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Guest blog: Infidelity is a fact of life, and we aren't helping children by not talking about it

(59 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 07-May-13 10:46:09

In today's guest blog, author and blogger Kate Figes argues that sexual infidelity does less damage to relationships than the taboos and silences surrounding it. Adults, she says, need to find better ways to deal with the reality of relationships, if they want to protect their children's emotional health.

What do you think - have we developed unrealistic expectations about our capacity to be faithful? Are we passing these on to our children, and in the process making it hard for them to cope with reality? Let us have your thoughts here on the thread, and if you blog about this don't forget to post your URL.

"In the dark old days when there was no divorce (not so very long ago for those of us without money), when there was no escape from an unhappy marriage, discreet infidelity was common amongst women, as well as men. Today, sexual fidelity is considered to be THE crucial bond to committed relationships. Most of us manage to be monogamous most of the time. Yet most of us also find others outside that bond of sexual exclusivity to be attractive at times. What's interesting is why people step over that boundary.

However, rather than seeking to understand why people might stray sexually, social sanctions around ANY sexual infidelity have hardened to try and keep us true to one another. All 'cheating' is considered wrong and the ethos is 'one strike and you're out.' The trouble with this new ethos is that I believe (after three years' research for a book on infidelity) that the myths and taboos surrounding infidelity are doing more damage to relationships than the extra marital sex itself. If all infidelity is always wrong then the risks accrue - as does the thrill of danger, increasing the allure of an extra-marital encounter as a way of forcing change, lifting the dread monotony of depression or boredom, or as a way of escape or revenge for other marital difficulties.

People then have to lie more to cover their tracks. The person being betrayed also 'sees' less in the hope that it will all go away, rather than risking the challenge and losing everything. The most poisonous myth of all born of the new sanctimony surrounding absolute monogamy is that the one who 'cheats' bears 100% of the blame. Countless relationships break down needlessly because of this medieval notion of 'fault' in relationships, and it is the children who suffer most.

Our job as parents doesn't just include keeping them safe, healthy and happy. We also model the first relationship they see. In the midst of the lies which surround affairs, parents easily lie to themselves about their children. They are too young to understand. It doesn't concern them. However all of the evidence suggests that they are acutely aware, sensing a parent's absence emotionally even if they are physically present. Only last week, a presenter on a local BBC radio station told me live on air how she had been left in the back of her father's car with a packet of sweets and Jackie Magazine, while her father visited his mistress. She then found her loyalties split between two parents she loved. Many children know that one parent is playing away before the other parent. Do they tell? In some cases, children are used as go-betweens, or leaned on emotionally for support by a distraught parent once an infidelity is discovered. On the rare occasions when young people are asked, they say they feel they have been betrayed too. And they say that as adults, they find it harder to trust that a relationship will last - particularly if the affair has provoked a separation.

Young people are surrounded by romanticised cultural messages about love and marriage as well as a huge amount of unrealistic pornographic imagery of sex. Now more than ever they need their parents to be honest with them about the highs and lows of relationships. They need us to provide them with healthier role models where our differences are aired and discussed, where they see us being able to express our needs and wants, as well as attempt to accommodate each others. And they need to see that in a healthy relationship we accept each others' short-comings, and are more tolerant and forgiving of mistakes.

If we want to build more nourishing relationships and a more stable life for our children then we are going to have to learn how to strengthen our private worlds from the inside. It is no longer good enough to just close our eyes to all of the temptation out there, hope, or say 'Don't'. We need more sophisticated tools."

Kate Figes blogs about the ups and downs of parenting teenage girls over at Spots and Cellulite and is running a course on Raising Teenage Girls with Mumsnet Academy this June. Her new book "Our Cheating Hearts: Love and Loyalty, Lust and Lies" is out now in paperback.

wws Tue 07-May-13 16:51:35

Very interesting post and I wish I had time to reply in detail but in short I disagree for the following reasons,

1. It is important for parents/ guardians to model good relationship behaviour inc tolerance and forgiveness. However an affair (as opposed to one night stand which I personally may be able to be work thro but others may not) involves the complete destruction of all trust and therefore is different. Is it intolerant to not be a doormat?

