The Friendship Doctor

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How An Extramarital Affair Can Unravel Female Friendships

Aside from the consequences for the family, affairs affect friendships, too

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

About six months ago, my BFF of 10 years, Penny, confided that she was having an affair with our mutual close friend, Amy's, husband. Our families are all friends and her burdening me with this information was extremely difficult for me. I was torn between my promise of secrecy to Penny (with whom I was much closer than Amy) and with my wanting to tell Amy what was going on. I knew about the affair for two weeks before they were caught. During that time, I was shocked at the lying, backstabbing and deceitful behavior I witnessed by Penny toward Amy.

Penny's husband found out about the affair. Amy was devastated (she has 4 kids) and I was so sad for her. Penny and her lover decided to leave their respective marriages to be together. In the immediate days after the affair came out, I supported Penny. I watched her kids, listened to her and did everything a BFF should do. 

Amy was very upset with me and I understood. Amy and I talked during this time and I started to realize that I was supporting the wrong friend. Although I originally felt loyal to Penny, I started to realize I couldn't support what she was doing to Amy. 

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Penny started talking horribly about Amy and I kept rethinking all the lying and deceit I had witnessed. It felt like all the wonderful qualities I loved in Penny had vanished. Her loyalty, generosity, and kindheartedness were replaced with selfishness and vindictiveness. I didn't feel the same about her anymore. I also was hurt that she had burdened me with her secret. 

After thinking long and hard about it, I ultimately decided to end our friendship. Definitely the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. I second-guessed my decision many times in the weeks afterwards. I felt extremely alone, and still do at times, almost five months later. I thought we would be friends forever, and we probably would have if I didn't end our friendship.

Amy and I are still friends. We have spoken at length about the situation and it took her awhile but she has forgiven me for not telling what I knew. She acknowledged that I was put in a terrible position etc. I appreciate her forgiveness. Irene, did I do the right thing or did I leave my BFF in her time of need? Thanks for your insight.

Signed, Daisy

 

ANSWER

Dear Daisy,

You thought long and hard about your decision and did what you felt was right. Given the circumstances, It would have been difficult, and probably untenable, to remain friends with both women. 

We choose our friends based on qualities we admire; additionally, our friendships often reflect our values. Aside from Penny placing you in an uncomfortable position, you saw another side of her you hadn't seen before. She displayed a lack of empathy and loyalty towards your mutual friend and wasn't above asking you to participate in that subterfuge. 

Sometimes, it's easy to obscure the complexity of situations like this one and think of it as simply choosing sides. You're asking whether you chose the right side, your-once BFF or Amy. However, it's more complicated. This incident precipitated a change in your feelings about your once-best friend. (Also, by making the decisions she did, Penny had to realize there would be consequences in terms of her family and her friendships). 

I think you have no choice at this point but to move forward with your own life, feel confident you made the best decision you could, and to be a supportive friend to Amy—who among the three of you, may have the greatest need for a shoulder to lean on right now.

Best, Irene

 

Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog about the impact of extramarital affairs on friendships:

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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