Mike Hennessey: This is Mike Hennessey, and on behalf of the team at Relationship Advice Cafe, I welcome you to the interview with today’s guest, Kristin Gottesman.
For free tips and insight on relationship advice from hundreds of experts and authors, please visit our website at www.relationshipadvicecafe.com. Christine, can you please give us a brief background about yourself?
Kristine Gottesman: Yes, I’m a marriage and family therapist intern so I received my Master’s Degree in Psychology, and I am working towards becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist and I have a private practice office located in Sherman Oaks.
I work mostly with teenagers and young adults, and I have a lot of experience working with children as well, and I run a parenting class at a counselling centre in Chatsworth, California. I’m mostly focused on helping teens and adults, symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Mike: Getting right to the meat of today’s interview, we’re talking about the effects of an affair on children.
Needless to say, parenting is very tough, and there’s a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, and in the process, couples may drift apart and they kind of lose sight of the priorities of parenting and career, social obligations, all that taking precedence over their relationship and in the process, boom, it’s affair time.
And people looking elsewhere for emotional and physical connection, leading to affairs.
Could you talk us through some of the effects that affairs have on children?
Kristine: Yes. Essentially in the family system, a child is thriving when there’s a nurturing space created within the family and specifically created by the parents. So if there’s trust between the parents, then that’s great for the child, because those are key factors in that child’s development.
So very often, as you can imagine in an affair, in a marriage is something that compromises that trust and if you choose to, it can even destroy the trust if you allow it.
So if a child senses things like anger and contempt between the parents, that child may think doubts about themselves, or have doubts about their safety, or their emotional safety, or home.
Mike: Now one of the things that can happen is that there may be a difference in the reaction toward a mother having an affair or a father having an affair.
Is that something that you see a difference in when you’re assessing damage that might be done between the relationship between the parents and the children?
Kristine: This may depend on if the bond sits more with the mother or with the father. Because like I said, an affair is basically a rupture in the family system.
So if the system is impacted, that has an impact on the children, and the parent that exhibits that the largest change in their connection is the one that will impact the child most.
So meaning that the parent that might withdraw more, that parent is going to be the one who is destructing the comfort and predictability of the world for the child.
So this might be the parent who has the affair because he or she will withdraw out of shame or out of anger at the other parent, or it could be the parent who feels betrayed and they don’t feel like they can be present in the family.
They may be the one that withdraws.
So like I said, if there’s a closer bond with one of these parents prior to the affair, like maybe usually typically the mother, then irritability or distance within that relationship that’s key–that’s the key relationship for the child–that disturbance will have more of an impact on the child.
So it could be either one.
Mike: Now when someone suspects their spouse is having an affair, all kinds of thoughts can run through their mind and they can be confusion, anxiety, anger, and yet from a child’s perspective, they have to continue being a good parent, or at least making the effort.
What are some of the recommendations you have for a parent who’s trying to go through that phase where they’re trying to come to grips with a partner’s infidelity or their own indiscretions and yet still making an honest effort to be the best parent possible?
Kristine: An important thing to do is, in the midst of whatever you’re doing, is reminding yourself and if possible your partner that your children don’t need to be the ones that are suffering.
So in order to do that, it’s focusing on healing yourself and the pain that you yourself are experiencing. So it may not just be about the parents stay together.
Basically if you’re punishing your partner, you’re punishing your child as well, and that’s really important for a parent to have a really healthy support system.
So if you’re experiencing pain and you don’t get support from other caring adults, there’s a risk that you could be more reactive as a parent, or even run the risk of your children being the person you confide in or work on problem solving with the feelings of the affair, and that’s really unacceptable because that puts the child in the position of whether they’re stuck in the middle, basically.
And also if you don’t have someone–an adult–to confide in, you may run the risk of not really being able to enjoy the good things in life as much, being able to enjoy being with your children because even though you can’t confide in your children, they can be helpful support during this time.
So finding time to connect with them and enjoy them can help you have some hope for the future, even if you’re not sure about the relationship with your partner, some part of your family can remain intact. But in order to do that, it’s having outside adult support is really crucial.
Mike: And that adult support could be, I guess, a counselor, somebody who’s qualified to counsel either perhaps even pastoral counseling or professional psychological counseling, but do support groups possibly play a role here?
Kristine: Certainly. Sometimes it’s really important for parents to feel that they’re not alone. That’s important for all of us if we’re going through something difficult.
So having someone–a friend or family member who you can trust–having someone like a professional to confide in and then also connecting with people who are managing their own lives in the support group can be really useful to have some help and to look at more possibilities.
Mike: Now one of the things that can happen that’s unfortunate is that a parent might be tempted to use a child or their children to try and solicit information about their spouse’s activity like, “Was your mom home yesterday?” or “Does anyone come to our home while I’m gone?” things like that.
Can you talk about the dangers of using children to kind of spy on a suspected cheating spouse?
Kristine: It is dangerous, like you said, because any implied mistrust or anxiety or anger it’s really confusing for the child and it also makes it highly likely for him or her to develop some kind of anxiety or depression.
Again, kind of remembering that anything negative that we say about the other parent or even imply about the other parent in front of the child, a child kind of internalises that actually almost as if you’re saying that about them because it’s confusing and it contradicts their idea of safety and trust for their parent because children are kind of–they’re already hypersensitive mentally and emotionally naturally, because it’s sort of a survival mechanism that we’re given when we’re young so kind of asking them to play detective sort of activates that part of their brain in a way that’s not really healthy.
And, risking your child to bring doubt to the other parent will cause them to doubt themselves. Like I said, because what they’ll pick up is the judgement and the sense of confusion that you’re feeling and that makes it really scary and unstable for them.
Mike: Is there a preference on your part of–for talking to parents and children individually and separately, or is this a situation where depending on the cases and situation where it might be best to talk to everybody kind of in the same room?
How might the dynamics play out of that situation?
Kristine: Well, it depends on if the parent chooses to let the child know that there’s been an affair. Usually in that case it’s really important to work things out with the parent first because they might need to be on the same page as much as possible.
And then when we’re looking toward solutions after maybe the child has maybe also been able to share their feelings individually, looking towards a solution, it’s important to have the family link together if possible just because there is some sense of trust still remaining.
Like I mentioned earlier, but as far as discussing how to deal with the affair, it’s really important that that’s just an adult issue.
About the author
Kristine Gottesman is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who offers psychotherapy to individuals, adolescents, families, and couples.
She specializes in working with parenting issues, transitions of adolescence and young adulthood, anxiety, stress and depression. Her private practice office is located in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Kristine is under the supervision of Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, and offers a sliding fee scale. Please visit her website: www.kristinemft.com
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