Washington Post Article
Including comments by Peggy Vaughan

Cheated Out Of Childhood:
The Biggest Victims of Adultery Often Turn Out to Be the Littlest

By Libby Ingrid Copeland
Washington Post
August 21, 1998

There were late-night fights and his mother in tears, and once a suspicious letter. But he was young and grasped little.

"You understand that there is anger there, and resentment," says Christopher Dickey. "You don't know what to make of that."

If he knew the word "adultery" at the time, he would have had at best a vague idea of its meaning.

In the rubble of a certain very public confession, yet another young person is coping with the fact of infidelity in her parents' marriage. Chelsea Clinton is one of many. Surveys range widely in their estimates -- among married couples, anywhere from 21 to 66 percent of men and from 11 to 54 percent of women commit adultery.

How does it mark a child?

"You can know it in a general sense . . . as soon as you know there's such a thing as 'sex' in the world," says Dickey, the son of the late poet James Dickey. He was 8 when he acquired a notion of that three-letter word. But to grasp the complications, the compromises and crises infidelity provokes -- that, he says, took far longer. "Fact is when you're 8, you can't assimilate that," says Dickey, a writer and Newsweek's Paris bureau chief. "In fact, I would hazard a guess that when you're 20 you can't assimilate that."

For a child, the family is often sacrosanct. A parent's affair tugs at the blanket of familial security. In his just-published memoir "Summer of Deliverance," Dickey writes of a moment when he was 12 and confronted the meaning of his father's infidelities. It came after a tremendous fight between his parents when his mother learned of yet another lover. Divorce seemed imminent for a moment, but then, as always, his parents made up.

"I saw that night, as I'd never seen before, that my father was living a life that wasn't about us and that threatened us as a family, because it threatened my mother's whole sense of what the family was and who she was, and that he thought he could just hide it and lie about it like a kid smoking cigarettes behind the garage," he writes in his book.

"It's a bit like living with a ghost," says Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist and family therapist who studies infidelity. "You've got at least one parent who's under the control of forces you can't see and whose existence is denied."

Most adults have had the jarring adolescent revelation that their parents are more than merely parents -- they are beings with conflicted loyalties, beings who err. Your father waxes nostalgic at a photograph and suddenly he seems younger, vulnerable, far more human. After a fight, your mother calls you for solace.

That realization may hit the children of adulterers earlier and with greater force. "Kids who grow up in good family circumstances tend to idealize their parents," says Robert E. Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "When something less than ideal happens . . . it speeds up that process of starting to see their parents as people."

How children react to the news of parental infidelity depends on their age and relationship to their parents. A younger child might only sense what a teenager can more keenly recognize.

Peggy Vaughan, a writer whose marriage seemed fragile when her husband confessed in 1980 to a number of affairs, runs a Web support group on adultery. At the time, she and her husband (now of 43 years) told their children what had happened calmly and honestly. "The unknown is harder for any child to take than the fact," she says.

Vaughan's children were 11 and 13 -- old enough to grasp certain basics of the situation -- and many psychologists endorse telling the truth to children of that age. "If the child is old enough and savvy enough, is it really perhaps doing more harm not to address what the issues are?" asks Joan Tolchin, a child psychologist in Manhattan.

Vaughan and her husband viewed telling their kids as an opportunity to communicate truths about the married condition. "Once it happens, it's how you deal with it and what you do with the crisis that determines the long-term fallout on the kids," she says. "You don't have to feel that you have now failed your children by virtue of the failures that exist in the marriage."

Vaughan calls this the "responsibility of honesty." She feels she prepared her children well for the reality that couples can't "just assume that by taking marriage vows, they can expect monogamy."

Carolyn See, a novelist and book reviewer who wrote a family memoir, came to a similar view after learning of her father's infidelities. She was 11 when her dad "didn't come home one night."

"Everyone has the potential for meeting someone who will send them around the bend," she says. "I believe very strongly that there are no villains in these things. It probably taught me at a fairly young age not to demonize people so quickly."

See was able to maintain a closeness with and respect for her father in the aftermath of her parents' separation. "I was always just incredibly admiring of my father."

The real crime often occurs after the affair, she suggests. "It's not the sex that's the harmful thing. It is the spite and the recrimination that is the harmful thing."

Much depends on family dynamics. Dickey's father made his infidelities public, and his mother's resultant humiliation, he says, was the worst wrong. Then, too, the poet sometimes told his son about his lovers, leading the younger Dickey to feel that certain boundaries had been irrevocably trespassed. "My father was a sophisticated man but I don't think he had any idea what kind of game he was playing. He wanted to relate to me as a co-conspirator in his adultery, and that was something I just could not be," he says.

In her memoir "Home Before Dark," Susan Cheever, daughter of the writer John Cheever, writes that her parents made a pawn of her loyalties by telling her of their affairs.

"They both confided at length and in explicit detail to me, or anyone else who would sit still long enough to listen. Not only did I wish they wouldn't, I began to wish they would get divorced."

Pittman, the Atlanta psychologist, says that including one's child in a sexual secret is "vastly destructive." A child who does not know which parent to trust or confide in may become "passive, angry, distrustful and gradually depressed."

"With younger children," Tolchin suggests, "there's no need to involve them in the parents' problems" if they don't already know. Certain details are better left unsaid.

"There are things that are private between parents and children all throughout their lives," Emery says. "Most adults shudder at the idea of [their] parents having sex with each other."

With age comes an appreciation of the nuances of relationships. Dickey says that in his adolescence he became indignant at his father's behavior and encouraged his mother to leave the marriage. But suggesting that was easy, he realizes now.

"What is much harder is to understand why they stay together with all the anger, and all the destructive forces that are there," he says. "And the reason is basically that they love each other, that they have lived with each other for a long time and they have led one life together. And it is hard to take one life and divide it into two."

It takes a long time to comprehend "shades of gray, with the nuances of right and wrong that we all live with," says Judith Viorst, a writer of children's and psychology books. "Notions of compromise and forgiveness, of the imperfection of all human relationships, are a hard lesson to learn at any stage in life."

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