In a recent New York Times column by someone calling himself “The Ethicist,” a reader asks if he should continue to conceal his friend’s long-standing extramarital affair from her husband. The columnist advised the reader not to reveal the affair because the reader was closer friends with the woman than with her husband. Here is a shortened version of the original question and our very different answer.
Question: I am a man (if it matters) and friends with a married woman, ‘‘Jane,’’ and her husband, ‘‘Peter.’’ The friendship is more with Jane than with Peter. Jane is having an affair with ‘‘Martin,’’ whom Jane has known most of her adult life. I know about the affair because Jane confided in me years ago. Jane thinks Martin is her true life’s ‘‘soul mate,’’ and I think she may be right. Peter does not know about the affair. If he knew about it, I think he would divorce Jane in a minute. Jane and Martin likely will never be together. Martin is married with children, and he lives in another country. Martin visits the United States once or twice a year on business, and during those visits Jane and Martin spend a weekend together, usually in a hotel. Jane lies to Peter when this happens; she tells him she’s away on a business trip. What should I do? If I continue to be friends with Jane and Peter, I end up in some small way lying to Peter, who is also a friend. -Name Withheld
Answer: The quandary is that Jane is betraying her husband Peter, but if the reader tells Peter about the affair, then the reader is betraying his friend Jane. It’s natural for most people to want to run far, far away from such a sticky situation.
The pros of telling Peter about the affair are (1) Peter will know the truth; (2) the reader will no longer have to deceive or lie to Peter; and (3) Jane may be motivated to stop the affair. The cons of telling Peter about the affair are (1) it’s really none of the reader’s business; (2) Jane told him about the affair in confidence; and (3) Peter might divorce Jane once he finds out.
The New York Times columnist concluded: “you are in a deeply compromised moral situation — one in which the cure is worse than the condition. As is so often the case, there’s no way out from under the net. … The best outcome often has something deplorable about it.” In a word, balderdash (or something else that starts with “b”).
There is a way out. It doesn’t involve the reader talking to Peter, but it does involve him talking to Jane. It’s called fraternal correction, or admonishing the sinner, and it’s a spiritual work of mercy. We found a great blogpost setting out a few ground rules for fraternal correction, and this situation meets them all.
1. Is it serious? This one is easy. A long-term extramarital affair is extremely serious.
2. Will it resolve itself? Jane has been able to hide her affair from her husband for years. She apparently has no motivation to stop her relationship with a man she feels is her “soul mate.” She doesn’t seem to mind involving her friends in the deception either. There’s very little chance that the situation will resolve itself without intervention.
3. Will it be effective? The strength of the reader’s friendship with Jane actually counsels in favor of his being able to reach her. If she cares about her friend, she will understand that he does not want to deceive or lie to her husband. Perhaps perceiving it through her friend’s eyes, she will see that deceiving her husband is not the right thing to do.
4. Do you have the best shot at getting the point across? The reader may be one of the only people who knows about the affair. Therefore, he may be one of the only people who can convince Jane that her behavior is bad for her marriage.
So, our response in a nutshell is that the reader ought to tell Jane that he doesn’t feel comfortable lying to her husband about the affair. He can explain that she is putting her marriage at risk by continuing the affair and that treating her lover as her “soul-mate” is preventing her from seeing her husband that way. If she stops the affair, she may just find that her husband can be the “soul-mate” she’s longing for.
What would you do in a situation like this? We’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have questions for future columns, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. And for a free copy of our Marriage Rx eBook, subscribe here.
Copyright 2015 Dr. Manny & Karee Santos