2. Yes we are All tempted at times but we are not animals and can control this. We need to be honest with ourselves if we find someone attractive and limit our contact as best we can to reduce temptation.

3. There are better ways to deal with boredom than to have an affair. Likewise the breakdown of a marriage may take two but if one partner is emotionally and often physicAlly elsewhere whilst the other may not even be aware the marriage is in such serious trouble then perhaps it is fair to say the betrayer is at fault in the breakdown, especially as the other partner is often unaware of it and is totally destroyed afterwards. If you are committed to your marriage then try consulling over adultery.

3. I believe my children are special and deserve the full commitment of their partner in future years. I also believe it is my job to ensure they know how to deal with conflict., comprimise and communicate so they can give commitment too. Marriage/ ltr are not easy but betrayal is not the answer. Adultery may be so commonplace these days that it is almost socially acceptable but that doesn't make it right. In reality I find when it comes the topic in general or involving others everyone is v tolerant and accepting lest they be labelled intolerant or judgmental however it in involves them as they betrayed then suddenly it is different. Am unsure what social taboos you refer to? I know law is different .

Anyway sorry bit incoherent as v rushed but v interesting post, even if we disagree.

Ps don't mean to suggest it is always unforgivable just that it is wrong and up to individuals concerned if they can work through it.

goodoldgirl Tue 07-May-13 17:05:24

I agree wholeheartedly. I know two women who deliberately had affairs, and then left the evidence lying around for their partners/husbands to find, in the hopes that said partner/husband would end the relationship - the assumption being that infidelity could not be forgiven. Interestingly, both partners/husbands, while devastated, suggested couples counselling, and did all they could to try and save the relationship, but that wasn't what the women wanted. Neither women remained with the man they'd been unfaithful with - they'd simply used him to end their marriages.

I also know one man who, on finding himself attracted to a colleague, assumed that that must mean there was something wrong in his marriage. He then went about finding fault with his perfectly normal marriage, and is now divorced. All because he'd bought into this modern myth of there being 'one, true soul-mate' and therefore if you're attracted to someone else, then you must have been mistaken in believing that the person you're currently in a relationship with was that soul-mate.

The thing is, in the last month I've quite fancied Pierce Brosnan, then I quite fancied David Tennant, and today I quite fancy Kid Rock blush, but I'm married to a Masood from Eastenders lookalike. Does that mean that I married the wrong bloke??! No, it doesn't.

Whether or not marriage/monogamy is natural is another debate altogether, but given that those are the constraints under which this society currently operates, then in order to make the best of it, I totally agree with Kate Figes - we need to be realistic about the highs and the lows, and be prepared to work hard for our long-term relationships, and to understand that sometimes that work won't be very enjoyable.

Charbon Wed 08-May-13 02:40:58

In general, Kate is right that as a society, we need to get more honest about infidelity and bust some of the myths that surround it, but in stating this, her book instantly loses any credibility:

The most poisonous myth of all born of the new sanctimony surrounding absolute monogamy is that the one who 'cheats' bears 100% of the blame.

This implies that a faithful partner shares some of the 'blame' for another individual's behaviour choices and is just the sort of 'victim-blaming' that society has tried so hard to counter in respect of other relationship-threatening behaviours such as domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism and addiction. In many ways, blaming an unknowing partner for someone else's secret infidelity is even more illogical than blaming him or her for something that is at least in the open domain, such as violence or alcoholism.

People are 50% responsible for their relationships but as individuals with no control over a partner's behaviour, they can never be held responsible or 'to blame' for a partner's affair. The decision to have an affair is 100% the responsibility of the person who has one.

When I see statements like the one italicised, it also strikes me that there are further myths propping it up. It is assumed that an affair or infidelity of any kind is a product of the relationship and this is one of the biggest myths of all, as anyone with experience of modern infidelity will tell you.

