Illustration: Ness Lee
Rachel* will never forget the night she saw the email that, she says, “I wasn’t supposed to see.” It was an evening like so many others in her marriage. She’d dozed off when putting the kids, then six and 10, to bed, while her husband, Marcus, worked late at his communications job. When she woke, she heard Marcus downstairs making a snack, so she went to their shared computer to check her email one last time before bed. That’s when she saw the emails he’d just been reading. “Hey, I’m missing you,” said the note from a woman she didn’t know. “I can’t wait to hold you and feel you in my arms, my love. It’s been so long,” read her husband’s reply.
“My gut clenched and my heart beat faster,” says Rachel. (Like others in this article, she asked that her real name not be used.) Her mind reeled. Cheating was the last thing she had expected of her “faithful as a puppy” husband.
This moment was also the last thing Marcus expected. He was on the couch in their Guelph, Ont., home when he saw his wife running down the stairs, weeping and gasping for breath. “I said, ‘What is wrong? What is wrong?’ I thought something had happened to a relative or friend,” he says. Then came her questions: “Who is [this]? Do you love her? Do you want to be with her?” It took him half a second to realize what had just happened: He’d left his email open, revealing his nearly two-year affair with a woman he’d met at work. It was his little secret. He’d never meant it to endanger his comfortable life.
“It was the worst moment in my life,” says Marcus. “I thought I’d destroyed what was most important to me—not just the marriage but the children and everything. I thought I’d be kicked out of the house.”
Life as they knew it had undergone an irreversible shift. Infidelity is something both of them thought only happened to other people. In fact, it is one of the most common disasters that can befall a marriage. While Canada-specific data on affairs is hard to come by, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women in the US report having sex with someone who wasn’t their spouse while married, according to the most recent General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Infidelity isn’t going anywhere, either. While men’s reported rates of cheating have held steady for decades, women’s rates rose by more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2010. And among married millennials ages 18 to 29, extramarital sex among women (11 percent) has slightly edged out the occurences among men (10 percent). With Tinder, Facebook and sexting, the potential for indiscretions—and for being found out—is greater than ever.
While we most often think of straying as an offence against the betrayed partner, that act reverberates through all of a couple’s relationships, and the most immediate of those affected are the kids. “People think an affair is just something personal, that the kids will never find out,” says Ana Nogales, a Los Angeles and Orange counties psychologist and the author of Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful. “But in most cases, it creates emotional distance within the family.” Betrayal marks a crossroads in a relationship—and having children in the mix means the potential for harm is that much greater. Both people in the couple have serious work ahead: The two of them must decide whether to try to rebuild things or break up and start over, all while protecting their children from as much fallout as possible. For some couples, the discovery of an affair will end their relationship; for others, it can inaugurate a new stage of radical honesty. “When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair, I often tell them this: ‘Your first marriage is over,’” writes Belgian therapist and TED talk phenomenon Esther Perel in her latest book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. “Would you like to create a second one together?”
As Rachel and Marcus discovered, that decision is anything but simple.
Infidelity is not a topic our culture is eager to discuss. While one might expect that our current age’s fluid relationship and sexual styles would make us more laissez-faire about affairs, the opposite is true. “It’s like a disease,” says Bob Huizenga, a relationship coach in Michigan. “People think if you talk about it, you might catch it. Other people might think you’re doing it. There’s a lot of cultural shame around it.”
In an era when we expect to marry our best friends, infidelity may actually hurt in a deeper way than it did for our grandmothers, who married more out of duty or for financial security. While women’s liaisons may be closing the infidelity gender gap, perceptions of infidelity remain gendered. “Men are trash,” we might say dismissively when a husband cheats, but an unfaithful wife is judged more harshly—particularly if she’s a mother, a life stage at which women are supposed to abandon selfish choices for selfless ones.
