond to even the most subtle alterations in parental affect.
We might also wonder what will come of these children in their own marriages. According to Lansford (2009), children dealing with a loss or separation related to parental infidelity are more likely to develop insecure attachment styles, and there is significant evidence indicating that they will struggle with future interpersonal relationships. Thorson (2009) revealed that children’s knowledge of an extra-marital affair causes changes in the way they communicate with others in their own relationships with adults and peers, ultimately leading to poor communication skills and poor boundary-setting.
Comparative studies have demonstrated that parental infidelity causes children to develop more insecure attachment styles as compared to their peers who were raised by parents who remained faithful to one another (Crowell, Treboux, & Brockmeyer, 2009). In future relationships, adults exposed to infidelity as children tend to have more distrust, dissatisfaction, anger, and ambivalence in their own relationships, all characteristics of insecure attachment styles (Sori, 2007). And, those whose parents were involved in an affair will be more likely to involve infidelity in their own relationships and ultimately at increased risk of divorce themselves.
We might ask why and how these damaging effects are passed on to our children. What psychological mechanisms are at work, which lead a successful and happily married man to cheat on his wife twenty-five years after his step-father’s affairs—about which he didn’t even know. What causes a divorced woman of fifty to think she can manage an affair with her married partner?
It is commonly accepted psychological theory today that we develop our psychological skillsets during childhood and adolescence, and directly through how and to whom we bond. So, a young man who watched his step-father lie to his mother over many years, even though he didn’t outwardly know these were lies, learns to maneuver around women. This is part of his psychological toolbox. And in turn, he will attract women who have developed a skillset around coping with being lied to. While the fifty-year-old divorced woman might have psychological tools for denial, built during her own bonding to her beloved father who she feared was cheating on her mother. She may even have developed tools for keeping her mother safe from the truth, which today manifest as discretion that her unfaithful affair partner finds a highly attractive insurance policy for his own marriage. These are, of course, just two examples of the many possible permutations that result in our skillsets.
So, if you have been, or are, considering being unfaithful to the mother or father of your child or step-child, please consider the risks not only to yourself and your spouse, but also those you pass on to your children. There may come a day when watch him wed that lovely girl you’ve known since they were in high school. As you watch, you might be thinking, “I couldn’t have hand-picked a better wife for him.” But perhaps you should also be thinking, “Because of my actions over the years, I have placed her at great risk that my son will break her heart one day.” And their children too, will suffer.
Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American psychologist, 46(4), 333.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Volume 3. Londres: Hogarth Press.
Crowell, J. A., Treboux, D., & Brockmeyer, S. (2009). Parental divorce and adult children's attachment representations and marital status. Attachment and Human Development, 11(1), 87-101.
Fish, J. N., Pavkov, T. W., Wetchler, J. L., & Bercik, J. (2012). Characteristics of those who participate in infidelity: The role of adult attachment and differentiation in extradyadic experiences. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 40, 214-229.
Lansford, J. E. (2009). Parental divorce and children's adjustment. Perspectives on Psychological
Science, 4(2), 142-152.
Sori, C. F. (2007). "An affair to remember": Infidelity and its impact on children. Infidelity: A practitioner’s guide to working with couples in crisis, 247-276.
Thorson, A. R. (2009). Adult children's experiences with their parent's infidelity: Communicative
protection and access rules in the absence of divorce. Communication Studies, 60(1), 32- 48.