San Francisco Advantage

After Infidelity: Trouble for Parent-Child Relationship

by Edward Carpenter

Even as elected officials and celebrities continue the parade of public apologies following revelations of marital infidelity, research by University of San Francisco Assistant Professor of communication studies Allison Thorson suggests our understanding of the impact of those infidelities on the youngest members of families, the children, is largely misunderstood.

Thorson’s research, outlined in the article “I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Cheating and the Influence of Discovery Method on Relational Outcomes,” is now being considered for publication and was a top paper at the National Communication Association Conference 2008 in San Diego (The paper was then titled “The Influence of Discovery Method on Parent-Adult Child Relational Outcomes: A Study of Communication Surrounding Parental Infidelity”). The research turns on its head a decade-old belief that the damage to the parent-child relationship and the ability to salvage the relationship depends on whether the child learned of the infidelity from the parent who committed it, the victim of the infidelity, or a third party, and whether the cheating parent was able to immediately apologize and explain their behavior.

Up until now, researchers largely based their belief – that the damage to the parent-child relationship could be, to a greater or lesser extent, mitigated by how a child learned of the infidelity – on research published in 2001 by three Pennsylvania State University researchers, Walid Afifi, Wendy Falato, and Judith Weiner.

In that study, of infidelity between dating partners, the degree to which the cheating partner was able to salvage the relationship depended on their ability to “save face,” or, in research lingo, “make a face redress,” by being present when their partner learned about the infidelity, by immediately apologizing, and by giving an account of their behavior, Thorson said.

Thorson’s research, however, suggests that how a child learned of parental infidelity had little or no impact on whether and to what degree the parent-child relationship could be saved.

“The findings from my current study suggest that Afifi et al.’s findings may be limited to dating relationships and are not applicable to parent-child relationships,” Thorson said.

Based on her results and keeping in mind that infidelity affects the relationships of all individuals connected to an affair, Thorson argues that research beyond the narrow focus of the couple is needed to better understand infidelity and the communication of it.

Thorson, also the author of a related study “Adult Children's Experiences with their Parent's Infidelity: Communicative Protection and Access Rules in the Absence of Divorce” published in the journal Communication Studies in 2009, has long been drawn to study how family interaction and communication might help buffer against the consequences of stressors such as infidelity.

“I have an interest in how families, in particular children, cope and are able to persevere after experiencing severe stressors or encountering non-normative events that could potentially threaten their sense of security and wellbeing,” Thorson said.