Huizenga began to focus on helping couples deal with the aftermath of infidelity after he went through it himself in the 1980s; his former wife cheated when their kids were eight, 11 and 13. He says it’s important for couples to talk openly about this when it happens, so they can heal from it—whether together or apart. Working through the reasons behind his wife’s affair helped him have “a deep compassion” for her, Huizenga says. They stayed together for another decade after her infidelity and they still have a good relationship.
Traditional thinking on adultery holds that there’s either something wrong with the cheater, or there’s a defect in the relationship. That’s true in many cases, including that of Beth and Jim, a Milton, Ont., couple who saw the spark in their 17-year marriage fade with the stress of work and raising children. “I kept focusing on the kids and kept using that as a reason I was too exhausted for anything else,” says Beth. “There was just no deep love or fulfillment.” When she discovered Jim had been finding sex elsewhere, she tried to salvage their relationship—there was an awkward last trip to Mexico—but he wasn’t as committed to fixing things, and they divorced.
Not all affairs are due to problems in the relationship, however. A person can be in a marriage they love and still cheat. That happy people would risk the lives they’ve worked so hard to build for a fling upends our assumptions about monogamy, argues Perel. We assume that if a relationship is healthy, there’s no reason to stray. When happy people cheat, it tells us that there are limits to the fulfillment monogamy can offer and that even the most apparently solid partnership is vulnerable.
“One thing that really bothers me is that Rachel always thinks there was something wrong, that there was something not complete for me in the relationship,” says Marcus. “She was a good wife, a good mother.” So why the extramarital fling? He’s blunt: “I did it out of lust. I did it out of curiosity.” The sexual urgency in his marriage had faded over the years, he says. Having kids meant there were even fewer opportunities. “I still had some hunger inside me for something else,” he admits.
Lust may be an obvious reason for cheating, but there are countless others, including issues with intimacy or a need to prove one’s desirability. When kids come into the picture, they can rob parents of not only time and sleep but also their ability to nourish the other facets of who they are. An underacknowledged factor, particularly for women, is the feeling that marriage and parenthood has cost them their identity—specifically, the independent, free-spirited person they were before getting married. In the arms of a lover, they’re no longer putting everyone else’s needs before their own and can feel, just for a moment, like they’re somebody new.
Another common occurrence is when fathers of very young children look for sex outside the home to distract from the fear that they aren’t adequate inside the home, Huizenga says. “Often, it’s the male who doesn’t know how to respond to parenting or doesn’t know how to support his wife,” he says. “He may resent the fact that the children are getting the attention he used to get. Or he hasn’t quite grown up yet, and is in his extended adolescence and doesn’t want to assume responsibility for a family.”
In his practice, he doesn’t encounter many women with young children who are unfaithful. “Mothers with young kids tend to struggle more with feeling really overwhelmed,” he says. There are exceptions, though. “I’ve run into some cases where a young mother may have an affair because she feels terribly inadequate being a mother. She may try to run away from all of that by running out of the house and finding another man or another woman.” Infidelity occurs in same-sex relationships too, although anecdotal evidence suggests it’s not as often; LGBTQ communities are generally less bound by conventional rules, such as strict monogamy or the idea of concealing one’s romantic feelings.
It’s never a good time to discover the life you’ve been living is a lie, but Alison* uncovered her husband’s long-standing deception at one of the worst conceivable moments. The evening before the 36-year-old mother of two small children was due to give birth to her third, she was interviewed for a TV news segment. The program aired at 6 p.m.; at 6:05, Alison got a Facebook message from a woman whose name wasn’t familiar. “She used my husband’s name and told me there was something I needed to know,” she says.
To her horror, Alison learned that instead of working late, as her husband had always told her he was, he had carried on an affair with this woman for years—ever since Alison was pregnant with their first child. “It was hard to be in the same room as him,” she says. He told her he had never really wanted to be married or be a father, and he withheld information about his multiple betrayals, forcing her to become a detective. She learned there had been more than one other woman, and with each new piece of information—what she calls “trickle truth”—she grieved a little more. Still recovering from her C-section and dealing with a newborn, she felt stunned and fragile.
