Monday, November 16, 2015

Here's How to Really Respond When a Friend's Spouse is Cheating

One of our BWC sisters recently linked to this recent New York Times column about whether or not to tell a friend his wife is cheating. 
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.

Dear Lisa,

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. 

Kind regards,
"Elle", founder of The Betrayed Wives Club


  1. Elle,

    Spectacular Elle! kick through the front line of cultural malaise and willful desire to "look away," from infidelity (until the bomb drops on your own house). I only wish someone had the courage to send me an anonymous letter since everyone (at my husbands medical practice) new about the long-term office affair. Nope, It was "club mentality," and business as usual and"not my business."

    Reminding me of the NYT Social Qs and Philip Galanes help for "awkward situations." June 21,2015 titled "A fox Guarding the Henhouse." Where a man and wife were in 'conflict' about telling the wife of a friend that her husband was hitting on their college aged babysitter. Galens advised them to validate the young woman's concern however To "Leave his wife out of it. She's not responsible for her husbands behavior and can't control it either. And his "Stabs at infidelity," are non of our "beeswax."


    To which my husband responded: "You only got this part right. They should go back to the husband and the wife and report the incident. This may avoid or reveal to the wife a pattern of behavior she needs to know about to confront her husband and possibly prevent a lot of harm downstream. If he is doing this to 18 year old babysitters he is likely finding other inappropriate targets of opportunity. The son and the wife are the ultimate victims of this behavior but revealing this fellows problems right now might help everyone including him.

    If he had been drinking a pint of vodka before driving his son home you would likely agree his wife needs to know. This type of acting out behavior is extremely destructive and needs to be called out to protect the innocent.

    To which Galens replied "Good Point!" I will be sure to pass it on. Thanks for taking the time to write and now that I have you, please check out my NEW social Q's paperback it's filled with awkward situations like these (and I nee ALL the support I can get!) All best Philip

    Gee, do you think these people even listen?

    1. echoed.. Kudos, Elle, for writing the letter. I hope she revisits her advice SOON..

  2. I love this letter! Very well written, and eye-opening. People really don't understand unless it has happened to them. And they need to understand how really awful and damaging affairs are.
    When I started learning about all this, my H assured me that nobody else really knew. Ha! Come to find out, most of the employees of that particular store knew and were gossiping about it. So now there are a whole bunch of people out there who know how much my husband dishonored and disrespected me. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if they were people I knew, who had kept it from me. You feel like everyone has been laughing at you and/or pitying you - and you never even knew! And all because of the person who was supposed to honor you and look out for you. It's a whole different layer of betrayal. Your best friend and partner has left you open to scorn and shame.
    Yes, a million times yes, I want to KNOW. I do not want to be deceived ever again!!!

  3. Good for you Elle! And, thank you for saying what needed to be said!!!! TL xx

  4. Elle,

    Actually this hits a major fault line in our cracked social fabric and reminds us how socially acceptable betrayal is. Dismissing the trauma seems to come easily for people who have never had it happen, they cheat themselves, or they simply don't care and don't have empathy for the trauma it causes. People say things like, "Just move on." So Easily said! The moment I found out the truth I went,"So THAT'S it!" I can handle anything, but if the truth is withheld? what a cruel-uneven game. And I agree with Phoenix people DO know and are keeping from you as someone always knows (cheaters think no ones looking) and eventually it will come out. If only the general public could view the betrayed spouse more honestly and see the REAL HARM being done with more compassion, understanding and less judgment. Well? Here is the letter I would have liked to receive from someone who cared enough to help me understand why I thought I was losing my mind and the years it cost my family.

    To Whom It Concerns (Use Name when possible)

    Re: ___________________________(Name of individual/sexual perpetrator)

    Perhaps you already know or have suspected what this letter concerns. You may also have no idea at all and this information will come as a shock. In any case it is vital that we reach out to you, as there are implications for your health and the health and well being of your family.

    Your partner has been sexually and emotionally deceptive while conducting a secret parallel sexual life and one that you may be completely unaware of. The other person is __________________________(name of other partners if known)

    This is an anonymous letter for the partners of people who commit sexual and emotional deceit. We hold all those people who willfully perpetrate and justify their compulsive sexual secrecy and behavior accountable to those to whom they have pledged fidelity.

