Dear Therapist: My Best Friend’s Wife Cheated on Him

Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I just learned that my best friend’s wife of three years has been having an affair for nearly a year with a mutual friend of theirs. (My friend is a man; I’m a woman.) My friend is understandably reeling from the event. However, he is intent on staying with her. Going forward, I don’t know how to conduct our friendship while she remains a prominent figure in his life.

I don’t want her to be punished, but I do feel a level of injustice. I am fiercely loyal to my friend, and this woman has betrayed him to the deepest degree. I am deeply upset with her. Yet he is still caring for her, especially as she is crumbling in the aftermath of losing her lover and facing the fallout of her lies. I feel as though she’s unwilling to handle the consequences of her actions and he is letting her get away with it.

The three of us would often spend time together, but I have no interest in spending time with her moving forward. I don’t want to be unkind to her, but I cannot be her friend. I do want to be there for my friend. He is crumbling too. But I fear that supporting him, longer term, means spending time with his wife.

How do I attend future gatherings where they act as if everything is okay among our larger group of friends? How do I support my friend, in whatever choice he makes, when I appear to be far less forgiving than him?

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Any wisdom would be welcome.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

You clearly care about your friend and have a lot of empathy for him. And because you care so much, you’re angry at the person who hurt him. But in order to offer true support, you’ll need to separate your anger from his feelings and allow him to have a different internal experience from yours.

As you well know, your friend is going through a very turbulent time, and what he needs most is to be able to hear himself—not you—clearly. This means that your main job as his friend is to be a compassionate and nonjudgmental sounding board as he sorts through his own feelings. To that end, what you need to communicate is not how you feel, but, using whatever language is natural to you, I care about you and I’m here for you. How can I help? Full stop. The full stop is hard—especially when you have such strong feelings—but doing so is crucial to his well-being right now, and his ability to arrive at his own place of clarity in the long run.

In cases of infidelity, many people have a hard time supporting their friends like this, because righteous indignation gets in the way. The thinking goes: This is a no-brainer. I have to save my friend from this selfish person. Or, My friend isn’t thinking straight. If this were me, I would leave the marriage.

But the problem with this way of thinking is twofold. First, although you may think you know what you would do in his situation, you don’t. Nobody knows what they’ll do in a particular situation until they’re actually in it, and you need to account for this gap between imagination and lived experience.

Second, only he knows what’s right for him. Remember, he’ll be the one to live with his choices, not you, which means he gets to choose whom to love and why. If he says “I love her” or “I forgive her,” and you try to talk him out of how he feels, he probably won’t want to share his true feelings with you, and your friendship will suffer. Your friend is going through a trauma, and what he needs right now is a friend he can trust with the full range of his emotions. Moreover, taking the position of “I love you but I won’t have anything to do with your wife” is akin to a parent saying “I love you but not who you love” to their adult child who just announced he’s gay and has a boyfriend. It’s hard to feel loved under those circumstances.

In other words, you say that you’re fiercely loyal to your friend, but being loyal doesn’t mean vilifying and shunning his spouse. It means allowing him to have his own feelings, which include great love for his wife, despite the deep pain this betrayal has caused. It means supporting his growth as he goes through his own process of rebuilding with her, and as the two of them try to understand what the infidelity meant, where it came from, and where they might go from here.

Of course, it’s one thing to understand what kind of support to offer, and another to be able to offer it. This is where your own feelings come in. While your friend is examining his feelings about the affair, you might find examining the intensity of your own feelings about it helpful. Sometimes when people become too emotionally involved in “defending” a friend who has been betrayed, the reason is they have a deep-seated fear of this happening to them. The way you write about your friend’s affair and your feelings toward his wife feels almost as if this had happened to you—as if you were the one betrayed.

Now might be a good time to get curious about your own feelings around betrayal. Does something in your history hit home here? What makes it hard for you to see the shades of gray that your friend can see, even in his pain? (You may think that you’d never do this to someone you love, but his wife likely believed that about herself too.) If you’re straight, you might also think about whether any part of your fierce protection of your friend might be masking some romantic feelings you have for him. Could a part of you want them to break up so that you can be with him? The point is not that this, specifically, is what’s going on, but intense feelings about another person’s situation tend to be fueled by something else.

Finally, you might also temper the intensity by considering that despite how affairs tend to be viewed in our culture, what goes on in a marriage is often nuanced and complex. One event, no matter how painful, is rarely as clear-cut as it seems. In many marriages, an affair is a much-needed reckoning for one or both people in ways that an outsider can’t see. Sometimes it signals the end of a relationship, but more often than many people may realize (because generally couples don’t publicize affairs), it becomes the catalyst for growth and change.

The more you understand about your own reaction, the more you’ll be able to support your friend and his wife as they work through this difficult time. Meanwhile, repeat this like a mantra: I care about you and I’m here for you. How can I help? Full stop.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.