Infidelity leaves witnesses in a tough spot

I just found out that my best friend's husband is having an affair! I really want to tell her about it but I don't know if I should. I myself am still in shock since I found out about it, because they've been together for almost 15 years, and they both love their family very much. I'm having trouble thinking that I know something and I'm not saying anything to my best friend. I'm so confused and I really don't know what is the right thing to do. I don't want to tell her just because I feel obligated to do it as her best friend. I know that if she finds out about her husband, it’s not only going to break her heart but her children as well. Thank you for any advice.
—M., Las Vegas

The first thing I’m going to tell you is the most important: This is a terrible, terrible dilemma. All of the roads before you have a price. But you must pick a road. It’s not fair, but it is your responsibility.

Next, it matters how you came by this information, that is, how you “found out.” Did you look across a restaurant and see your friend’s husband necking with another woman? With your own eyes?  Did the husband confess to you personally? Did the Other Woman confess to you? A third party? Hearsay?
It matters.

If I was helping my best friend clean out an attic, and if a book fell out of a box and opened to reveal my friend’s wife’s handwriting, and if my eyes fell upon the paragraph of her confessing an affair some years ago . . . well, the moment it dawned on me I was reading a journal or diary, I’d scurry to close it, put it back in the box and I’d lock the knowledge forever away in my heart. Why? Because the information doesn’t rightly belong to me. That I know at all is a perverse accident. I’d “look away,” the same way I’d avert my eyes if someone lost their swimsuit in the surf.

But to answer your question: I would “attack” this dilemma with an inventory of my hierarchy of fiduciary relationships.

Some fiduciary obligations are universal. That is, in some situations all human beings have the same claim on my faithful response. For example, if I witness a man having a heart attack, I am obliged to call 911, whether the man is my best friend or the immigrant taking my money at a convenience store. If I witness evil, neither the immigrant nor my best friend can expect sanctuary from me, though turning in my best friend would cause me great agony.

But apart from such examples, all of us have a hierarchy of fiduciary relationships. That is, my children have weightier claims on me than other people’s children. My loyalty to my best friend has more moral import than other claims for my loyalty. My patients have a very different and more immediate claim on my professional behavior than does the ever-so-slightly inebriated woman saying cheesy provocative things to me at the piano bar last Saturday night — much to her chagrin.

Here are three infidelity scenarios and examples of responses based on the model of my hierarchy of fiduciary relationships:

1. If I chanced to witness my physician or my mechanic or my colleague necking with someone not his/her spouse . . . well, I’d do my ever-loving best to get out of there before he/she saw that I saw. I’d then keep it to myself forever. Why? Because I don’t have sufficient fiduciary obligations to my physician or my mechanic or my colleague or to their spouses. It is therefore none of my business. And trying to make it my business might set in motion as much harm as good.

2. I know this couple in Las Vegas, whom I will call Robert and Claire. I met them in 1996, and if I have two better friends in Las Vegas, I can’t immediately think of who they are. I met them as a couple. As husband and wife. And while my particular bond with each of them has particular characteristics, both of them have identical fiduciary claims on my loyalty. If I chanced to witness one of them necking on Fremont Street with someone not their spouse — oh my God. This is the worst possible dilemma, because each has equal claims on my loyalty.

So, in utter agony, I’d go to the offending party and say, “Sorry. There’s no reason I should know, but I know. Saw you. What the hell are you thinking? What’s going on with you?” And if the offending party demonstrated an appropriately injured conscience and said this never happened before and I lost my mind and, heavens, I don’t want to lose my marriage, etc., I might — just might — be persuaded to keep what I know to myself.  Though, make no mistake, I’d let him/her know in no uncertain terms what that was costing me.

If that same offending party tried to make a habit out of using me as a confessor, I’d tell him/her to stop the behavior, confess, or LEAVE ME OUT OF IT. Because it’s not fair to conscript me in your spouse’s humiliation. It is an act of great friendship to suffer for my friend’s redemption, but an act of complicity to grant an unlimited audience for someone’s meaningless conscious cleansing.

3. My best friend has been married for four years. If I saw his wife necking on Fremont Street, etc., I’d tell him. I’d have to. Why? Because, while I admire and enjoy his wife, while I’m more grateful than she’ll ever know for the way she has changed his life with her love, well, the simple truth is she does not have the same fiduciary claim on me that he does.
I would, however, go to her first. The speech would begin the same: “Sorry.  There’s no reason I should know, but I know. Saw you. What the hell are you thinking? What’s going on with you?” But it wouldn’t end the same: “You got three days to tell [my best friend]; if you don’t, I will.”

Because of his place in my hierarchy, I could never look my friend in the eye if, five years later, he discovered that I had always known and kept silent.

And because of his place on my hierarchy, if the situation was reversed, I could likely keep to myself the knowledge of his one-time, stupid infidelity about which he is now heart-sick and committed to change. But not even my best friend would be granted by me an endless audience for meaningless conscious cleansing. At some point I would demand that he, too, leave me out of his philandering ways.

To some, this might sound like hypocrisy. For me, taking serious dilemmas seriously requires by definition that we live with ambiguity and tension. Living with integrity is rarely neat and tidy.