-Written by Katie Little ‘18
It is estimated that somewhere between 40% and 76% of married couples have at least one member engage in an affair over the course of the relationship (Thompson, 1983). Due to the prevalence of infidelity and the implications it has for further relationship satisfaction and relationship longevity, there is a substantial amount of literature available on how extramarital affairs, both emotional and physical, affect both partners. However, there is less research available on how parents’ infidelity might affect children long term, perhaps because not all affairs are discovered or those that are might be kept secret from children. However, we can still assess the following question: are children who are aware that their parents are unfaithful more likely to cheat on their future partners?
Platt, Nalbone, Casanova, and Wetchler (2008) sought to answer this question. They decided to define infidelity as any sexual or emotional encounter that endangered the intimacy of one’s primary romantic relationship. They then recruited 175 undergraduate students who were currently in a romantic relationship that had lasted at least 6 months. Each student was given a survey packet, which contained questions from the Children’s Perceptions of Interparental Conflict questionnaire to measure how the adult children viewed their parents’ level of conflict retroactively, as well as the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale to measure attachment to their current significant others. They were also given a questionnaire about whether their parents divorced and, if their parents had, whether they were aware of their mother cheating or their father cheating. 150 students completed the packets and returned them.
The experimenters predicted that adult children who were aware of their parents’ infidelity, as opposed to either being unaware of infidelity or there being no infidelity, would have a more negative view of themselves, have a more negative view of others, and be more likely to cheat on their partners.
From the responses on the students’ surveys, the experimenters found that there was no difference between perceptions of self and perceptions of others in participants who were and were not aware of parental infidelity. There was also no difference in perceptions of self and perceptions of others in participants who were aware of their mother cheating in comparison to participants who were aware of their father cheating.
However, when looking at whether the participants engaged in infidelity themselves, the experimenters found something surprising. 52% of adults who were aware that their fathers had engaged in infidelity reported having an affair outside of their primary relationship as opposed to only 27% of adults who reported no knowledge of parental infidelity. However, people who were aware that their mothers had engaged in infidelity were no more likely that adults with no knowledge of parental infidelity to cheat on a partner.
Additionally, when the experimenters looked closer at the data, they realized that men with knowledge of their fathers’ affairs were more likely to cheat; women, however, were no more likely to cheat if they were aware of either parent having an affair. These results suggest that knowledge of a parental affair has implications only for the sons of fathers who cheat on their spouses and provides an avenue for further research.
Platt, R. A., Nalbone, D. P., Casanova, G. M., & Wetchler, J. L. (2008). Parental Conflict and Infidelity as Predictors of Adult Children’s Attachment Style and Infidelity. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(2), 149-161.
Thompson, A. P. (1983). Extramarital sex: A review of the research literature. Journal of Sex Research, 19, 1–22.
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