    Since it is a known fact that most people who commit infidelity do so without practicing safe sex submitting unaware victims to exposure to STD’S. We feel it is our duty to warn and allow you to protect yourself from this reckless behavior. We regard this as a human rights issue and a form of domestic abuse by stealth.

    Our sole purpose is to level the playing field with the knowledge of what is going on so that you can make informed decisions for your own life and that of your family.

    1. I received an anonymous letter. For me the anonymity was very much part of the trauma. I believe people should show true courage and compassion by telling the betrayed spouse with FULL DISCLOSURE as to their identity.

      The anonymity, in my opinion, supports the shame/ridicule feelings by keeping it all hidden. I understand people wanting to protect themselves from an acting-out-making-bad-choices-cheating-spouse but first and foremost the victim of the emotional violence should be protected.

      In my fantasy world do over, one of the many, many women who knew of my husband's affair would have called me on the phone and compassionately told me the truth of my life. I would have protected her identity to my death for the humanity she extended me.

    2. Pippi! You're back!! How have you been?
      Great idea, V, but I suspect Pippi is right re. the anonymity contributing, for some, to trauma. I can imagine wondering:Was it her? Or him? Just who knows? And the compassion we can extend by simply saying "I am so sorry..." can be incredibly validating and healing.

    3. Hello, Elle! Your remembering me warmed my heart . . . deeply. Thank you.

      I'm ok, coming up on five years from Dday and still married. Things are better (the drinking) and worse (the connection) with good days and bad. I still feel deeply broken by my husband's affair but am committed to keeping my family together until my children are older . . . most days. However, I have gone back to school to earn a Master's degree in preparation for whatever I might decide to do in the future.

      It's wonderful you are still providing your insightful words of healing and common sense to the betrayed. It is healing and hard to drop by and read them . . . like so much of this experience -- trying to move on is so nuanced and nothing ever appears black or white again.

    4. Pippi,
      I'm so glad you're back in school preparing for an exciting future, whether he's in it or not. And so glad you checked back in, even briefly.

  5. Woo hoo Elle.
    I am considering sharing this as a PSA to the 50 or so people who know about my H's affair. Only one person* claims to have suspected--and wondered about saying something-- but there were others who were witness to the flirting so I am sure they did too. I am still greatful to the OW's husband for contacting me as soon as he found out that they hadn't stopped communicating (and as I found out much later, screwing).

    Anyway, I am also struck at how you were a child who saw this and was shushed by your mom to keep a secret. That must have distorted your sense of right/wrong and relationships, or atleast been very confusing. My daughter was also around the OW and my H when I was away and after I found out, she revealed that she was suspicious. She was left very confused and my H still hasn't addressed it with her--planning on bringing this to therapy tomorrow! There is an illusion that an affair is just between 2 people--the two affair partners. But in reality, it's tentacles spread far and wide, even if it is kept secret.

    *This person was someone I highly, highly respected, and feel very let down. I have stopped being in contact with her but I would consider sending it anyway.

  6. Excellent post as usual Elle! THIS, what you wrote, is exactly why,at 6am on a Saturday morning after finding out about my husband’s affair I drove to the affair partners home to tell her husband. I know it's a bit different than finding out about a friend’s affair but I felt this OW husband had every right in the world to know. How grateful I would have been if someone had told me. My husband told me that he had told NO ONE. I later found out that this OW had told friends about the affair. I didn't think twice about telling her husband. In fact, it was the first thing I did when I found out. He was grateful and heartbroken. He told me it wasn't her first affair and he had no idea that she had been having an affair with my husband. He thanked me for telling him over and over and later we spoke on the phone comparing phone records and speaking of our heartbreak.

    When I told him, I just knocked on their door and he answered. I told him how very sorry I was and that I was about to break his heart. And I did. Well, I didn't, but the actions of his wife and my husband did. It was the only good thing to come of this mess, that now he knew. I mean it when I say my motivation in telling him was that I felt he had the right to know. She tried to continue to lie, she was there as well. I told her to shut up, it was my turn now, and shut up she did. I gave her husband my husband’s cell phone number as I was sure that he had many questions as did I. He did call my husband and told him that he had an incredible wife. I knew then for certain that I had done the right thing. How I wish that someone had told me.

