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05.28.11

How Infidelity Affects the Kids

Arnold and Maria’s kids are tweeting about the affair, but will they be forever altered by it? Alizah Salario on the long-term effects children suffer when a parent cheats.

The coping process began, as so many things do nowadays, on Twitter.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s 17-year-old son, Patrick, publicly changed his surname to Shriver on his Twitter page following his father’s now-infamous affair. Then, the former couple’s daughter, Katherine, 21, tweeted a plea for understanding: "This is definitely not easy but I appreciate your love and support as i begin to heal and move forward in life."

That Schwarzenegger’s kids seemed to be declaring a modicum of distance from their father is just one of the ways children of cheating parents deal, according to experts. For Patrick and Katherine, their father’s very public saga of power, sex, and secrecy is only prologue to their own relationship narratives, and will affect them long after the headlines fade.

It’s no surprise that when parents cheat, kids may suffer. With nearly a quarter of married men and approximately 10 to 15 percent of women admitting to some form of extramarital activity, Schwarzenegger’s spawn are far from the only children affected by infidelity. Although adulterers are no longer branded with a scarlet “A,” the shame associated with infidelity still very much exists.

So it’s no wonder that the adult children of cheaters often struggle with trust issues of their own. “I’m not saying that everyone does it, but 55 percent of adult children that came from families where one parent was unfaithful ended up being cheaters themselves,” says Dr. Ana Nogales, a clinical psychologist and the author of Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

Adult children of cheaters often struggle with trust issues of their own.

Exactly how children are affected by a parent’s transgressions depends on a number of variables. When children find out about an affair, it’s not just the cheating, but how parents deal with the crisis that can have the most profound effect on their children’s future relationships, says sex and family therapist Dr. Don-David Lusterman, who authored the book Infidelity: A Survival Guide. “We’re always looking at the context to understand what happened,” he says. “Are we talking about a single act of infidelity, or is it someone who has always done this and just got nailed this time?”

How infidelity affects children is complex, says Lusterman, and it’s important to differentiate between two types of cheaters. In the majority of cases, infidelity occurs unintentionally when there’s a communication breakdown in a marriage. A married person normally doesn’t seek out sex, but falls into an affair with a colleague or someone in close proximity because they feel neglected or can’t talk about what’s going on in their marriage, he says. Far less common are womanizers, or people who have a pattern of infidelity that started long before marriage and use sex to feel powerful.

“There’s a need to feel worshipped, and if that is to take a sexual form, it’s as addictive as booze,” he says. “I have seen kids get very angry with parents who have affairs, but I have only seen [a child change his name] with womanizers.” According to Lusterman, what Schwarzenegger’s son is really trying to say is: “My father’s a shit and my mother has nothing to do with it.”

Nogales agrees that while older kids are capable of comprehending the relationship dynamics that might make someone cheat, it’s more difficult to accept womanizing and secrecy. “There is a strong sense of shame about what has happened, especially in adolescents because their identity is developing,” she says. “It’s not easy when you’re trying to show your worth and value to society.”

According to Lois Braverman, the president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, infidelity’s impact depends heavily on the parent-child power dynamic established after the affair. Children who are made confidants by the betrayer, or the ones left to comfort the parent who has been betrayed, tend to struggle with anger the most. “Different constellations of where children are placed in their parents’ relationship dilemma is going to influence how they feel,” she says.

For instance, young women tend to suffer more when their fathers are caught cheating, suggests Nogales. But their reactions are sometimes counterintuitive: it’s not uncommon for daughters to respond angrily toward their mothers for “allowing” the infidelity.

“Sometimes they blame the betrayed parent for being powerless and not being able to give them stability,” says Nogales. Such a reaction can also spring from girls’ tendency to feel responsibility and empathize more with their mothers’ pain. In Katherine’s case, her diplomatic tweet might have been an attempt to neutralize her brother’s act of defiance, suggests Lusterman.

With younger children, the stakes can be even higher. Lengthy explanations might prove confusing, especially when the big issue is regaining trust after the image of their “perfect” parent is shattered. “The person that you trusted the most lied to you, so everything becomes suspicious,” says Nogales. “If the person you trust teaches one thing and acts totally differently, you wonder how much the world is lying to you. Your parents are the world.”

This is, in part, why the story a parent chooses to tell about an affair has a profound impact on a child.

"It’s about secrecy and shame. That’s the poison. It’s the deceit that makes it toxic,” says Dr. Azmaira Maker, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships and family therapy. If a child believes their real father is another man or that their mother lied about their origins, it can affect the way they form their own identity. It’s estimated that an average of 3.7 percent of children have a paternal discrepancy.

Children of cheaters are by no means destined for infidelity. Yet without allowing them time to grieve over the loss of their “ideal” parent and addressing feelings of betrayal and anger, some might unconsciously go on to repeat the negative patterns. Even sons who don’t want to replicate the sins of their fathers may find themselves drawn to parallel situations.

“Some people have what’s called a reaction formation. Their development is not about themselves, but about a reaction to their parents,” says Lusterman. “It doesn’t tell you what you want to be like, only tells you what you don’t want to be like. People who say they’ll never do what their father did end up doing exactly what their father did if you’re working with a negative model.”

According to Maker, there’s not enough long-term data to make generalizations regarding the effects of infidelity on a large sample of children as they grow into adults, yet patterns are clear.

“It’s not just a behavior, it’s a whole dynamic of relationships,” says Maker, comparing it to patterns that occur in children whose parents were abusive or alcoholics.

Experts say that the first step in coming to terms with a parent’s affair is working toward forgiveness, and it looks like Katherine Schwarzenegger has already tried. "Sometimes we forgive people because we want them back in our lives,” she tweeted, before later erasing it. 

As for her brother, Lusterman says a therapist should sit down with him and acknowledge that nothing is going to be resolved overnight. Despite his obvious anger, his Twitter reflects a self-awareness and a desire to grow and heal:

"Some days you feel like shit, some days you want to quit and just be normal for a bit, yet i love my family till death do us apart."

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in Women's eNews, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere.