*Apart from experts and authors quoted, real names and locations have been changed.
Kelly and James were our oldest friends. We met before we had kids, and while James and my husband, Sam, bonded over hours-long bike rides and trail runs, Kelly and I connected over our love of literature and movies, politics and fashion. As the years progressed, our lives stayed in sync: We had babies around the same time, bought houses near each other, took vacations together. On Sundays, when it came time for dinner, the only question was, our house or theirs? Married 20-plus years, Kelly and James* had weathered some tough times - his incessant travel for work, her struggles with low moods - but their relationship seemed solid. Or so we thought until last July, when James confessed to Kelly that he was in love with another woman and had been cheating on Kelly for months.
I'd seen agony up close, but never quite like this. Kelly called almost daily, sobbing through her recitation of hurts. James, by contrast, seemed happier by the week and, after months of hiding his affair, was suddenly eager to spill the intimate details. As his best pal, Sam was the logical "spill-ee." Caught in the middle, we both felt whipsawed. A bomb had gone off inside our lives and, uncertain what to do, we warily circled the impact zone. Should we take sides? Cut ties with James? Encourage them to reconcile? Push Kelly to move on?
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Buried deeper, we had growing fears about the state of our own union. Would becoming enmeshed in our dear friends' marital disaster create conflict (or worse) between us? We wanted to protect our relationship - and preserve our friendship with both our old friends. The thing was, we didn't know how.
"Infidelity doesn't just affect the couple who are involved," says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up. "It affects everyone who knows them and causes lots of pain and confusion."
And the way it affects you can be as surprising as it is upsetting. "If a couple are very good friends of yours, it can feel like a personal loss, because all those years of doing things together as couples are over," says Lerner. Following are common issues that come up; knowing how to navigate them can help you help your friend - without losing your own way.
Trap #1: She wants you to hate him, too
After her friend's husband had an affair several years ago, author Danine Manette of Berkeley, CA, stepped in to pick up the pieces. "My friend was calling me and crying on my shoulder nearly every day for weeks," recalls Manette. "She said terrible things about her husband and got me riled up, too. I agreed with her that he was a lying jerk and that she was better off without him." Then, out of the blue, Manette's friend stopped calling. "When I tried to contact her, she brushed me off. It turned out she was in the process of reconciling with her husband, and I think she was embarrassed because we'd both said such terrible things about him. That was the end of the friendship."
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It seems unfair that your unqualified support of a friend could lead to a serious rift, but in the realm of infidelity it's not uncommon, according to Lerner. "It's one of the pitfalls in this situation," she says. "When your friend says, 'My husband is a lying, psychopathic jerk,' she wants you to agree, because in that moment, when she's in such pain, she needs him to be the villain. But as time goes by and she becomes less angry, she may start seeing him in a different light." And if she does, she may not want to justify her change of heart to anyone who's joined her in ripping him to shreds. A safer way to respond to her husband-bashing, says life coach M.J. Ryan, author of AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For, is to mirror her feelings, not her words. "You can say something like, 'I don't blame you for feeling hurt and angry,' or, 'Anyone in your shoes would feel betrayed and upset,' " Ryan says.
I've said similar things to Kelly, even though we have the opposite problem: I've maintained a friendship with James. Although Kelly (to her eternal credit) has never mentioned it, I know my continued contact with her soon-to-be ex is painful for her and that she'd prefer it if I shunned him. Truth is, if I were she I'd feel the same way. But he's my husband's best friend; I can't cut him out of my life. Instead, I've tried to be the best friend I can to Kelly - supportive, understanding, there for her when she needs me - and to let her know that while my loyalty is divided, my affection and sympathy for her are wholehearted.
Trap #2: She shares too many intimate details
Because infidelity involves sex, it's almost inevitable that your friend is going to go there - to share personal details about her and her husband's bedroom habits. I ordinarily don't shy away from talking about sex, but I once had a friend - not a close one - who divulged cringe-worthy minutiae about her private life with her cheating spouse. To this day, when I see him, I think about the fact that she said he was awkward in bed and not particularly well endowed. If I had it to do over, I'd ask her to keep that stuff to herself - a request that's perfectly fine, experts say. "Everyone has a different tolerance for talking about sex, and if you feel you've reached your limit, it's OK to say so," says Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Westport, CT, and author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful. "But you want to be sensitive about how you say it. You can just say, 'You know I love you and want to support you, but those details make me a little uncomfortable. Can we change the subject?' "
Trap #3: She's emotionally needy
Linda Carlson of Milwaukee has a longtime friend who's a doctor - she was the breadwinner in the family for 20-plus years, while her husband stayed home with their two kids. "She's smart, interesting, and incredibly capable," says Carlson, "but when she found out her husband had cheated on her, she fell apart. Her self-confidence vanished, and she needed constant reassurance that she was attractive and lovable." Carlson offered it willingly, because she understood why her friend's self-esteem had shriveled; Carlson's ex-husband had cheated on her, too. "Infidelity is such a shocking betrayal. It makes you feel very small and worthless, so I tried to tell my friend the kinds of things I wanted to hear when I was in her shoes: that she was strong and smart and was handling the situation incredibly well."
When my friend Kelly reaches out for reassurance, I sometimes feel out of my depth and overwhelmed by the intensity of her emotional pain. Happily, experts say you really don't have to say much. "The best thing you can do is listen, especially in the first few months, when her feelings are so raw and she's still sort of in shock," says Val Walker, a grief educator and author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress. "Just let her talk, and every once in a while say things like, 'I'm so sorry,' and, 'This is so hard!' to let her know that you hear her and feel for her. You don't need to be wise or try to fix anything; you just need to show up and be empathetic."
Trap #4: You feel the urge to give advice
Mary Casey of Buffalo, NY, wasn't surprised when her friend Susan's husband had an affair several years ago. "She took him for granted," Casey recalls. "He had a busy, successful career, but he did all sorts of nice things for her - brought her flowers and jewelry, took her on vacations. She never appreciated it. She was always mad at him about something." After the affair came to light, Casey gently suggested that Susan give her husband another chance - and be honest with herself about the role she might have played in their problems. Not long afterward, Casey gave Susan a marriage guru's CD on nurturing one's relationship. "Susan went ballistic and completely stopped talking to me," says Casey. "I thought I could save their marriage, but in hindsight I realize it wasn't my place to try."
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Friends should indeed steer clear of the advice-giving business, says Lerner, and avoid serving as go-betweens for a feuding couple. "The only thing you should encourage your friend to do is take her time," says Lerner. "At first, the wronged party often jumps to the idea of divorce, because he or she feels so deeply betrayed. But that intensity dies down eventually, and what lies underneath is deeper wisdom about the marriage and whether it can be saved or not. Your friend needs to have the time and space to grapple with the situation in her own mind so she can make the best choice possible. When other people weigh in, it can cloud her judgment. Even if she makes the wrong choice, it's important that it's hers and hers alone."
-by Jane Wilde
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