In the summer, O, The Oprah Magazine advice columnist Lisa Kogan (whom I love and generally agree with) also responded to a question from a letter writer wondering about whether to out a cheater.
Both Lisa and the Times' ethicist gave advice consistent with the response to affairs by our culture at large – which tends to support a "look away" approach. They pointed out that marriages are private and none of us really know what's going on, which is a way of saying that the marriage might make room for other partners in some sort of hedonistic open way that most of us can't imagine. They point out that perhaps the partner does already know and would be embarrassed by any "publicity" around the affair. They mention that sometimes partners don't want to know. They suggest that, perhaps, the partner will smarten up before anyone has to know and the couple can live out the rest of their years in bliss.
Of course, any of these situations is possible. But probable? Please.
So I'm copying (below) the letter I sent to Lisa Kogan in the hopes that, in some small way, I'm stimulating a conversation that I believe our culture needs to have: a conversation about the true cost of infidelity; an honest, nuanced conversation that acknowledges, as one recent commenter put it, the "act of emotional violence" that is betrayal. But a conversation that also includes the possibility of true reconciliation.
To her credit, Lisa Kogan responded to my letter with a large gulp, a mea culpa and a desire to revisit her advice in a future column.
Baby steps, ladies. Baby steps.
When I was nine years old and out shopping with my mother, I spotted my best friend's dad. "Hey there's Mr. Shannon," I said. And then, faltering, "But that's not Mrs. Shannon." My mom quickly shushed me, making it clear that I saw nothing and was to say nothing.
Back at the Shannon home was Mrs. Shannon, who had no "don't ask, don't tell" policy. There was no "open marriage". Mr. Shannon didn't "come to his senses" before his wife found out.
Instead, there was only a bewildered Mrs. Shannon, wondering why her husband never seemed to be home and why he found fault with everything she did. She had no reason to suspect she should be insisting on protection when she had sex with her husband. She had no reason to speak with a lawyer to ensure her self-employed husband wasn't hiding assets.
So when he asked for a divorce so he could marry not-Mrs.-Shannon, she was blind-sided.
Fast forward 33 years and I'm in Mrs. Shannon's shoes with a cheating husband in a culture that looks the other way. So are the 2,000 women DAILY who visit my Web site, The Betrayed Wives Club.
Before I'd been cheated on, I would have given exactly the advice you gave. Don't get involved. There might be agreements in place, etc. Which is true. There might be though I doubt it. And while we're looking the other way, the betrayed wife might contract an STD as more than a few women on my site have. One woman, who contracted cervical cancer, will never know if it's because of the STD her husband passed along thanks to one of his extracurricular partners.
A betrayed wife might choose to get pregnant again, go back to school, become a stay-at-home mom. In other words, she might continue to make decisions based on having a solid marriage and a dependable partner, when unbeknownst to her, she has neither.
At the very least, betrayed wives feel utterly humiliated when they learn that others knew of their husband's affair...and said nothing. It compounds the shame we already feel for not knowing it ourselves, for not suspecting. If we do suspect and have no real evidence to back up our suspicions, we're routinely told we're crazy. "Of course not," our husbands scoff. "She's just a friend/just a work colleague/just an old college acquaintance." And so we silence that voice. I don't know a single betrayed wife who doesn't wish some benevolent person – friend, stranger, doesn't matter – hadn't taken them aside or written a letter and gently told them what he/she knew. Something like, "I hope I'm off-base here but I saw your husband having lunch with a woman and it looked a little cozy. I just wanted you to know." Or "I will keep my mouth shut to everybody else, including your mother if you wish, but I recently discovered that your husband is having an affair. I'm here for you in whatever way you need."
Sure the wife might respond with anger. She might insist that you're wrong. Her own head will be spinning. She'll be in shock. If there is some sort of "agreement" (though I highly doubt it), she can respond with "I know about that. But thanks for telling me."
Telling the cheater himself gives him the chance to go underground, to cover up his tracks, to lay low until the coast is clear. To prepare the wife to dismiss anyone else's disclosure with a pre-emptive "oh, I ran into Marilyn when I was out with Joe's girlfriend buying him a gift. She looked at me kinda funny. She's such a gossip."
Being cheated on is one of the loneliest experiences. Everybody pretends it isn't happening while your world is caving in. It's not uncommon for people who've been cheated on to experience post-trauma symptoms: hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares.
Nobody should take any pleasure in telling someone her spouse is cheating. You're right that it's a no-win situation. But that doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do. It's just not the easy thing.
"Elle", founder of The Betrayed Wives Club