In the midst of the pain, a crisis like this can present a silver lining. It may be the first time in years that a couple distracted by the demands of work and kids has truly bared their deeper feelings to each other. Intense emotions—rage, fear, grief, abandonment—dominate this raw first stage. It’s a difficult period for not just the betrayed but also the betrayer. The straying spouse may try to rationalize their actions as a way of alleviating their own guilt and shame, or try to get their hurt partner to move on. This is the point at which a good therapist (and good books) can help. “The affair marks the passing of two innocent illusions: that your marriage is exceptional and that you are unique or prized,” writes Janis Abrahms Spring in her classic infidelity manual, After the Affair.
Therapists say the best thing for the person who cheated to do at this stage is to put their own feelings aside and give their partner as much support as they need. “Most cheaters, once it’s in the open, say, ‘Let’s just forget about it. Let’s just move on,’” says Huizenga. “But what they need to say is, ‘This has been extremely devastating for you, and I want you to talk about it. I will try to answer to the best of my ability, even if it’s embarrassing or shameful. For the next six to 12 months, this will be a topic that’s between us.’”
Although he had betrayed his wife, Marcus had never intended to disrupt his marriage. In his mind, he had compartmentalized his affair from the rest of his life. He didn’t want to leave Rachel. “I never stopped loving her,” he says. “Maybe this is some cheap rationale, but I do believe you can love more than one person.” He hadn’t intentionally pursued the affair with the woman at his work, he says. They’d struck up an email friendship and gone out for coffee, which turned into a second coffee; they started kissing in the car afterward. “I didn’t have a lot of sexual experience before I met Rachel,” Marcus says. “Sometimes I’d look at other women. I told myself I would stop before anything happened, but I didn’t.”
In the hours and days after the affair was discovered, Marcus said all the right things. “I never tried to defend my behaviour,” he says. “I said, ‘Any moment you can’t look me in the face anymore, I’m out.’” He apologized profusely. That night, Rachel spent a few hours at a friend’s house. When she returned, Marcus had already packed a bag, but she told him to stay for the night. It was agonizing for her. “In my heart, I wanted him out of the house, but I did not want to upset my children,” says Rachel. “Him leaving would mean I’d have to explain his absence—the secret would be out, and my kids would lose their father. He is a good dad and loves his kids, and they love him. I grew up without a biological dad—I didn’t want them to miss out on having a dad.”
Every night for the next two weeks, Marcus expected Rachel would throw him out. And every night, she told him to stay. “It was horrible,” he says. “I felt completely raw from guilt and having done this to someone I loved.” She says he kept out of her way and answered her every question, which helped.
“I think a lot of women expect that if this happened, they’d leave,” says Rachel, who struggled between her impulses as both a feminist and a mother. Marcus wasn’t abusive or an alcoholic, both of which would have made her decision clearer. Marcus was a good dad. If she left, it would have meant selling the house, sharing the dog—and, worst of all, being away from her children. “Kids change everything,” Rachel says. “I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to keep my family intact, even though it came at a personal price to my psychological well-being. I guess what it came down to is, I love my kids more than I dislike my husband.”
While many are quick to counsel betrayed spouses to “kick them to the curb,” having a family makes it all more complicated.
“It’s such a tough decision when you have kids,” says Alison. “Money was tight already. Stay or face the fact that I would be living at the poverty line? Neither option was good.” It took having a conversation with a friend for Alison to choose her next steps. “My friend asked me, ‘What would you say to your daughter if she were in your situation?’ And all I could think of was, ‘Leave.’ It was somehow easier to find the answer that way.” She asked for a divorce and ultimately moved in with her parents so they could help with child care while she faced the task of starting her life over.
Parents who try to spare their kids the gory details of what Dad or Mom has done might have to tell a lot of white lies. Some will find themselves lying on their partner’s behalf and then deeply resenting it.
