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

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.

(2) You can call Dick at work -- definitely not at home, and not via email in case Jane has access to his emails -- and ask him to meet with you because there’s something serious you’d like to discuss with him. I don’t see any advantages to this option with one major exception: if he’s as close a friend of yours as Jane is, or even closer, and you feel that you can speak to him friend-to-friend in complete confidence. If you meet with him, do it in another neighborhood. You don't want others jumping to the same conclusion about you and Dick that you did about him and the other woman.

If you decide to go this route, you could tell Dick that you want to talk to him because of your concern for Jane, who is, after all, one of your closest friends, and that you’re speaking to him rather than to her because you don’t want to hurt her, but you do want him to know what you saw.

If he confides that he is, in fact, having an affair, you could say that if he’s going to continue this relationship, he should do Jane and her friends the courtesy of not flaunting it in a neighborhood restaurant. Tell him this is not only boorish but is also high-risk behavior that will inevitably lead to someone telling Jane, even if it isn’t you. Jane could even go out to dinner with a friend at the self-same restaurant and witness his rendez-vous with her own eyes.

Tell him that by going public with his affair in a neighborhood eatery his conduct is unbecoming a gentleman and is disrespectful of Jane. It is, in a word, stupid. Several additional pertinent adjectives are reckless, feckless, careless, thoughtless, inconsiderate, cruel, and selfish. And although they’re accurate, I don’t advise using them in your heart-to-heart conversation with Dick if your purpose is to get through to him. "Stupid" and "selfish" do tend to alienate the person to whom they're applied.

Speaking directly to Dick has the potential to produce many unwanted consequences. It could make for awkward future get-togethers with Dick, Jane, you, and your husband -- unless three out of four of you are gifted thespians. Even without putting the kibosh on future double-dates, Dick could, in a worst-case scenario, react by telling you to mind your own business. If you respond by saying you consider your good friend’s happiness to be your business, and that friends look out for their friends, he could tell you to mind your own business again, effectively ending the discussion, not to mention your friendship with him.  It would certainly put a temporary dent in it until you can sort things out with Dick at another time, if another time ever comes.

I’d attempt this approach only if the husband is a very good friend of yours, and even then you’d have to preface it by saying that you’d never be having this discussion in the first place if he hadn’t been in that restaurant in your neighborhood. Your tone should be one of concern for him and Jane, and not of outrage at his bad behavior. If you can't avoid expressing your indignation now, wait to have this conversation until you can do it calmly. Yelling isn't the sharpest arrow in the quiver of persuasion, as any five-year-old can attest.

“I know this isn’t my business.  I love you both,” you could say, “and since you took your lady friend to Pedro’s, where we often go with Jane, I felt I had to speak to you to let you know that if any of our other friends saw what my husband and I saw, one of them might tell Jane. I’m here with you because I don’t want to see either of you hurt, and I’m worried that you may be -- whether you realize it or not -- courting disaster.”

Sometimes a man (or woman, but this question concerns a man) who’s unable to speak directly to his mate about marital dissatisfaction will unintentionally tempt fate by risking being discovered with his lover in order to bring matters to a head, or to an abrupt end. Such a person is acting in the mistaken, albeit unconscious belief that the inevitable blow-up caused by appearing in public with his lover in his own neighborhood and getting caught is somehow preferable to addressing the real issue of marital unhappiness -- hoping that if the cataclysm does take place, he’ll never have to discuss anything with his wife again. Only with her lawyer.

By talking with Dick as a friend in a non-judgmental way, you may be able to alert him to this possible aspect of his behavior and urge him, at the very least, to take his lover to a more discreet location. Or to discuss his unhappiness directly with Jane, enter marriage counseling, or meet with a member of the clergy. By calmly (as distinct from accusingly, shriekingly) describing to Dick what you and your husband saw, and what you inferred was going on behind Jane's back, you may be able to give Dick the wake-up call he needs to understand that he’s not cloaked in invisibility, nor is his lover, and that by appearing with her in your neighborhood as he did, he’s risking his marriage. He may not have thought of this, as obvious as it may seem to you.

(3) You could speak to Jane, although I can’t even make a coherent argument for this worst option, except under one set of circumstances: unless you are so close that not to do so would violate every understanding in your friendship. But you can’t do it simply to tell someone because you’re bursting with suspicion or because you want to satisfy your curiosity. If Jane is like some of my friends (but unlike others), she would unquestionably want you to tell her every detail of what you saw, and would consider your revealing what you saw to be an act of friendship. If she is such a person, and you have such a friendship, then you have some basis to speak with her -- although I still don’t recommend that you do it just because you can. If you’re really that close, you don’t need me to suggest what you might say, but since I’m an advice columnist, I’ll tell you, anyway.

You could start by saying, “Jane, I’m going to tell you something that I know you would tell me if our situations were reversed. And I’m certainly not 100% sure of the meaning of what I saw, but I love you and I’d want you to tell me if you saw anything like this, so I’m going to tell you what my husband and I saw a few nights ago. Neither of us will  ever discuss this with anyone else. And I’ll support you whatever you decide to do about this, including doing nothing about it at all.”

And then tell her.

Even if you’re as close to Jane as you think you are, telling a wife that her husband may be unfaithful is the emotional equivalent of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Yes, it ended the war sooner rather than later, and unquestionably saved the lives of countless American, Allied, and Japanese soldiers, but no one can say that it wasn’t devastatingly horrific. If Jane is at all depressed, such a revelation could, in a worst-case scenario, have damaging results. Is that a risk you want to take?

That’s why this is the option for which I have the least enthusiasm, unless you’re sure that your friend can hear such news without becoming dangerously angry and/or dangerously despondent.

This suggests why the first option -- doing nothing -- is often deemed the best, and is the course I advise here.

When it comes to our knowledge of the lives of others, even our closest friends in the world, there will always be enigmas wrapped in mysteries that, try as we may, we’ll never understand. “Marriage” is a powerful word like “family” or “mother” that can connote one thing to one person and something far different to someone else. Your happy ideal of eternal marital monogamy may be your closest friend’s idea of living hell -- and she’ll never tell a soul, including you.

You’ll never, ever know. For all you know, that dinner date was a 25th anniversary present from Jane to Dick.  Stranger things have happened.

–-- Belladonna Rogers

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