Marcie Katz* knew her marriage was shaky, but she had no intention of breaking up the family over it. “We have two kids and I had so much guilt about feeling unhappy in my marriage,” she recalls. “Leaving is not easy.”
In addition to working 40-hour weeks, Katz, a graphic artist in Vancouver, took care of everything at home, from groceries and cooking to birthdays and clothes. Although she nagged her husband, Steven,* to pitch in more, the only duty he took on was handling their finances.
So when Katz discovered a payment to an adultery website on Steven’s Visa bill, she was furious, but not entirely surprised. In fact, she says she gets why parents cheat: “Having kids brings so many pressures, and when the excitement in your relationship is gone, you want it back.” You can talk it out, but that’s hard work. “It’s a lot easier,” she says, “to check out and find something new and exciting on the side.”
Infidelity has been around since the beginning of time — and having kids complicates it, says Calgary psychologist Beth Hedva, the author of the book Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness. While childless couples can just cut and run after a partner has cheated, children tie parents together for life, despite the rift in their relationship. Some parents find a way to stitch the marriage together; others watch it unravel. Either way, the choices that follow infidelity have far-reaching implications for their kids.
Although infidelity is a leading cause of divorce, the numbers are notoriously hard to pin down. While it’s estimated that 30 to 60 percent of married people will cheat, statistics are unreliable because adultery, by its very nature, is a secret activity. Yet infidelity websites are booming. At ashleymadison.com, a dating website specifically for people who want to play outside of their existing relationships, Canadian membership is up to more than one million, with a significant boost in women.
Cheating is fuelled by opportunity, says Karyn Gordon, a relationship expert in private practice, and because opportunity is now everywhere, more people than ever are cheating. In our parents’ generation, a would-be cheater might be stopped by the risk of being overheard on the phone to a lover. Today, being able to connect with other would-be cheaters 24/7 by computer and cellphone makes adultery accessible from anywhere, including your living room. Even general social networking sites like Facebook create opportunity; a recent survey revealed that a whopping 77 percent of Canadians have logged on to reconnect with past loves.
“Whether you’re chatting with an old flame or someone new, relating electronically accelerates intimacy,” Hedva says, noting that an emotional affair can sometimes turn sexual. Hey, it’s a lot easier to fantasize about someone you aren’t mad at for missing supper or leaving wet towels on the floor.
In addition, Gordon says, because many more women have jobs outside the home and are financially independent, there’s more meeting and cheating at work.
In most cases, the marriage is suffering before anyone strays, Hedva notes. Newlyweds don’t typically foresee parenting as hard work, so the realization your relationship has to change to accommodate kids often comes too late. Before you know it, while you’re busy multi-tasking, resentment about feeling burdened or isolated builds. “Resentment is one of the biggest anti-aphrodisiacs in the world,” Hedva says. “If not resolved, it causes us to turn off sexually to our mates, and that’s where looking elsewhere to feel close and connected comes in.”
Nicole Hassan,* a Toronto mom of three, agrees. “Having kids totally changed our relationship,” she says. Married eight years, Hassan was lonely and miserable when, flipping through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, she came across an ad for a cheating website. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom, and her police-officer husband was taking lots of shift work. So while the older kids were at school and the youngest was napping, Hassan logged on and set up a profile. Soon, she was reading messages from married men. “The attention made me feel wanted and attractive.”
Now back at work full-time, Hassan lives a double life, meeting her lovers at restaurants or hotels during the day and using a separate BlackBerry (which she leaves at work) to make plans. She has the deception down to an art, she says, and she’ll continue it as long as she can for the sake of her kids. “I want to maintain their lifestyle — swimming, dance, good schools. I don’t want them shuffling between homes. They’re happy and so am I.”
That happiness may be short-lived. “On top of breaking vows, there’s the deceit, which is the number one injury in betrayal. It’s what hurts most: Not being able to trust your partner to be honest with you,” Hedva says. Some types of affairs can threaten a marriage more than others. The “litmus test affair,” in which you bed an ex only to realize you married the right person after all, may be easier to forgive than years of bed-hopping or falling in love with someone else.
