An affair can be emotionally devastating to a marriage. When a partner cheats, it’s a complete breach of trust between two people who have pledged to love, honor, (and yes) be faithful to one another ‘til death do they part. Not only does an affair emotionally affect the victimized partner, it can also create a whole host of other issues in the relationship, from humiliation, STI’s — to even instances where a child is born from an affair. And while it might seem utterly impossible to recover from an affair that resulted in a pregnancy, some couples can (and will) be able to navigate this marital marshland and lovingly accept the child, too.
While an affair can be enough to rock a relationship, it can often result in divorce. An estimated 20-40% of marriages end in divorce after infidelity, according to the American Psychological Association. But for those who truly want to make their marriage work, there are ways to heal from the affair and also accept when a child is born from an affair. Dr. Michael Wetter, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the Director of Psychology at UCLA Medical Center, explains how partners can handle when a child is born from an affair — and the necessary steps you’ll both need to ensure that the child is loved and potentially make your marriage work.
When do you tell your child that they were conceived during an affair?
It’s a great question. I strictly stand by the premise of the sooner the better because then it becomes integrated into their sense of self and there’s no longer any sense of mystery or doubt. It becomes a normal part of the fabric of their identity. They can integrate it in a much easier way.
Under the age of 10 is fine, but you also don’t want to tell them at 1, because they don’t have a sense of that; they don’t have conceptualization. Kids start asking, “Where did I come from?” or “How are babies made?” usually around 4-5 years of age when they start playing with the idea of how they came about.
And that’s not to say that you say, “You were born under special circumstances” or unusual circumstances, but rather to say, “This is who your daddy is,” or “This is who your mother is,” and “This is what our family looks like.” All families come in different shapes and sizes, all families are different in where they live, and this is how ours looks.
I love that.
The sooner you do that, the sooner you can define what family is before they become acculturated with a predefined definition that ultimately becomes the responsibility of the parent. Family is defined by the family; family is not necessarily defined by society. So the sooner you introduce that, the more normative it becomes for the childhood experience.
How do you equip the child to explain why their family looks the way it does?
I think we’ve already been seeing that for years already. Whether it be in the late 70s or early 80s where it was becoming more of the norm for divorced households. Or you had blended families or split families. One of the lesser known but more widely accepted blended families was The Brady Bunch. That wasn’t the typical family. I think the same thing holds true now for same sexed couples, or affairs, or multiple parental figures in a family unit. I think the time to define what your family is starts even before your child starts school.
It’s also modeled. It’s the experience of not having separate but equal interactions but the more you can integrate the familial elements like parties, vacations, or events where everyone is present — that’s what builds the sense of family and that internal familial community for the child. It’s one thing to say something and another to experience something. The experience of family is their working definition, and it coincides very nicely with what the parent would be saying as well, which is, “This is our experience of family.”
Some kids might have one parent, or some might live with a grandparent. Peter Parker from Spiderman wasn’t living with his parents; it was Uncle Ben and Aunt May. It’s just to say that every family is different.
But if the child were to be asked, “Why do you have two dads?” would they have to explain it?
No. They can say, “I don’t know. That’s just how my family is.” Why do you have two brown eyes? That’s just the way it is. The onus should never be on the child to explain why their family looks the way it does. To be fair, it should never have to fall upon the parent, either. Nobody has to justify the family but certainly not the child. I think that’s where they feel pressure, either for the child or the parent, and there’s no need for justification.
If the biological parent wants to be a part of the child’s life, how can that person be introduced into the family without it taking a toll on the relationship?
This is where it becomes, if you will, a multi matrix design of communication, support, understanding, and love. If the spouse is aware of the child and is willing to commit to the relationship, that’s already huge progress. Now it’s about understanding tolerance and a key concept is knowing how you’re going to be defining your family. It’s not one vs. the other. It’s in support of the child and the community. It’s a very difficult and delicate situation to navigate and one that shouldn’t be necessarily dismissed as “You’re being unreasonable; why can’t you accept it the way it is without any problem?” To be able to tolerate being in the room with someone who your spouse had an intimate affair with is challenge enough. To be in the room and get along with someone your spouse had an intimate affair with and being an active component in raising the child takes even more compassion and commitment to honor the vows you have.
It really goes back to the concept of building trust and having that open dialogue where the spouse who has been cheated on has the right to express how they feel in those difficult moments. They should be able to say that this is tough for me, and over time, those difficult moments fade. When they see the spouse who cheated is committed to building and staying together as a family, the distrust over time and the pain fades. But it’s difficult so there needs to be a lot of understanding and support to voice their feelings without judgment.
It’s less about couples therapy and more about parenting therapy. Having a coach to navigate these moments like, “we have an event coming up. Let’s talk about how we can approach this.” It’s better to voice those things than bury them and put on a façade that everything is okay.
That brings up a good point. Should the biological parent be included in events in the family’s life?