In reality, many affairs or single incidents of infidelity have no connection at all with individuals' relationship dissatisfactions but are borne out of dissatisfactions with other aspects of stressful modern life, combined with increased opportunity to meet new sexual partners. In a therapist's room in 2013, for every couple presenting with the stereotypical infidelity scenario of longstanding poor couple-fit, there will be four couples dealing with an aberrant one-night stand, a work friendship that got out of hand, a Social Networking 'old flame' affair and a porn user who got enticed by a pop-up sex dating site. And in those last four, it is commonplace for relationship dissatisfaction to be cited as non-existent - and definitely not the believed reason for the infidelity occurring.

It is therefore extremely important that young people are told that having a happy romantic relationship does not prevent infidelity and that people having affairs do not have two heads and are therefore easily distinguishable from the average 'good' person who loves his/her partner, pays tax, treats everyone with respect and is the pillar of the local community. Because those 'pillars' are having affairs too. There are no 'types' and there will be times (and situations) in life when people are more vulnerable to the attentions of someone else.

In terms of educating young people on the threshold of a monogamous relationship, it is helpful to get them discussing fidelity and the challenges it presents. So many affairs occur because people think they are completely resilient to an ego-boost, or because they think their good relationship gives them a coat of armour which no-one or nothing can penetrate. So they fail to put up any boundaries and are notoriously poor at risk-assessing situations that will test their resolve.

The challenge is to debunk some of the common myths about infidelity which in themselves are risk factors (i.e. people in happy relationships won't be tempted) and acknowledge that ordinary people in good relationships are unfaithful, while also being honest about the pain and destruction it causes to individuals and families in its aftermath.

One of the most difficult things we must address though is that because of the victim-blaming that goes on and the assumption that the relationship is at fault, many couples don't share their experiences with others for fear of being judged. So the stereotypes of unhappy marriages, repeat philanderers and 'cheating types' persist, along with the erroneous and smug beliefs and myths that keeping a man or woman 'happy at home' will prevent him or her wanting anyone else.

I support more honesty and myth-busting about something that is far more commonplace than people seem to think, but let's make sure we are busting the right myths and not resurrecting old ones that imply poor relationships are always to blame, or that an individual can ever be held responsible for another's secret activities.

CarpeVinum Wed 08-May-13 07:44:25

The most poisonous myth of all born of the new sanctimony surrounding absolute monogamy is that the one who 'cheats' bears 100% of the blame.

Ermmm...unless a spouse managed to get control of the other's central nervous system and turned them into a puppet how are they responsible for the actions and choices of their wife/husband ?

I think this idea that one can smear some of the blame for one's actions on other people, rather than taking responsibility, is rather more poisnous.

I might be able to keep our marriage going in the face of infidelity (dependant on circs). But one hint that his dick falling in another vagina is my fault...and then the foundation would crack irreckovably.

I coildn't stay married to a four year old going "s'not my fault, she made me do it!"

MurkyMinotaur Wed 08-May-13 08:47:21

I have read and processed the blog and amongst all the various strands, I still think it could be summarised as:

'It's so much easier to do something wrong when everyone decides it's not really that wrong.'

elastamum Wed 08-May-13 12:03:44

Agree with the other posters. Sorry Kate - you were doing so well until you went down the spouse blaming route.

TBH, one of the most poisonous myths around IMO is the notion that the spouse who has been cheated on - and may have no knowledge of the affair at all - should shoulder some of the blame. If they had been a better wife, mother, lover, less boring, thinner, a better cook, less focused on their children, he wouldnt have strayed. hmm

Have been on the receiving end of this one - not nice. Fortunately the therapist I saw post divorce also thought it was self justifying rubbish on behalf of the cheater

stargirl04 Wed 08-May-13 12:36:28

I am very disturbed to read that a Mumsnetter fancies Kid Rock.

goodoldgirl Wed 08-May-13 12:46:56

I'm very embarrassed by it. But to be fair, I only fancy him when he's singing country.

Meanwhile, charbon - good post.

