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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.

No. That is not what I Am saying.

I am saying that where there is infidelity then the person to blame 100% for that is the cheater. Not their partner shouldering part of the blame.

Your relationship may well be shit - if it is work on it or walk away.
Infidelity is never anyone's fault but the cheating skank.

Victim blaming wouldn't be allowed anywhere else on MN. I am disgusted to see it here.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 08-May-13 17:28:40

I don't see myself as a victim though!

Infidelity, which can mean different things to different people, happens for so many reasons. It is a poor choice, but it doesn't usually happen in isolation.

Why is walking away from a marriage better than infidelity? I don't understand how that somehow has more integrity.

Because it means the other person is a liar and a cheat and I'm worth more than that? Because even if they don't have morals I do.

BTW I don't see myself as a victim, but this "it must be partly the wife's fault" is blaming the innocent party.

Ilikethebreeze Wed 08-May-13 18:44:32

I didnt even agree with the first sentence, so not surprised to find I didnt agree with much of the rest either.

Ilikethebreeze Wed 08-May-13 18:45:06

of the op that is.

notfluffy Wed 08-May-13 20:50:08

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

JustinBsMum Wed 08-May-13 21:33:31

One problem about being all matter of fact and sensible about infidelity, which can lead to divorce, is the inequality in the workplace and the fact that women end up with the greater burden of childcare.

So if infidelity is accepted and happened more frequently the women (generalising but it is usually the women who have the lower paid jobs and the most of the childcare) have much more to lose.

So advising that we all be more grown up about it benefits men and disadvantages women.

When childcare is always equally shared and women have equal earning capacity then encourage views on infidelity to be more 'reasonable'.

( looked up Kate Figes and she appears to be a GP so no financial issues for her unless I looked up the wrong one - hadn't heard of her til now)

JustinBsMum Wed 08-May-13 21:39:51

KF states above 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

Yes, more discussion between partners and their off spring about emotions and relationships within and outwith the family would be a v good thing.
I don't see that that statement leads on to her views on infidelity.

nooka Thu 09-May-13 04:20:02

I found it difficult to figure out what the Kate Figes, or at least the summary in the opening post was actually trying to say.

My dh was unfaithful. It was incredibly painful. I am not totally sure what the 'taboos and silences' she refers to are, but told my siblings and friends about what I was going through and felt tremendously supported. dh's self esteem took a bit of a hit once he had gotten over the chemistry of 'lurve' and realised he wasn't quite the good person he had always thought he was. So I suppose he was struggling with the myth that only bad people have affairs. But no way was his life pulled apart like mine was. So I feel this is a pretty insulting line really, along with the 'it was my fault he strayed' suggestion, to which I call bullshit. We both played a part in the ups and downs of our relationship and that's as far as my responsibility goes.

I am certainly not ever going to suggest to either of my children that they are not responsible for their own actions, or that they are responsible for anyone elses. I would consider myself a very poor parent if I did.

We do however talk to them about the ups and downs of relationships, and boy they sure get to see plenty of that first hand (how could you not with so many family experiencing so many different traumas of which infidelity is only one?).

My children knew that things were very wrong in the years when dh had his affair, struggled with the aftermath and then separated, and we have talked to them about what we have learned about each other and about relationships more generally. I do not however think it would at all good for them to know that their father slept with another woman and treated me appallingly. How would that help them in any way shape or form? Dh and I reconciled and life is good. He would like to tell them because he feels it is dishonest not to, but I think it is a huge can or worms and that as young teens they would find it very very difficult to process. If we told them it would be to salve dh's conscience primarily and that's hardly a good reason.

nooka Thu 09-May-13 04:21:54

Oh, and I think that both dh and I would say 'don't' about affairs. There is nothing good about either having an affair or being deceived, and the knock on effects for friends and family can be huge.

I really wish HQ would reconsider promoting this here.

I have thought a lot about this and here's my view. You get parents like me who told the older ones a sanitised version of the truth AMD the younger ones not much at all.

Six years on, the kids are happy and well adjusted.

Suggesting that in the middle of all the pain and hurt and emotion of the discovery of an affair someone should tell their kids the truth is really not very sensible. I tell my version of the truth. Complete with tears and hurt and all the rest. Their father then tells his version about how I wasn't good enough for this that and the other reason.

How in the name of god is that ever going to be helpful to children ?

And I still think is piffle. And I still think HQ have made the wrong call having this here.

PostBellumBugsy Thu 09-May-13 08:57:24

Freddie, even without the infidelity, the break up of a marriage is going to be hard on children.

Even if your ex-H hadn't had an affair, he would probably be still giving his version of the "truth" to your children.

I've never said anything bad about my ex-H to the children & they can see for themselves that he is a selfish man, with a nasty temper who has a tendency to ride roughshod over people's feelings. They can also see that their step-mother (the OW) is brutally selfish & will always put herself first. They've worked all of that out for themselves. The only truth I've told them is that Daddy fell in love with someone else. I haven't really had to adapt it as their age has changed, but they have grown more curious about how I feel about it as they've got older.

I think that the slightly provocative blog post is good. We should think about the impact infidelity has not just on individual marriages but society as a whole. The world has changed and we need to discuss those changes & think about how we deal with them better.

I disagree PostBellum.

Asking parents to discuss the infidelity invites the cheater to list all the things that are "wrong" with the other partner and to be blunt it will turn into character assassination.