    1. Cheryl, good for you. I absolutely believe you did the right thing in going to him. You absolutely didn't break his heart, the reality of his wife did.

    2. CheyIRN, stories like yours keep me from seeking revenge. No kidding. I find that reading posts from other women who have the courage to confront these kinds of issues head on in a mature, healthy manner empower me to dismiss those budding fantasies about mass destruction and public humiliation. I can't explain it, but there you have it. Thank you.

    3. that's a great perspective Denise. I agree.

    4. Thanks so much for your kind words ladies. I didn't have a doubt about doing it when I did, Later I was so sad to have given him such devastating news. In the end I still believe it was the right thing to do and you are right, I didn't break his heart, his wife and my husband did. I later sat down and met with her, about three months after D day. It was clear to me then that she was a souless creature that had no concern or even any concept of the damage she had done. I was then very sure that I had done the right thing. Her first affair was with a neighbor, her husband told me this the morning I went to tell him. The other family had children who were friends with this OW children and they were friends as couples. The other couple ended up divorcing destroying their family. As long as I live I will never understand how a woman can live with herself after infilicting such pain and to turn around and do it again. Souless indeed.

    5. Cheryl, you're amazing. I wish there were more people with your moral courage and compassion x

    6. Thank you Iris, Denise, Out Of The Ashes, and MBS. I really appreciate your amazing kind words. It has been a long time since I've felt courageous. I try my best to have compassion as I know what it feels like to be brought to my knees with hurt and pain. I wish I could say I feel compassion for this woman for being so obviously broken and heartless. I would be lying if I said I did. My heart was truly broken for her husband. Wishing peace and healing to all who meet here. Thank you again ladies for the words of encouragement.

    7. Woo hoo, CheylRN. You're a warrior.

  7. If I had found out later that one of my friends had known about this and hadn't told me, I highly doubt I would continue to be friends with that person. Even an anonymous note! Something!

    Love your letter as always, Elle. I hope someone in that situation will read it and understand.

  8. Elle - Thanks for the great post. My H insists, to this day - no one knows or knew of his affair. Really - no one saw you steal away lunch for 2-3 hours (because they were at a hotel), your co-workers didn't see you with her.....didn't read your body language or the way you both looked at each other - interacted with each other. SURE. Out of town trips that OW just happened to be in the same town at the same one suspected when you couldn't have dinner with your colleagues (because you were with OW). Oh and best of all - they only spent one WHOLE night together in the same hotel room the entire 18 years they were together. I am not DUMB.
    The OW's H does not know about the affair - I am not going to tell OW's H. OW can just live in fear for the rest of her miserable life for all I care....just waiting for the other foot to drop.

    1. The reason I suggest letting the other spouse know is because I would want him to tell me. We all deserve to know that our sexual health is being compromised, that our financial security is being compromised and that our emotional safety isn't there. It's not easy, I know. But I hope you'll think about it.