KristinaM Wed 08-May-13 14:28:35

I agree with Charbon

morethanpotatoprints Wed 08-May-13 14:31:55

I think if more people considered the impact their infidelity had on children many wouldn't go ahead or continue.
It's convincing themselves that the dc wouldn't understand or are too little or even that it won't impact on them, that allows them to do it.
I won't be telling our kids about having affairs or one night stands as it has never happened to us. If by any chance it does, you cross that bridge then.

scaevola Wed 08-May-13 14:43:55

Infidelity isn't just about the sex, though.

It's about the lies and deception, taking time and energy away from your family, spending family money and duping those who you have promised to look after. And an affair isn't one mistake - it's hundreds of them.

Betrayal hurts like hell. And betrayed trust is often impossible to recover.

If someone wants an open relationship, fine. If someone wants to leave a marriage, OK. But a 'bait and switch' betrayal, when one partner is duped into thinking they are in a monogamous relationship whilst the other has secret private 'fun' is wrong. Both parties to a marriage need to treat the other like a responsible grown up, who can then make their choices on the relationship in light of the full picture.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 14:50:10

Who says we are not talking to our children? I am. My ex-H had an affair and left 10 years ago, married the OW & has two children with her now.

My DCs were teeny and unaware at the time. I've always been honest with them in an age appropriate way. I've never said bad stuff about their father, but I've been honest.

My DCs aren't the only children at school who have parents who are divorced or separated and from what I can tell the children talk about it, because they'll sometimes tell me about the conversations.

I would see this as part of general communications with children. I try to be honest with mine and I'm not a black & white kind of person with strong religious convictions, so I think I can show them that on very rare occasions is one person absolutely "right" or another absolutely "wrong". Life is a messy, grey affair.

In all honesty, I think there are probably more important & pressing conversations to be had openly and honestly with children than infidelity - but then I haven't written a book about it! ;-)

I personally find this blog post offensive to me as a wife whose husband cheated and also to all the other posters on the relationships board who are going through, or have gone through, similar. And I am not going to increase hits for such a load of sanctimonious, excusing piffle.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 15:49:48

How can discussing infidelity be offensive Freddie? It happens - alot.

No point pretending that it doesn't. Surely, this gives us the opportunity to have a think about how we discuss it with our children?

goodoldgirl Wed 08-May-13 15:55:39

I don't think anyone is spouting 'sanctimonious, excusing piffle'. Nobody is excusing it at all - they're giving interesting reasons why infidelity happens, and how the current zero tolerance attitude is costing marriages, where perhaps the marriage wasn't at fault at all, merely the perpetrator......

Charbon Wed 08-May-13 16:07:52

I think the quote I italicised is likely to be offensive to some of the target readership for this book. It's a shame because the remainder of the blog post makes good sense, but if the book is also mostly good sense and has been properly researched, this is a bad piece of marketing for it and those two lines ruin what was otherwise an interesting advertisement.

I especially agree with the exposure of the myth that children are unaware of emotionally absent parents. I agree that adults tell themselves lies all the time about their children's awareness, intuition and perceptiveness.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 16:26:23

Charbon, whilst it may be offensive to some, it really shouldn't be. My ex-H had an affair & I would be deluding myself if I didn't acknowledge that marriage was not in a good place when he was looking & finding a relationship elsewhere. That is not an excuse piffle for him in any way shape or form. Sadly, when we are raw with hurt, betrayal & dented pride it is hard to be objective, that usually comes with time and hindsight. Maybe if we were more honest about what really happens in marriages before we entered into them, we would be better equipped to prevent affairs from happening. Forewarned is forearmed and all that?

Life is so rarely clear cut & in my experience it is rare to find one adult 100% at fault for anything in a relationship or another adult 100% innocent.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 16:27:07

3rd sentence should read "That is not excusing piffle for him ......"

purpleroses Wed 08-May-13 16:37:13

I think she's muddling up two separate things - Society's taboos on infidelity are a way of saying that lying to someone you love is wrong. And that needs to be said strongly, no matter whether or not people sometimes fail to live up to the values they set themselves.

