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Parents' Affairs Can Devastate Kids : Families: Discovering unfaithfulness can create a loyalty dilemma for adolescents, and make it more difficult for them to grow into independence.

September 12, 1993|SUSAN CAMPBELL | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Molly was 15 when she found a pair of black panties under the seat of the family car. She was 15 1/2 when she took a telephone call from an anonymous woman crying on the other end, asking to speak to Bob, Molly's father.

She was 15 3/4 when she realized her father was cheating on her mother.

She told no one, but her grades dropped and she stopped going home. She got angry and stayed angry until Jean, her mother, took her aside and asked what was wrong.

It all came out, and as her mother sat there, stunned, Molly just knew she'd done something terribly, terribly wrong. When Jean, 40, confronted Bob, 43, and he later confronted Molly with the truth, he cried harder than she did.

*

When parents go outside the marital vows, they are taking a shotgun and firing it into a crowd. That shot will hurt a spouse, sure, but most likely, it will also take out some people who were never intended to get hit.

This Connecticut family went through it just last year. Two years ago, Bob began an extramarital affair with a woman he worked with in the construction business. He and his wife, a teacher in a suburban school, wanted to talk about the affair, but asked that their real names and hometown not be used.

"I wonder if men and women knew the effects this can have on their children, if they'd be so quick to jump," Bob said.

Two years ago, the Children's Divorce Center in Woodbridge, Conn., held a conference on the effects of affairs and divorce on children.

"It's surprising how surprising (the effect) is to people," said Marcia Lebowitz, founder of the center. "Divorce and all the ramifications have become so commonplace we really don't stop and think about what's happening. The kids say to me, 'Why would Daddy like this new lady? She isn't prettier. It doesn't make sense.' And it doesn't."

"I find that with adolescents, the trauma of infidelity is overwhelming," said Catherine Kikoski, director of the marriage and family therapy program at St. Joseph College in Hartford. "Even children who are in their 50s respond to this situation with a great deal of anxiety, but during adolescence, when sexuality is super-charged, the parents' inability to maintain sexual control can become very frightening."

"It may not be out-and-out abuse, but I would stretch it to the point to say that it's a form of sexual harassment that the kid has to be exposed to this," said Frank Lang, executive director at Family Service Assn.-Central Connecticut, of Meriden.

"If one gets tempted and flattered, one can accept the flattery, but that doesn't mean you have the affair," he said. "Having the affair, you're not satisfied. You want more, and you're going to get even with people, get things you didn't get before. What's the bottom of the pit? What's going to satisfy you?"

*

At a time when a young adult is separating from her parents, she needs a stable environment from which to separate--almost an assurance that things will be fine for her parents as she grows older, said Sylvia Gingras-Baker, a West Hartford marital and family therapist.

"You're really watching your parents like hawks," Gingras-Baker said. "How can this woman separate when her father is cheating on her mom?"

Most parents don't understand just how closely they are being watched.

"Children are very alert to whatever is going on between the parents," Kikoski said. "Somehow we discount the alertness and abilities of children. Children seem to be very resilient about that when parents are open and provide explanation to the children and allow the children to ask questions."

Among family therapists, children are barometers of a family's health.

"Children act out by turning the parents' focus onto themselves, even to the point of hurting themselves," Kikoski said.

"It's always the child or adolescent who is acting out, that's the one who has the pulse on the family," said Jane Bourns, director of Wheeler Clinic's children's clinical services in Plainville, Conn. "It's a neat thing in a way."

Bourns was making no headway in a counseling session with two parents and their 4-year-old. The child said loudly, "My mommy and daddy fight all the time," and then he went to sleep.

"It was so beautiful because it was almost as if he knew why they were there, he got it out in the open, and then he went off," Bourns said.

Whether the child is open, infidelity sets up an ugly cycle in the child's mind.

"At best, it creates a tremendous amount of insecurity in the child," Lang said. "At worst, it creates tremendous loyalty issues. The child is liable to take sides with the 'wronged' parent and to some extent," they become caretakers.

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