The recent and long overdue admission by John Edwards to fathering a baby with mistress Rielle Hunter has certainly come at a high price, especially in light of his lack of integrity, honesty, and humility about his infidelity. While I do believe that we can repair many issues in our marriages (including affairs), this can only be accomplished if the culpable party is truly honest. The pain and damage Edwards has inflicted upon his older children is immense. The continuous denials of the affair and the confirmed paternity of Frances Quinn are far more detrimental to their psyches than they would have been if he had owned up to his lapse in judgment early on.
John Edwards has shown his children that the person they want to look up to — their father — will boldly lie to save face with little regard for those involved in his deceit and elaborate cover-up scheme. He also showed through his actions that he was willing to throw his obvious obligations (both financial and emotional) to one of his own children out the window.
I would be concerned that his older children may wonder if his callousness and self-centeredness could be aimed at them one day. The last thing children want is for their parent to disappoint them in such a deep and fundamental manner. This can leave a child feeling insecure in themselves and in their relationship with the parent for years to come.
Elizabeth and John’s children — Cate, 27, Emma, 11, and Jack, 9 — will be experiencing a mix of shock and shame, and because of their ages, they will handle this situation in different ways. Cate (the oldest) has already experienced much trauma for her young age, including the death of her big brother and her mother’s cancer battle. She may have already had to assume a parental role in the family because her much younger siblings were conceived after (and in response to) the death of her brother at age 16. I would not be surprised if her mother had not been leaning on her during this very trying time, which may cause resentment and anger at both of her parents.
Emma, 11, may struggle the most because of her young age. The tween years are filled with insecurity and identity confusion as a natural course, but in the case of the trauma she has been dealing with, she might become more rebellious due to her anger and lack of trust of men in her world. All of this will be linked directly back to her dad. In both of these girls, the sad model that their father has shown them is that even at their mother’s most vulnerable time battling cancer, he was unable to control his own selfish desires. I predict these girls will grow up to be women who struggle with ever fully trusting the men in their lives.
At the young age of 9, Jack’s model of men has been forever altered because of his father’s selfishness and lack of courage and integrity when faced with his fate resulting from his infidelity. Jack may internalize this idea as the inevitable way men behave in marriage. In my practice, I have seen all too often that husbands — unconsciously or consciously — follow in the destructive footsteps of their own dad’s infidelity. They are confused and filled with anger and shame toward their dads, but seem to feel fated to be unfaithful.
When working with couples around fidelity issues, I remind them that the fallout and damage of an affair is far deeper and far greater than one could ever imagine. You can bring disease, emotionally unstable individuals, and children into your life. The long-term ramifications for yourself, your spouse, and your current children may take a lifetime to heal, if ever. Cheating is never a solution and is never simple, but creates a ripple of complicated problems far greater than ever expected.