Alison says her oldest son, who is now five, “still asks about his house and his friends and his toys,” and “why Daddy is choosing his new girlfriend and their son over him.” She says he’d ask, “Why is Daddy living with that baby and not me? I am his first baby. I am his number one boy. How come he doesn’t want to always be with me?” He also begs his mom to fix things: “Mommy, why can’t you make Daddy love you and put our family back?” He has developed perfectionist tendencies and problems with going to the bathroom. And his two-year-old brother has tantrums. “It breaks my heart to hear them miss our ‘old’ life, but I have to be calm and be a responsible parent,” Alison says. “You have to suppress your sense of what’s going on personally and just react in terms of the parent: What is best for my child to hear? And try to act accordingly.”
Infidelity has multiple effects on kids, says Nogales. While researching her book, she conducted an online survey of 822 adults whose parents had committed infidelity, mostly when the respondents were young. She found that 88 percent of them were angered or hurt by the affair, and 76 percent felt personally betrayed by the cheating parent. Seventy-three percent said their own romantic relationships as adults were affected. “If parents would think about the consequences before cheating, maybe they wouldn’t do the things they do,” says Nogales.
Therapists warn that kids should never be pushed to take sides, even if your cheating ex is a lout. Huizenga says the best thing parents can do is to relieve their children’s sense that they must help to “fix” things. “Older kids often feel they need to take it on or rage against the person that’s cheating,” he says. “The trick is to remove the child from that triangle.” Tell them clearly that the adults are going to handle things. Even if you tell kids they were not part of the problem, many will wonder whether they did something wrong. It’s important, Huizenga says, to listen to your kids and acknowledge their feelings but try to keep conversations focused on current feelings and thoughts.
After the meaning behind the affair is decoded, couples must decide what the future holds. For some, like Rachel and Marcus, that means reinventing their deconstructed marriage. For others, like Alison, that means reinventing herself as a single mom, and finding support and community alone. And for some rare couples, the shakeup of an affair may lead to a rejuvenated relationship.
When Ginny found out about her husband Richard’s infidelity via a text nearly four years ago, it didn’t seem like their story was going to end well. Already suspicious, she had looked at her auto mechanic husband’s phone; she saw a text coming in from a sender named “Advanced Auto Parts,” yet the message read, “Good night, sweetie.” They had a major fight that revealed the depths of Richard’s deception. Ginny learned he had been lying to his lover, too, telling her he was divorced. Even worse, he was an alcoholic and abusive.
Ginny didn’t want to give up on her husband yet—she had known him since high school and still considered him her best friend. The parents of two kids in Colorado decided to get serious help. Richard enrolled in six weeks of rehab, and after that, they both spent four weeks seeing therapists separately from each other. Then they started eight months of intensive twice-a-week marriage counselling—a major commitment. Knowing Richard’s history of lying, Ginny asked him to sign a communication disclosure, which meant he agreed to let his therapist and their marriage counsellor share information. This, plus Ginny’s seriousness about signing divorce papers if Richard backed out of therapy, led to real change.
Through therapy, they were able to trace the origins of the affair and drinking to a serious bout of cancer Richard had gone through. And Richard was set on changing his ways. He found an accountability app and installed it on both of their phones, allowing Ginny to track his whereabouts and phone activity for a year. For her part, Ginny says she learned coping skills, “so that I didn’t constantly obsess over the affair and equate it to every single normal problem we had.”
Incredibly, the two of them now say they’re happier than ever. “Our relationship is better now than before the affair,” Ginny says. “Better communication. Less anger. More love. More honesty. He woke up to his alcoholism and mental issues at long last.” She is clear, however, about the consequences if Richard ever cheats again. “I will divorce him and never look back.”