It depends on dynamic. If the parents are willing to be present and get along, that will always benefit the child. What you want to avoid is sending the child a mixed message. You don’t want to say, “This is what our family looks like, but we don’t want your father here.” Or to say, “This is your father or mother, but they didn’t want to come.” You have to have consistent messaging, you have to model it, and you have to implement it. if they can be there earlier on, then it’s fantastic. And you have to make sure that they continue to be there. Or if the parent doesn’t want to be there, so be it, but make it the norm and not an expectation, because once it becomes an expectation, then we set the stage for failed expectations.
Should the child be in therapy?
Well, that’s when we are indicating to the child, why do they need to be in therapy? What’s the child’s issue? “You’re telling me that every family is different, and this is the way ours is, so why am I in therapy?” [laughs] The therapy comes about if the child says that they’re having a struggle, either cognitively or emotionally, with whatever is going on.
If the child feels that this is the norm and that this is their family and they’re comfortable with everything, there might not be a need for the child to be part of the therapeutic process. I think it’s good for the parents to be able to discuss whatever difficulties they’re facing, whatever pain or anxiety, that needs to be a safe space and forum. But the child shouldn’t be experiencing any of that. The child shouldn’t be a part of the drama.
What would happen if the biological parent wants to be a part of the child’s life but the victimized partner doesn’t?
Now we have a choice. That cuts out what is the defined role of the biological father and what is the defined role of the stepfather, for lack of a better term. It becomes difficult to navigate, because how does that play out in the marriage? It’s a heavy topic and that should be discussed before the birth occurs because now, we set up potential for the child to be the source of a bad object.
It’s not that the child ostracized or devalued by the stepparent more often it results in divorce. Not every scenario is going to result in the marriage being able to survive that.
Have you seen there be success where everyone could put their pain aside and work together in the best interest of child?
I’ve seen it; it has happened. Unfortunately, it’s not the norm. Either there will be a couple who ends up divorcing, or the pregnancy is terminated. I would say those tend to be the more normative outcomes, but it does happen where spouse says, “What happened, happened, and I’m learning to engage in forgiveness. Our family will have an additional component and we will find a way to make this work through.”
What I found to be normative is that they end up divorcing and they redefine what family is. They have established children, and they find a way to integrate the two families together even though the couple doesn’t live together. It might be where couples divorce and figure out how to navigate coparenting but in a new light as opposed to trying to stay in marriage where they are a lot of hurt feelings. It’s like the Arnold Schwarzenegger scenario. I don’t see them villainizing the child but you’re not seeing large family gatherings where they are all unified, either.
You want to root for the underdog, and we want the happily ever after. At the same time, we also have to be pragmatic. You need to know what the couple is willing to do to maintain the marriage. And if you’re not invested, how do you part in the most amicable of ways?
I would think that the couple would need to go to therapy. It doesn’t seem like something they would be able to work out on their own.
I think that in these situations, couples should reach out for support. The first thing is that they pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer, but they should pick up the phone and connect with psychologist because there’s a lot to process before taking any action. Take a moment to breathe, reflect, and heal. It’s an injury because it’s a violation of trust. That injury has to be addressed, not for the sake of the child but for the sake of the parent. There’s a way to navigate the outcome we desire, but the outcome we desire might not be the one we achieve. But if we achieve an outcome that is healthy, balanced, and ultimately safe and happy, then that is the best outcome.
Do you feel that because the partner who has been cheated on has some level of PTSD? Would it then be more important for the parents to work through it before introducing the biological parent into the child’s life?
There should be healing in the marriage first. It starts with foundation and the relationship is the foundation. If we put this in the context of a house, the foundation of the house has to be secure before you build an add on. If the foundation is fragile, rickety, or insecure, then it doesn’t matter how nice the add on is, it won’t be secure.
How long does it usually take for someone to not ever get over an affair, but to feel better about it so that it doesn’t sting anymore?
There is no timeframe. It depends on how secure the communication and trust are. It’s going to be painful and a little more raw initially but if we talk about when it when it first occurs, it doesn’t have to take 10 years. Within six months to a year, something could be achievable, but it depends on the dynamics.
It’s different when you find out that your partner had an affair and is pregnant and finding out that the child is not yours versus finding out that your partner had an affair and the child is now six and finding out that they’re not yours. That is a very different scenario because now you’re also going through the process of loss and grieving — it’s not the death of parent/child relationship but it is the death of that biological connection mixed with the feeling of betrayal. It’s a lot; that person is a stronger person than I am, I can tell you that. I give that person a lot of credit that their heart and compassion is so huge.
Ultimately there is a path that doesn’t have to result in pain or long-standing suffering. The path can have a successful outcome but it’s a path with many steps. But what is truly important is that you shouldn’t feel obligated nor should you be encouraged to navigate that path alone. What I tell my patients is that life is not linear. There are many multiple routes to get to the same destination. The path we start on isn’t necessarily the same path we remain on, but we can still get to where we want to go. And that’s what’s so important in this kind of scenario. It’s to say that your life isn’t over. Everything you thought you had or wanted to have is not gone, but it does mean that you look at it through a different lens.