Cate Edwards isn't alone: Dealing with dads who cheat

Cate Edwards with dad John. Photo: Getty Images/Sara D. DavisWhen Cate Edwards, the eldest daughter of former presidential candidate John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards, spoke out about her father’s highly publicized affair with Rielle Hunter for the first time this week, she shared her emotions in ways both forthcoming and gracious.

“I was devastated. And I was disappointed,” the 31-year-old attorney and author tells Savannah Guthrie of the Today show in an interview set to air in full on Friday. “I mean, these are my parents. I had grown up with a lot of love in my family. And it was hard to see them go through this.”

When Guthrie asked her if she was angry, Edwards replied, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” 

She is far from alone in dealing with cheating parents, of course, with various statistics saying that anywhere from a quarter to 60 percent of married folks will engage at some point in infidelity. And children of dabbling politicians are also not terribly hard to come by, though all have dealt with it in very different ways.

Chelsea Clinton has refused to speak publicly about her dad’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, telling a questioner in 2008, “I do not think that is any of your business.” But the children of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver have been more open about their pain: In 2011, their then-17-year-old son, Patrick, changed his last name to Shriver on his Twitter profile after his father’s infamous affair; it was followed by his sister Katherine’s tweet: “This is definitely not easy but I appreciate your love and support as I begin to heal and move forward in life.” Jackie Gingrich Cushman, meanwhile, daughter of the unfaithful Newt Gingrich, stood by her dad’s side and spoke out in defense of him during his 2012 reelection campaign.

But signs that adult children are cool with their parents’ infidelities should not be misconstrued as proof that they are unaffected, say experts.

“I think there is this prevailing myth that once children grow up they are no longer affected by decisions parents make about their marriage,” Dr. Scott Haltzman, psychiatrist and author of the forthcoming “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity,” told Yahoo! Shine. “While it’s true that when children are young, they are trying to establish an internal stability mentally, and need external stability to do that. But even young adults and beyond, all adults, continue to form their perspective about relationships by the activity that parents engage in.”

The advantage to being an adult, of course, is that you are more able to weigh distressing situations in a rational way.

Still, the primary question children of unfaithful spouses ask, Haltzman explained, is “If he could’ve lied to me about that, what else could he have lied about? It makes you question everything.”

With public figures, because their private affairs are so out in the open for all to see, he added, “Rightfully or wrongfully, people expect that person to live by a higher standard, so the crash [after cheating] is even greater. And the impact on children will be much greater, as well.”

While responses to a parent’s infidelities can vary wildly—as with the kids of Edwards, Clinton and Gingrich—there are some classic ways in which children can internalize their mom or dad’s actions, Haltzman noted.

“They may have difficulty trusting a life partner, or they may have difficulty committing to a life partner,” he said. In addition, such adult children may be more prone to divorce, or may stir up relationship conflict where it needn’t be because they are always looking for evidence of cheating where it doesn’t exist.

Others may wind up taking on the behavior of the cheater. “Many girls who are witnesses to their parents’ ‘cheating genes’ determine that they are going to do one of two things. They are going to go above limits to make their personal relationships work. Or, they will accept the fact that men cheat and will always cheat and well…that’s how it’s going to be. I was different,” wrote Druex Dougall in “On Cheating Fathers and Their Daughters,” published on the online magazine Clutch. “I was going to be just like my daddy.
I strutted around with my nose in the air and my heart tucked safely away from my sleeve. My mantra became: No man will cheat on me. I will cheat on them.”

Dr. Ana Nogales, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful,” touched on that reaction in a 2011 Daily Beast story on infidelity. “I’m not saying that everyone does it, but 55 percent of adult children that came from families where one parent was unfaithful ended up being cheaters themselves,” she noted.

She also agreed that grown kids may be capable of understanding the dynamics that might make someone cheat, but said it’s more troubling to deal with womanizing and secrecy. “There is a strong sense of shame about what has happened, especially in adolescents because their identity is developing,” she said. “It’s not easy when you’re trying to show your worth and value to society.”

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