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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.

Startail Sat 11-May-13 02:32:55

I hope my DDs know that wedding vows are for keeping and that infidelity is WRONG.

I don't see any reason to talk to them about it, they know me well enough to know DH would be lucky to get out the door alive if I caught him cheating.

Not that I would catch him, I am under no delusion that if my very cleaver and sometimes very private, DH choose to play away no one would know.

nooka Sat 11-May-13 00:59:28

I'm still struggling with what the blogger is trying to say. Is she wanting people to think that actually infidelity isn't wrong? Is she saying that in the old days when people were 'discreet' about cheating, or partners simply put up with it relationships were happier? that relationships where someone has lied and deceived their partner are ending 'needlessly'? that cheaters should be absolved of any responsibility (her 'medieval' concept of fault - is she not aware that you don't need to claim fault anymore to divorce?)

Yes children can feel drawn into their parents bad behaviour, they can feel betrayed (and often are). These however are arguments about the parent behaving better, not to say yes lie and cheat and we should all accept that as totally normal - if only adultery was just accepted as normal we'd all somehow feel fine about it? and children would be just hunky dory because one of their parents just sucked it up instead of staying in misery?

Of course we should model good behaviour with our children, we should show them how love works in practice, that arguments aren't always the end of the world, that adults resolve their problems together, treat each other with honesty and integrity and aren't deliberately cruel to each other. Unfortunately these are not values and behaviours that many people having affairs are exhibiting.

I say this as someone who has reconciled and loves very much their partner despite his affair. But I sure as hell am not going to inflict the details of that on my small, pre-teen, teen or probably young adult children. Once they are properly independent and we have an adult to adult relationship and if I think it would help them in some way then yes. Otherwise I think (for us at least) it would be self indulgent and cruel.

Now if we'd broken up and dh had moved in with his OW that would of course be completely different. But I still would have been very careful what I said to them.

JustinBsMum Fri 10-May-13 19:09:25

DCs can't be that innocent of the real world as a third of marriages end in divorce, so through their peers, if not their own families, they will know that marriages can go wrong.

Though perhaps she is referring to much younger children, so they might not know that a classmates parents are divorcing, but then you would need to start these 'honest' discussions, that Kate F advocates at a very young age.

Xenia Fri 10-May-13 13:57:14

Most people don't hide things from children. Many children know a lot more than their parents think anyway as they are not stupid.

30% of married people cheat so that will likely to be 30% on this thread. Men admit and often show off about it just like number of sexual partners. Women hide it. Women who are economically dependent on a man and could never earn much them selves will often tolerate adultery because they do not want to spoil their life style. Feminism can help with that. If there were no little women around relying on men who earn money they would not be put into such a different position.

Some couples choose to allow each other other partners, others cheat on the side, others don't cheat and some cheat and then leave their partner. It is not easy to generalise.

As someone divorced who chose to divorce and with no one else involved on either side I do find a few men have called me over the years to talk about these issues which is fascinating. They think because I am divorced I somehow know how to advise them or will listen (one was even a work contact who I had no relationship as confidante at all who launched into a spiel about the young foreign girl he was madly in love with whilst also loving his wife).

I do quibble with the implication in the post that tolerance of something awful is much better for everyone and stability even if the stable norm is intolerable home life is best for children. Children can be lot happier in a home without parents at war. Staying together at all costs is not always the right course.

PostBellumBugsy Fri 10-May-13 13:43:42

I don't see how anyone can fail to agree with the last paragraph, that we all need to strengthen our private worlds from the inside.

Every job I've worked in, every circle of friends I have moved amongst I have come across a relationship where there has been infidelity, so it is very much part of my life, whether I like it or not.

I think a wider discussion about it and how lives are affected by it is so worthwhile. You only have to take a brief look at the threads in Relationships to see how many people deal with this all the time. Given my ex-H left me for someone else, I know first hand what some of the ramifications of infidelity can be. Dealing with the 'problem', may mean leaving the relationship anyway & I don't see that as a "better" solution just because the person hasn't been unfaithful.

I've reflected on this thread alot and, I think it would be so much better to see young people given better relationship skills, to recognise unacceptable behaviour in others, to have good communications skills, to have enough self-esteem that they don't tolerate poor relationships because they think it is better than no relationship. We should be trying to prevent bad behaviour in the first place, rather than working out how best to mop it up after it happens.

morethanpotatoprints Fri 10-May-13 12:51:44

StrangeGlue

I totally agree. grin. If you are married and have taken your vows forsaking all others, then infidelity is not a fact of life. Of course it happens within marriages but it is wrong and should not be treated as a fact of life otherwise it normalises an act which goes against marriage. Eventually becoming acceptable.
Saying that I am not suggesting that married people necessarily stay together through infidelity, everybody has their own personal view here that nobody can say is right or wrong.

StrangeGlue Fri 10-May-13 12:41:07

I don't really agree with this blog because we are adults and capable of choosing how and in what form our relationship is when it begins. No one forced me to get married, I chose to and I chose to say I'll monogamous. I could have negotiated an open or polyamorous relationship if I wanted but I didn't. In that context I don't think they infidelity is a fact of life.

If infidelity does happen then it needs to be dealt with and children need to not be excluded from that and new romantic arrangements in their wider world need to be acknowledged openly too. But I completely disagree that infidelity is a fact of everyone's individual worlds.

I also hate the victim blaming here. Being unhappy doesn't equal freedom to cheat - face the real problem and deal with it before starting a new relationship.

(Obs some people don't get to chose their relationships, married and whether than can leave so what I've written I wouldn't apply to them.)

Sorry Ellie are you saying that its down to the betrayed partner to put the cheater before themselves?

Working through is only possible when both parties want to do that.

ellie1234 Thu 09-May-13 23:44:47

Infidelity hurts. It hurts the other partner, it hurts the children, it hurts the extended family and it hurts friends. Working through the tough times and putting all these other people before yourself shows that you love and respect them. You will be repaid so many times over by friends and family who love and respect you back and children who will go out into the world with an unselfish attitude and an ability to form a relationship where they carry on loving their partner even when the boredom and the temptation of the green grass on the other side sets in

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.

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?

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.

Nooka I completely agree with what you've said.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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 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! ;-)

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 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 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.

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.

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