  9. Oh Elle, nail on the head. Your response was perfect and I love that you state its the right thing to do, just not the easy thing. What a society we live in that so many others would rather take the easy way and not "butt in" as opposed to being honest. For so much time, I've wanted to just stay at home and lick my wounds because I don't know who knows and who doesn't (which will all be a moot point if this baby is his). My husband told no one about his affair, save his best friend who happened to stop by his shop when the OW was there, and he didn't know how deep it was. I'm not surprised that he didn't tell me, but apparently the OW is good friends with someone I considered a decent friend/acquaintance, my old hairdresser, who I also used to teach dance with. Here I am on Facebook gushing how grateful I am for my life and my husband and family... no wonder she's not liking my statuses or pictures... She was still cutting my husband's hair at the time and all she ever said to him (because while my husband didn't tell anyone, the OW told ALL of her friends, she was so certain he was leaving me for her) was "you should really tell your wife". Um yeah, but since that wasn't happening during the eight months, couldn't you anonymously do it? It frustrates me that in this culture of cheating, no one looks at the anatomy of an affair. Everyone that knew just assumed he would leave me, that if he cheated, there must be something wrong with me, not him (something that I still struggle with in my heart, but logically know the opposite is true). When I did confront the OW, she kept saying how the two mutual friends always told her how nice I am. Well, isn't that sweet of them?!? Did they by chance tell you I obviously had no clue and thought life was great? Or that maybe you shouldn't be pursuing a married man (not taking any responsibility off of him). UGH.
    The hardest for me, and I imagine for everyone, is when it is someone close. My very close friend, the very first one I went to when my husband initially told me, found out the OW was pregnant about a month before I did. My husband refused to admit to her that it could be his, but she kept pressuring him to tell me just because obviously my head would go there. She texted him every few days to tell me. When again, she was the first one I went to when I found out about the pregnancy, her first words were "so he finally told you, I've been telling him to". It was almost like a double betrayal, the pieces of my heart sank, she was so "know it all" about it. Whether she felt that it was her place or his place does not matter, what I know is that for a month, I was telling her the details of our life and our reconciliation and all the while she knew there was another shoe that was going to drop, which was humiliating to say the least and has greatly damaged our friendship.
    I so wish we could change the cultural perception of cheating and talk about the very real damage betrayal does to a person.

    1. Out of the Ashes,
      I am so sorry that your story has unfolded that way. But I honestly feel that telling your husband to tell you himself is a legitimate and respectful way to not take a blind eye. She might have said, "if you don't tell her by friday, I will tell her myself." I think it sometimes helps to have the confession come from the betrayer if at all possible. It allows him to take responsibility and fully experience the discomfort of looking you in the face as he reveals his behavior. The thing with affairs is that someone else is always to first to know, you are always the one in the dark, and you will be humiliated no matter what. Its a given, no matter what. I hope this point helps to soften the humilation just a bit.

    2. I agree with your comment. In my situation, when my friend confirmed that my H was having an affair, she confronted him and told him that if he didn't tell me by the end of the day, she would tell me herself. He begged her to give him more time to talk to a therapist to find out the best way to tell me, but she told him no, that she couldn't keep it from me. She couldn't see me and not tell me, that he had to tell me by that night. I was devastated,of course, but I believe it would have been worse if I had heard it from her or someone else. He came clean and even told me that he wished he was coming clean on his own accord but that my friend had found out and forced his hand. Who knows how much longer it would have gone on if she hadn't found out and pushed him to tell me. He had wanted to end it but couldn't find the courage. My friend finding out was the push he needed. And I am grateful to her every day. It was definitely better finding out from my H. Unfortunately for my girlfriend the reason she knew this was because her partner cheated on her and she found out from a friend. Ironically, he moved out and moved into the same building as my H's OW, which is how my H got caught. Did Fate step in or was it dumb luck that my friends ex moved to the same building and they saw him?

    3. MBS and Anonymous, thank you for your comments and those are good points, I do wish it would have spurred him to tell me sooner and/or that she had given him a deadline. In my case, I was studying for an intensive licensing exam for work, so my husband wanted to wait until after I was finished. Unfortunately for all of us, the very next day after I failed (because trying to study for something like that and deal with what I thought was my husband's emotional betrayal was beyond my capabilities), the OW's friend posted a picture of the OW gushing about her pregnancy, so I found out via Facebook while I was out shopping with my son instead of my husband, friend, etc., telling me. Neither of them had any control over that, so I don't hold it against them. Looking back, I'm not sure how any of it could have worked differently, I guess maybe there's times I wished she would have said something along the lines of "I've been hearing things, I think you need to talk with him further" or something to that effect, but it should have come from my husband, so you are right about that. Thanks for your input ladies, I didn't realize how much I've come to rely on this site until I didn't have a chance to check in for a couple of days.

  10. If anyone of the people the ow and my h knew would have let me know about it I could have saved my h and me the extra 18 months of hell she put both of us through! She made sure the two people he worked with knew and neither have said anything to him or me! Looking back I understand why they seemed so nervous when they first met me! lol I'm just glad that part of the nightmare is over! Hugs!