Because infidelity is so taboo and so little discussed, many couples who decide to stay together aren’t sure what that is supposed to look like. For Rachel and Marcus, their healing has meant managing the home and parenting together as friends—but not romantic partners. After Marcus had another short affair, deeply hurting Rachel yet again, they both decided on a new policy: an open marriage with conditions. “Our sex life died after the affair, and I figured that was no way to live,” she says. “I found myself attracted to someone and had an inkling of the temptation Marcus must have felt before he embarked on the affair. It was me who suggested we open things up.” Her dalliance didn’t last longer than a year, but she continues to enjoy an independent life beyond her marriage, travelling and going out with friends. Seeing a therapist has helped, too.
She says her pragmatic decision has been worth it, although it’s come at a cost. “Our relationship is companionate but not ideal. Some days I think I deserve so much more. Other days I think it’s a miracle I don’t hate my husband and can still laugh at his jokes and even enjoy his company,” Rachel says. “In some ways, it strengthened me rather than weakened me. I used to lean on him to be my rock. Now I’m my own rock.”
Couples struggling with the aftermath of infidelity often agonize over what to tell the kids. Many will be tempted to keep it a secret. But often, kids already know more than they let on. “Kids may not know it was infidelity, but they know something is amiss,” says relationship coach Bob Huizenga. Yet telling them everything isn’t a good idea. Kids often feel personally hurt by revelations of an affair, and they might feel pressured to keep embarrassing details a secret, says psychologist Ana Nogales.
While kids don’t need to be told about the cheating, they do need an explanation for the tension they’re sensing. Kids are sensitive to lies, so don’t say anything that isn’t true. What exactly to say depends on their age. Parents could tell younger children they’re having some difficult times, but they’re working on resolving them. Avoid making accusations and emphasize that the adults are going to take care of the problem. “Children should learn that things might go wrong in life, but it is the responsibility of adults to fix it,” says Nogales.
Although you might think preteens are old enough to know about an affair, they’re at a stage where they are trying to understand how the world runs. They are usually judgmental and not prepared to understand how Dad or Mom betrayed the family. If they ask direct questions, you can be more specific—up to a point. You could say, “I can try to answer your questions, but there may be some I won’t be able to, because it’s not going to help you or me to tell you more. I can assure you that I love you and that I will be here for you.” If you’re the parent who had the affair, you could add, “I know you have doubts about me because I failed in your trust in me, but I am willing to show that I will do my best to fix this situation.”
If parents decide to stay together, they need to know their kids are watching them carefully, says Nogales. Children will be fearing abandonment and will need lots of reassuring. And remember that any promise you make needs to be followed through on—kids need to know they can trust their parents.
It’s time to be blunt: Cheating often spells the end of a relationship. If you don’t want a roll in the hay to be the death of your marriage, you’ll have to work hard to earn back your partner’s trust. Here’s what therapists suggest.
Dos -Reassure your partner you love them. Respect their reaction, no matter what it is.
-If you haven’t already done so, break things off with your lover. You don’t have to ghost them, points out therapist Esther Perel. She suggests a kind but firm email. Avoid meeting in person, as that may stir up attraction again.
-Make space for your partner’s rage and tears, even if it’s painful. You may want to move on as quickly as possible to soothe your own guilt, but they need to fully express their feelings first.
-See a couple’s therapist both together and separately.
-Ask yourself what sparked the affair that you could bring into your marriage. How did the affair make you feel—playful, alive, relaxed? What would it take to feel that way with your spouse?
-Write a love letter to your partner detailing what you adore about them and how you want your future together to look.
-Do not attempt to justify or rationalize your unfaithfulness to your partner. And definitely don’t bring up any role you feel they might have played in allowing the relationship to deteriorate—at least, not until their most painful feelings of hurt and anger start to subside.* The betrayed should try to avoid the urge to demand graphic details they might later regret knowing (for example, what the sex was like, what they did that I don’t, or what they were wearing).
-The betrayed should try not to turn detective, monitoring their cheating partner’s texts and daily movements. Checking in and transparency will build trust, but 24-7 surveillance will not.
-Don’t expect things to go back to how they were before the affair. The relationship may heal, and love and trust may return, but it will be different.
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