NEW YORK — Divorce is often ugly, but the consequences for kids when infidelity is involved can deepen their anxiety, anger or confusion.
Contrary to the hacked Ashley Madison cheaters' site that offers anonymous opportunities for affairs, infidelity more often includes somebody a child actually knows: a family friend, a neighbour, a parent from Little League or the PTA, therapists and divorce attorneys said.
That means the third party may become a permanent fixture in the lives of children going forward, forcing an entirely new context on young people as they attempt to sort out villains from victims.
"Infidelity, for some families, usually supersedes any other problems in the relationship and becomes the sole focus of the separation," said Nakya Reeves, a marriage and family therapist in Plantation, Florida.
"There may be communication gaps or other issues that deserve just as much attention but the hurt causes partners to lose sight of issues that may help them move forward and become great co-parents or even friends in the aftermath of the divorce," she said.
Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, California, said second to the death of a child or the loss of a spouse, an infidelity can be one of the most damaging life events for a family. He agreed with Reeves that the adults' ability to maintain a united front for the sake of the children can be very difficult when cheating is involved.
"The idea of being on the 'same page' has been torn apart," he said. "The parent who was cheated on tends to cling to the children while the parent who cheats often keeps distance, initially out of shame. Both parent behaviours can leave children anxious that one parent is devastated and they cannot help them, while they're hurt and confused about why the other parent is not being proactive enough. The kids are in a lose-lose situation."
Myra Chack Fleischer, a San Diego family law attorney who also works on out-of-court collaborative divorces, regularly handles cases involving infidelity.
"It impacts the children on all levels, especially if you've got teenage kids," she said. "The impact is huge. I'd say 90 per cent of the time you've got the scorned spouse who wants to lash out, who wants to use the infidelity as a weapon against the other parent. The children find out because one or the other spouse talks to them about it. Or, let's make it even worse, I've got a couple of cases right now where the spouse moves in with the paramour immediately upon separation. You've got visitations going on with the person who cheated on mommy or daddy."
While most states allow for no-fault divorces, meaning grounds do not have to be established, emotional turmoil inside a family doesn't change.
Trust between marital partners is usually left in tatters come divorce time, but "infidelity is such a personal violation," Fleischer said. "Often there's still sexual relations going on between the couple, and a lot of times when there's infidelity it's not from Ashley Madison. I've had probably half a dozen cases where the person is the parent of one of the kids' best friends. Cheaters usually go to what's familiar, what's in front of them."
Dallas divorce attorney Brad LaMorgese said adultery is common among the cases he handles.
"A majority of the time it's going to be someone in known social circles like someone they know through a child's school or a co-worker," he said, "but we're seeing many cheaters going on dating sites," not just Ashley Madison.
"Some people are so bold they do public profiles on various sites," LaMorgese said.
Divorcing parents often ignore the fact that they might have moved on from the marriage long before the ink is dry on legal papers, while their children have just begun to emotionally process even a temporary separation. That feeling sometimes leads to a parent's boyfriend or girlfriend being around the kids early on, before a divorce is finalized, making it that much more dizzying for young ones, he said.
For cheaters, there's Ashley Madison. For the cheated upon, there's Tracy Schorn.
Schorn lives outside Austin, Texas, and runs a popular infidelity support site called Chumplady.com. Its motto is "Leave a cheater, gain a life."
Schorn started the blog in 2012, saying she was cheated upon herself. She has read thousands of cheating stories and said her son was 9 when her second marriage fell apart. She disagrees that children should be kept out of the loop.
"I advise telling children in age-appropriate ways without editorializing," she said. "Infidelity is devastating. You're overcome with grief and emotion. I don't think it's OK to gaslight children even with the best of intentions. They know something is terribly wrong."
Kids old enough to understand are often furious when they later discover a parent was cheating and they were lied to about it, Schorn said.
"Getting it all out in the open is painful, but healing. I've had adult children write to me decades after the fact, still struggling with realizations about a parent's infidelities," she said.
Not revealing infidelity can leave offspring with the "terrifying notion that love is nebulous," Schorn said. The trick, she said, is "staying respectful that children still love the cheating parent and that relationship is theirs to negotiate."
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Leanne Italie, The Associated Press