Just listening? Or aiding an infidelity?
This column deals with the conflicts we find ourselves facing in dailylife. The Monitor invites you to comment, suggest solutions and submittheir own accounts of moral dillemmas.
I don't know what you'll think of me, but I have to tell you."
My friend Laura spoke in hushed tones. It was a cool winter morning in 1997 and as our four young children scampered off into the other room, chattering and laughing, we sat down to talk.
"I've met this man," she began, her face flushed. "We've begun seeing one another."
"You've done what?!" I sat, stunned.
Affairs happen "out there" in the world, not among my friends.
Clearly people who could lie to, and betray their partner, lacked integrity. Yet, here sat one of my closest friends confiding in me that she was having an affair and that her life had never been better. I had no idea how heavy the burden of carrying this lie would become for me.
I've known Laura for 15 years and deeply value her love of life, her honesty, her forthrightness. We were pregnant together with our first children and witnessed their births. Our children are friends; our families celebrate holidays together. We're family.
After my initial shock and disbelief, I found Laura's excitement and passion contagious. I listened to her with the same covetous pleasure that I have when curled up with an engrossing novel. I became Laura's secret sounding board: the only one who knew.
I wondered, how could I still consider my friend honest and courageous when she chose to do this? Is someone who is honest in every other way, but isn't about something this significant, still honest?
I felt deeply divided. The weight and complexity of the situation began to bear down on me. If she could do it, if Laura could live a life of deceit, then who else? Could I? Could my husband?
One day a few months later I dropped by their home with my children. Laura was cheerful, bustling about, while it was clear from her husband Sam's mood that things were not well between them. Knowing where Laura had been all those nights she was supposedly working late, I found I couldn't look him in the eye. Instead, I joined the children. Sitting on the floor, building Lego space stations, my mind filled with images of the overbearing hurt and pain her children would feel if they knew the truth.
Suddenly I saw that, in my silence, I was an accomplice. It wasn't only my friend who was being duplicitous.
A few weeks later, when both of our husbands were out of town, we packed up the children and went camping. While our kids raced around inventing games with the waves, the wind, the driftwood and the sand, we talked by the campfire.
Laura hugged her knees. The shine of the new relationship had worn off. Her marriage felt emptier than ever, and she knew her lover was not a man with whom she wanted to spend her life. For a brief time I had envied her newfound joy and love; now I felt pity for my friend.
Sensing an opening, my words spilled out: "You have no idea how much I want you to end it with Jim, certainly for everyone's sake, but most of all for your children."
Our eyes were on them as I spoke. "Frankly, Laura, I hate knowing the truth when Sam does not. He deserves better."
Laura listened quietly, draped in her sadness. Staring out at the sea, she responded, "Sam is never going to find out. No one is going to be hurt by this."
She was wrong. Both she and her lover suffered greatly when she ended their relationship. She then spent a tedious and painful 18 months trying to recover the lost ground in her marriage. And I can never look at my friend the same, knowing what I know about what she was willing to risk in the name of her own selfish desires.
I hope there never is a next time. But if there is, with this friend or another, I will not give my silent approval to her choice to be deceitful by my willingness to listen to her story.
*The author is a psychotherapist and writer in the Pacific Northwest. To protect the privacy of those involved, her name has not been used and others in this article are pseudonyms.