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Amatory Appetites and the Agony of Secrecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

PJ Advice columnist Belladonna Rogers reveals what to do, and what not to do, after seeing a friend’s husband at a romantic dinner with another woman.

by
Belladonna Rogers

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July 19, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Dear Belladonna Rogers,

In a restaurant near our apartment, my husband and I saw the husband of one of my closest friends at a romantic dinner with another woman. I’m sure this wasn’t a business meal, unless you include monkey business, and I’m also sure it wasn’t a one-night stand. He and his wife also live in our neighborhood. He didn’t see us but I had a clear view of his assignation, and I didn’t enjoy the view. What do I do now?  Tell his wife? They’ve been married almost 25 years, and I don’t want to do the wrong thing, but I do want to be a good friend.

Angst-ridden on Manhattan’s Upper West Side

Dear Angst-ridden,

You certainly have good reason to be angst-ridden over what you saw and perplexed by what to do. Before discussing your options, I’ll quote a great-aunt of mine who used to say, “the only exercise I get is jumping to conclusions.”

The impulse to make snap judgments is human. But then, so is to err. At a dinner party, a friend of mine sat across from an attractive man in his mid-50s. He was extremely attentive to the lovely young woman at his side, making sure she was included in the conversation, often holding her hand, or putting his arm around her. Curious about the origins of this obvious May-December match, she finally asked, over dessert, “How did you two meet?” His reply: “When the nurse brought her to me in the hospital and said, ‘Here’s your new daughter.” She  realized she’d spent the entire evening jumping to conclusions— like a grasshopper in a shoebox.

We’re fated to go through life with insufficient information. This means we have to guard against the frequent temptation to act on inferences based on partial evidence, especially when we’re as “sure” as you say you are of what we’ve seen.

It’s possible you made a similar mistake. The woman with your friend’s husband could have been a long-lost flame from his youth, now happily married. From across the restaurant they appeared to be romantically involved because (a) they once were, and (b) fires once kindled are often never extinguished, meaning that (c) they’ll always gaze lovingly and even yearningly at each other and therefore (d) they’ll forever appear to others to be a couple because (e) they’ll love and be filled with sexual desire for each other as long as they live. Getting married doesn’t erase your hard drive.

None of this means, however, that either his marriage or hers is in jeopardy, or that his wife — or her husband, for that matter — was unaware of their dinner together. It also doesn’t mean that they acted on their undying mutual attraction before or after dinner, or have made any plans to do so. The fact that he chose a neighborhood restaurant frequented by his and his wife’s friends — rather than a candle-lit hideaway in Greenwich Village — may suggest that he felt he had nothing to hide because he didn’t. On the other hand, a wise man with whom I discussed this column, a distinguished physician who’s been privy to more than his share of confidences, observed, “That’s exactly how a lot of men think. They’ll go to a neighborhood restaurant precisely because they figure no one would think they’re stupid enough to go out with their girlfriend so close to home.”

Take away point: unless you saw your friend’s husband in flagrante delicto on, under, or near their table, your suspicions may be unfounded, regardless of how it appeared to you.

No one, not one’s closest friends, neighbors, family members, nor anyone on Earth can ever know the intricacies of other people’s relationships. One can make educated guesses, have intuitive insights, or reach logical conclusions based on deductive reasoning, but no one can fully fathom anyone else’s marriage. Most people can’t even fathom their own.

You’ve doubtless heard that no good deed goes unpunished, and its corollary, “I did her a favor and she never forgave me.” Most people, including me, would not tell a friend if they saw the friend’s spouse in a restaurant with someone else, especially if it looked like a romantic tête-à tête. You risk turning a momentary peccadillo into a permanent catastrophe.

That said, you wouldn’t have written to me if you weren’t worried, and if you weren’t inclined to tell your friend — which, to repeat, I don’t recommend doing. Let’s look at your options. Your first step is to be clear about what kind of person your friend is.

Is she a someone who wants to know as much about everything as possible, even things that others find difficult to handle? Or is she a person who prefers to live in what I like to call a “happy bubble,” where as little unpleasantness filters through as possible? If she’s a happy bubble person who’s likely to deny that any part of her life could possibly be at risk, there’s no point in saying anything to her. Such people are psychologically unable to understand or absorb the precursors of doom. You see storm clouds and grab a trench coat and umbrella. They see the sunlight filtering through the same clouds and leave their rain gear home. They are immune to thoughts of doom.

Happy bubble people have such powerful psychological defenses that protect them from absorbing negative information that if your friend is one of them, you could introduce her to her husband’s love child, a perfect Xerox copy of him, and even that wouldn’t persuade her that he’d been unfaithful. That’s why I call it a happy bubble.

Other women know before they marry that their future husband is positively guaranteed to be a bounder (Hi, Hillary!  How’s that working out for you?)

You also have to consider the possibility that (a) his wife already knows and/or (b) she may be having an affair of her own with each member of the couple aware of the dalliances of the other.

There are many moving parts here, and based on your letter, there are also many unknowns: the wife’s tolerance for reality versus her preference for the bliss of ignorance; whether she’s aware of the situation; whether there is a “situation” at all, despite what you’re “sure” you saw; whether she’s involved with someone outside the marriage; whether this is the latest in a long line of extramarital affairs or whether this is his only affair; whether this is a new woman in his life, an innocent meal with an old flame, or a resumption of a premarital love affair. Each variation effects the situation.

Bearing these basic points in mind, you have three options, all based on the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm”:

(1) You can do nothing. This is the conventional wisdom, and there’s a good reason it is. It poses the fewest risks to yourself and to others. You lose nothing but sleep and you leave the situation untouched by your intervention. You allow human nature to take its course. You don’t play God. Why?  Because you’re not God. I know. I saw your email address.

Extramarital affairs — like pre-marital and post-marital affairs — often run their course and just (pardon the pun) peter out, short of a cataclysmic marriage-ending catastrophe. It’s possible that your friend’s husband — let’s call him Dick — will continue this affair until it runs its course. Your friend, his wife — Jane—may never know and  will never suffer from not ever having known about it.

Obviously, if Dick follows this affair with more such entanglements, Jane may eventually notice that Dick’s cover stories will start sounding suspiciously repetitive on the one hand, or far too creative on the other. She may, unless she’s a happy bubble person, figure it out with no help from you. By the same token, she may be glad, for her own reasons, unbeknownst to you, to have her husband take his amatory appetites elsewhere. They may have a loving, non-sexual marriage, for all you know, and this affair may pose absolutely no threat to their rock-solid emotional bond that has, after all, endured almost 25 years, according to your question.

If you say nothing now, you’ll have to maintain your silence forever. If, months or years from now, Jane learns of Dick’s affair and asks you, “Are you surprised? Did you ever have any idea?” you’ll have to say you never had an inkling. If you disclose your suspicions only after Jane discovers the truth, she may well feel you betrayed her and that as her friend, you had a duty to warn her as soon as you knew, meaning now. She could feel that you’ve been enabling Dick by your silence, and taking his side by allowing him to go on with his affair with your tacit complicity. So if you say nothing now, say nothing ever.

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