But what we tell children is based on their limited capacity as children to understand that good people sometimes to bad things. Young children are not able to understand that - their world view is black and white. So parents who wish to separate whilst causing them the least harm sensibly avoid telling them that anyone's had an affair, and instead say something much vaguer that seeks not to blame or cast either parent as bad. And those that have affairs but don't separate if they have any sense will avoid telling young children anything at all about it. As they get older and develop a more sophisticated understanding of good and bad, you can tell them more.

My children were 4 and 1 when I split from their dad and were told that "mummy and daddy argued a lot, so decided they'd be happier living separately" which enabled them to continue loving their dad and build up a strong relationship with him. Now that they're older I have told them a little more and when they're adults I'll probably tell them more still, and I guess their dad will tell them his version of why he decided not to be faithful. But it's not "taboos" that prevent us from telling them sooner - just the need to allow them to develop the understanding of relationships that needs to come first.

And yes, as the poster above put it so neatly - both partners may be responsible for the state of their relationship, but only one of them bears any responsibility for the decision to be unfaithful. Just as if one of them hits the other because they'd said nasty things to them - only the hitter bears the blame for the hitting.

Charbon Wed 08-May-13 16:52:12

Post Bellum I think you might also be misunderstanding the distinction, as much as the blog author.

Some affairs happen despite a person's satisfaction with a relationship.

Some affairs happen after a person has dissatisfactions with a relationship. This might be true for your relationship and its ending, but not all affairs are the same.

There are myriad choices other than infidelity to deal with dissatisfactions in a relationship and so if a person chooses a way of resolving that excludes their partner and takes away that person's agency, that responsibility can never be shared.

That's not to say the other party was blameless for the original dissatisfaction, if that was the main reason for the infidelity.

Charbon Wed 08-May-13 17:03:10

In summary I think what we're saying is that most people agree that no one person can ever be 100% 'at fault' for problems that beset a relationship, but that if one partner makes a unilateral and secret choice to resolve his/her unhappiness, a partner cannot be held responsible for a decision in which they had no involvement or choice.

It's a very important distinction and any work on infidelity that doesn't recognise that is going to alienate some of its target readership. It is Infidelity 101 material, really!

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 17:05:55

No, I'm not misunderstanding the distinction. I completely understand that the person who has the affair has made a very specific choice and has taken a unilateral decision to break the promises made in marriage vows.

It is of course a very poor way of dealing with an unsatisfactory relationship or of behaving if you have a satisfactory relationship and just want to have your cake and eat it.

I'm trying to make the point that people's behaviour very often slips from the ideals that we would like, accept or promise to one another. I think affairs warrant more discussion and more openess. I want my DCs to know that good people can make very bad choices, that some people are less good than you think and that under pressure some people are not very good at all. Society has changed & marriage for life is no longer the norm. We all need to accept that & equip our children accordingly.

I know that this view is not very popular, but to a certain extent I would rather my ex had an affair, than that he told me that he didn't love me any more and didn't want to live with me and our children anymore. By him having the affair, I was able to walk away with the moral high ground and whilst it was devastating, at the time I could kid myself that he had been tempted by some scarlet siren, I was blameless and that she had bewitched him. If he had told me he didn't love me and couldn't bear to be with me anymore, I think that would have been even more unpleasant and harder to recover from.

" the myths and taboos surrounding infidelity are doing more damage to relationships than the extra marital sex itself"

That is sanctimonious, excusing piffle.

As is

The most poisonous myth of all born of the new sanctimony surrounding absolute monogamy is that the one who 'cheats' bears 100% of the blame.

As soon as you say that to someone like me, it puts me right back to me trying so hard to be better, that somehow his choice to put his dick somewhere other than in my vagina was my fault and I am partly to blame.

Infidelity is breaking a promise to remain faithful to a sexual partner. The person who is to blame for that is the person who has broken the promise and absolutely no one else.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 17:19:30

Freddie, all forms of leaving a marriage are breaking the promises that were made. Are you advocating that couples should stay together regardless?

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