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My friend of six years is a warm, intelligent, empathetic person. We are both writers who are committed to the ideals of social justice. Until recently, I’ve never had a reason to question her character. A few days ago, she told me that she has been cheating on her partner of two decades with a series of one-night stands — and he is completely in the dark about her infidelities. She has no intention of telling him because when she raised the subject of her unhappiness with their sex life, he was not interested in an open relationship. She says there is no guilt on her part and that she would not be okay with him cheating on her. I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded and liberal person, but this information is testing the limits of my beliefs. This seems very wrong. I know how difficult monogamy is and yet I feel like her decision to gaslight her partner on this matter is selfish and destined to end in heartbreak. I am seriously questioning how much of a friendship I want to maintain going forward. I care for her deeply, but I cannot see my way around this. Please help me find a way to be a good friend.
First, I have some questions for you. How close are you with this woman? How important is this friendship in your life? How important do you want it to be? I’ve got more, but let’s start with these.
Is this an inner circle friend? A chosen family member? Because if so, I support tackling her to the ground (metaphorically and/or literally) and pinning her there while you ask her to reconsider her life choices. This is a deal I have with my sister-friends, and by sister-friends, I mean the ones who were born to different parents but who came into your life because you belong together. We are committed to each other. We love each other, and we speak truth to each other, even when it hurts. Maybe especially then. If one of my beloveds was acting in a self-destructive way, which it sounds like you believe this woman is, I would call her on it. They would do the same for me. It’s in the friendship by-laws: “If a sister-friend is acting in a reckless, harmful, or dishonest manner, such that she is putting herself at physical, mental, or emotional risk, a fellow sister-friend is required to call her on her shit.” Use tact and kindness, and maybe alcohol, but do not shy away from voicing your concerns. One of the best things friends can do for each other is to act as mirrors, because we all have a hard time seeing ourselves clearly through our smudged self-esteem goggles.
Is this a second tier friend? As in, you like her, you respect her, you enjoy her company, but you probably aren’t calling her in the middle of the night if your car breaks down or if you’re having an existential crisis? If so, this is trickier. You may find her behavior troubling, but you don’t have the security clearance to be passing judgment. You can offer a supportive ear or give advice if asked (proceed with extreme caution), but anything more than that will be problematic.
I think in order to be a good friend, you need to understand why this is triggering you. Does it hurt you to see someone you love telling lies? Do you feel complicit because she’s told you about her infidelities? Are you also friends with her partner, and if so, do you feel disloyal to him? Does it piss you off that she is completely unrepentant? If this is someone in whom you are invested, and if you want the friendship to survive, you probably want to address these questions, if only so that you aren’t a stewing mass of resentment every time you see her.
But. There’s also this: it has nothing to do with you. You are not in your friend’s marriage. Relationships are deep and sometimes murky. All you see is what’s on the surface, and that’s not enough to form a complete picture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your friend has bad character. Good people do mean and stupid things. They make morally ambiguous choices. They fuck up. This is what she’s doing; it’s not necessarily who she is. In fact, this doesn’t even mean her social ideals have changed, if that’s what you are worried about. Remember Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Be honest with yourself about why you are so bothered. When you know the answer to that, you’ll know whether or not it is worth it to you to continue the friendship.
Nanea Hoffman is the founder of Sweatpants & Coffee. She writes, she makes things, and she drinks an inordinate amount of coffee. She is also extremely fond of sweatpants. She believes in love, peace, joy, comfort, and caffeinated beverages. Find her on twitter at @SweatpantsCafe.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.