PostBellumBugsy Thu 09-May-13 09:44:16

I appreciate we are all different but the discussion about infidelity has never happened like that for me.

I've discussed infidelity with my DCs, without it ever being about anyone else's character. We have acknowledged that if you fall in love with someone else, or have sex with someone else when you are married, then you are breaking the promises that you made when you got married. We've also acknowledged that there are lots of other ways that people break the promises that they make when they get married too!

I've told them both that I am not a mind reader & I can't see inside their father's head and that all I know is that he fell in love with someone else. I've explained that I don't know exactly why he made the choices that he did & I've explained that knowing why won't change anything. I accepted that he fell in love with someone else, even though I was very upset & angry that this happened & that mean't that I didn't want to be with him anymore, so we got divorced. No character assassination anywhere! ;-)

Yes, I can see that is how it worked for you.

But it won't work like that for everybody. And if you get to put across your view, he gets to put across his. Which in very many cases will be she was too lazy/fat/didn't give me enough sex/tired/whatever.

PostBellumBugsy Thu 09-May-13 10:01:38

but Freddie, he could say that anyway!

My ex-H can do whatever he likes now - he is completely outside of any influence I may have over him. I can only control what I do & what I say to my DCs. I'm going to continue talking about all of these things with them, so that they don't just here play ground gossip or whatever crap their Dad comes out with.

I'd always rather have the conversation, however distasteful I might find it. I made a promise to myself when ex-H ripped my life apart, that I'd behave well & wouldn't resort to slagging him off or being vengeful & for me, I can't say for everyone, it has paid off. The DCs see him for exactly what he is & even though I have a teen & a very nearly teen, they seem to think I'm the dogs nuts. I'm probably delusional and they're no doubt imminently about to go off the rails and hate me, but until that happens, I'm going to think that talking to them about all the shit that happens in a calm way, trying to show them that life isn't black & white and that people constantly make really stupid mistakes, break promises etc is a good thing.

Even more importantly, I want them to understand that the only person they can control is themselves and that having self-respect & a sense of what is right & wrong & what are good ways to treat people & be treated themselves will help guide them to making good decisions themselves. No one ever explained this stuff to me. I was brought up to do as I was told and follow the rules of some archaic, out of touch religion, none of which prepared me for the shit life throws at you.

I think we are going to have to agree to disagree - the premise of the blog is that there should be that discussion, is how I'm reading it.

But, as I've said, I find the whole blog offensive and I am struggling to see why MN are promoting it.

That blog is a load of shit. In my opinion. No offence intended. grin

Charbon Thu 09-May-13 13:44:57

I don't think this is just about being retrospectively honest with children about parental behaviour, although IMO it is no bad thing for children to accept that their parents have human flaws. It's also a very powerful learning experience for children if they see a parent facing up to his/her mistakes and learning from them.

However, I think this is more about imparting some realism about fidelity and its challenges and preparing children for their own relationships. Parents who raise children to believe romantic myths about fidelity always being easy if you're with the 'right' person aren't actually doing them any favours at all. This sort of myth leads people to over-react to having a crush on someone else and to have irrational doubts about an existing relationship. It also leads to people confusing lust for love and this is especially true for women who have been socialised to think that lust is only permissible if there are deep emotions involved.

It's entirely possible to give young people honest and realistic messages about fidelity at the same time as imparting that lies, dishonesty and deception are damaging to all of the people involved. Much more realistic too if couples were advised at the start of a relationship to discuss how they will deal with situations that test their resolve e.g. flattery, ego boosts, intense working relationships with attractive colleagues, peer pressure, the normalisation of the sex industry and its attractions - as well as the conditions that have always been risk factors such as difficulties within the primary relationship and how couples cope when the romance and lust have subsided.

I'd like to think that this is the realism and honesty that is being referenced in this blog, but I agree its points are not clear.

Charbon - if that's what the thrust of the blog is supposed to be then it is spectacularly badly written.

nooka Thu 09-May-13 16:05:41

totally agree Freddie. Plus it is different if the outcome of infidelity is separation/divorce or if you decide to stay together. It is perfectly possible to talk to your children about the pain that infidelity/two timing causes and most children will have very little problems absorbing that. It is perfectly possible to talk to them about the difficulties of making relationships work (they have plenty of first hand experience of friendship issues which are not really that different). It is not necessary to impart to them all your personal pain, and let them know about the shittier details of what is incredibly personal stuff. I think it would also be very hard to talk dispassionately about this sort of thing or hie the pain, which is not their burden to bear.

Nooka I completely agree with what you've said.

Bear in mind, children are the children of both parties to a relationship breakdown. It's not like unloading the details to your family or friends, who have loyalties only to you - you just can't discuss the details fairly with kids without making them choose or putting them in the middle, which isn't fair or right or proper.

PostBellumBugsy Thu 09-May-13 16:21:29

Hmmm, in my view children who are over 4 or 5 will see the pain anyway. Unless you are superhuman, they are going to see that you are upset, be it if your spouse leaves you, has an affair or dies. One way or another you are going to have to talk to them about it.

It is ok for children to see a parent show emotion. It is also ok to say, that there are some things they don't need to know, without actually lying to them. More often than not, when a marriage fails for whatever reasons, the two parents go on to live healthy & functional lives, which is probably the best thing you can show your DCs. Why wouldn't you talk to them about it?

LittleFrieda Thu 09-May-13 21:02:51

Placing the promise of fidelity above all other kindnesses is very peculiar.

Perhaps it's an age thing.

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