  11. I am so glad you wrote about this! I read that article a few days ago and it made me ill. I doubt that any of those idiots have ever been cheated on (or at least their friends haven't told them). Disgusting, chickenshit cop out of an answer to a disgusting, chickenshit, cop out betrayal. BOOM.

  12. A bit off here, but I sometimes feel like an outsider since there wasn't an OW , but rather dozens of escorts and online hookups. Still, I know that all of them now know him, and it would not take much to know who I am.. Some of them were even in my house!!! I also know some were nursing sfudents athe same time I was going through nursing school, so there's another possible link . I wish that even one of them would have grown a soul and a conscience and looked me up. I hate walking across campus or at work thinking some one might know who I am.

    1. CF,
      I too have many others in my husband's past and it took me a couple of years to completely get past my discomfort that there were many people out there who "knew" me but who I didn't know. Sometimes when a stranger caught my eye or looked at me directly, I would wonder... To be honest, though, I haven't really thought about it in years.

    2. Cactus Flower, I don't think you're an outsider. I'm in your shoes, my husband is a porn addict (in recovery), so it wasn't an affair with anyone he cared about, it was hundreds of other women in images, a few he chatted with online, and one he met with in real life. Betrayal is betrayal. I've sometimes tried to comfort myself that at least it wasn't someone he was in love with. And while that is in a way easier for me, it's still hard. I told my husband that I felt like I got a double whammy--not only did I find out he cheated on me, but I found out he was an addict as well and had been living a double life since the beginning of our relationship. Finding out even one of those things is hard enough, but both at the same time? Ouch!!!

      I think we have to remember not to invalidate ourselves. Being betrayed hurts, no matter the degree. And saying that someone doesn't have the right to be upset because someone else has it worse is like saying someone doesn't have the right to be happy because someone else has it better. It's nonsensical. You feel how you feel, and that's okay. Pain is not a contest.


  13. Lovely Cactus flower,

    For me.....You are no outsider here you have been betrayed just like me. (My husband had a long term (married) second wife at work). And even if there wasn't one OW but dozens, thousands of impersonal emotional/sexual encounters....or what ever situation, betrayal is betrayal and we are all connected by that outrage and agony. That is why I would never in a million years condemn or judge another betrayed persons choices. It always saddens me when lines are drawn around infidelity, when it appears to cause such universal pain.

    You also touched on something else all of us are connected through experiencing someone's dishonesty, deception, secrets, lies - we have been deceived and have that in common - betrayal

    Those who 'knowingly cheat with other people's partners,' in committed relationships and marriages have theft and cowardice in common. Including 'sex workers,' who deny betraying their own gender.

    One of my Hero's told me that sometimes she see's people whispering about her (who know about her Cheating Husband) and says it makes her walk even taller, as she passes past them while looking squarely into their eyes.

    She say's "It's because I know it's on my husband, it's not at ALL about me."

    1. Valkyrie
      You said it so right! It's all on my husband his choices and it never was about me! That is so true about each and everyone on this blog! When we come to understand that, I believe healing begins!

    2. Brava Valkyrie!! It's always worth remembering, cheating says nothing about us, it says a ton about them.

  14. Thank you Elle so much for standing up for all of us!!!! If only someone had that compassion for me.... However, a make co-worker of mine that is much older than I mentioned a year before I found out that he strongly feels I should consider looking into the chance. When I asked why he stated that he had friends who had and my husband's behaviors resembled theirs... Fast forward a year later when I found out the truth I asked him how he knew... He told me my husband wasn't kind to me and caring. It was shocking to him because he said I'm so kind to him and everybody loved me. So to this day I call him friend #1. I tell him because he was the only person in the world who had the strength to tell me the truth. So there is a piece of my heart that is forever grateful to my friend. When I went on my "self-imposed sabbatical of healing," I reflected on that conversation the day he mentioned I should look into the possibility. I remembered how hurt I was he would imply such a thing, but now it's completely replaced with gratitude and love for the person who loved me enough to tell me. Love you girls!!! It's been tough lately I'm so far along in my journey and it pains me to see more people,even Gwen Stefani as talented and beautiful as she is," betrayed. - Ann from Texas



Related Posts with Thumbnails