Cassandra Musclow thought her 15-year marriage to Bill was invincible. A construction project manager who travelled for business on weekdays, he was everything she had always wanted in a man: a loving partner, a solid provider, a fun dad. It didn’t hurt that he also shared her passion for sports and was hot in bed. “We enjoyed date nights, fought rarely and laughed a lot,” says Musclow, a mom of two children in Bancroft, Ont.
So when a gorgeous blonde beelined for her in the supermarket and announced she’d been sleeping with Bill for the past three years, Musclow didn’t believe her — at first. Since her kids were nearby, there wasn’t much she could do but listen to the woman’s irrefutable evidence. As soon as she could get free, she stabbed his number on her cellphone and confronted him.
Musclow moved out with the kids, and Bill dedicated himself to winning her back. He’d already ended the affair, which is what prompted the other woman to confront Musclow in the first place. “He switched jobs to be around more. He called, sent flowers, took me out. He was 100 percent transparent about everything,” she says. Bill saw the kids every weekend.
Musclow did take her husband back, but only after living apart for 18 months, and dating for a full year. “We spent so much time exploring why the affair happened and how we would treat each other differently,” she says. Although she isn’t sure the pain of the betrayal will ever heal, Musclow says her marriage in the aftermath of his infidelity is deeper and more authentic. “We talk about how we feel and we really listen to each other.”
Marcie Katz, the mother of two whose husband cheated repeatedly with women he met through a website, says the affairs, although “gross,” were not the main reason she refused his pleas to work it out. Rather, it was his ongoing dishonesty. “For four years, he was lying about what he was doing. I trusted him to take care of our family and, instead, he was spending our money on women and hotels. I knew that trust could never be regained.”
It might have been tempting for Katz to punish her husband by turning their kids against him, but she didn’t. Gordon agrees that was the right thing to do: When it comes to the gory details of adultery, she says children should be kept in the dark. Although the parent who was cheated on may feel justified in sharing the real reason for the family breakup, doing so forces kids to take sides — which hurts them. Learning that mom or dad has broken vows can leave children feeling confused and betrayed; over the long term, there’s a danger they will carry those insecure feelings into their own love relationships, Hedva says. While you can and should shield kids from an affair, she admits it’s virtually impossible to shield them from emotions that course through a household during any marital crisis. “Kids catch on because they’re little emotional barometers.”
Suzanne Witt’s* three young kids are feeling the effects of their dad’s affair, even though they don’t know the details. After 14 years, Witt says her marriage to Jonathan had grown apathetic. Then his commute from work to their home in Montreal began taking longer, and when Witt would ask him to join her and the kids for a movie, he would shrug her off. “The kids were missing him. For months, he was basically ignoring them,” Suzanne recalls.
Then, one morning, Jonathan laid it bare: He had a girlfriend. Two days later, after Witt spent the day being consoled by a friend, her five-year-old, Leo, told her the kids had been at the lake with “Daddy and his girlfriend.” Although Jonathan swears the word “girlfriend” was never used, the kids put the pieces together.
In a situation like Witt’s, Gordon advises giving age-appropriate answers, such as “We are working through some problems, but they have nothing to do with you.” Growing up, kids have to learn that even parents cause each other pain sometimes and that handling adversity is an important part of any relationship. And your kids will pay the price for an affair unless you work on the anger that betrayal causes. “Unresolved anger turns to bitterness, and kids feel when their parents are pissed off, even if they don’t know why,” she says. In the end, they need to know that, whether you separate or not, they will always be loved, and that, together, you will work to come to a place of resolution, Hedva adds.
To find that resolution, Marcie Katz consulted a therapist and family mediator before asking Steven to pack his bags. “I had to push my anger aside and negotiate a parenting plan because I wasn’t going to be the jilted ex poisoning the kids. Just because he screwed up our marriage doesn’t mean he is any less their father.” In fact, she says, Steven has become a more involved dad since the split. “Now he plans outings with them and takes time to really relate. Now that he’s lost the family he had, I think he realizes just how precious the time he spends with them is.”
*Name, and some personal details, changed by request.
Help after an affair
These resources provide information and links to counselling services in your area
Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, ccacc.ca
Family Mediation Canada, fmc.ca
Registry of Marriage and Family Therapists in Canada, marriageandfamily.ca
After the Affair: Healing the Pain & Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful
by Janis A. Spring
Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness
by Beth Hedva
Also read: 10 signs of a cheater
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.