Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton are not unlike many male and female patients I have treated who have faced or will face the unenviable task of telling their children—at some point—that they have had relationships with women or men outside their marriages. They don’t have the choice of keeping their infidelities secrets just between themselves and their spouses, because the media has reported on their outside relationships. In other cases, extramarital affairs have ended my patients’ marriages, and that becomes the reason that their children need to be told the truth.
When there is no possibility of shielding older children from the fact that one of their parents has had a sexual relationship outside of marriage, what is the best way to share the truth?
Only the truth will suffice. Children, adolescents and teenagers may not have as much knowledge of the world as adults, but they often have remarkable intuition for whether others are being honest with them. They also deserve the truth, because their psyches and senses of self are still developing, and it would be especially wrong to saddle them with lies that lead them to conclude inaccurate things about human emotion, human behavior and whether their own internal thoughts and feelings are “normal.”
The truth often can be presented as facts, first, putting aside moralizing. It might go something like this: “I haven’t always been able to control my feelings of being attracted to (or caring about) women other than your mother. I have felt connected to other women in ways that I didn’t expect when I got married. And, yet, when I communicated with other women or even spent time with them and felt close to them, I still loved your mother and this family very much. I never loved you even a little bit less and never will. You don’t have to worry for one moment, ever, that I won’t be here for you, even if I’ve made your mom feel hurt or jealous or angry, all of which are totally normal feelings of hers, given what’s happened. I hope in your lives you’ll be able to express your real ideas about the kinds of relationships you want to have, and to be open and honest about it with those you love. But that can be very challenging, and very scary, and I haven’t always been able to.”
You’ll notice that a message like this one doesn’t lean heavily on the notion of sin and guilt. That’s because, in my experience, most men and women who have had extramarital relationships don’t experience deep feelings of having sinned. The ones who do are those who are deeply religious. For the vast majority of others, invoking the notion of sin is merely a platitude and ends up ringing hollow. There’s nothing quite as destructive to children as feigning piousness and the desire to repent.
If more men (especially) and women were honest with their children about how difficult it is to maintain feelings of passion in a marriage and express powerful impulses of passion only within a marriage, more young people would take their vows to heart, or at least think twice about promising monogamy in a world that many would say is so ill-suited to it.
Fairy tales help children to fall asleep, but they do very little to help adults to live fully and stay wide awake spiritually.