I messed up

I got drunk and slept with my friend's husband-to-be, and she found out about it. What should I do?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 4, 2003 7:34PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I messed up. Big time. A little over a year ago, I slept with my friend's fiancé. I was at a really bad place in my life, mentally and emotionally, and I was completely drunk (he was, too). The next morning I did that whole "oh my God what the hell did I do" thing, but really I was so emotionally numb that I just decided not to think about it. I was in a relationship myself with my high school sweetheart of three years, and I knew we had no future, yet I couldn't let go. This contributed to the whole self-destructive phase.

Two months later, I moved away to start a new life somewhere else. It was the best thing I could have done for myself. I ended the futureless relationship I was in, I got a good job, and I continued my higher education at a good school. It was there that I acknowledged how bad I really fucked up and of course dealt with serious feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment and remorse.

I also met the love of my life and, as a result, made the painful decision to move back home to be closer to him (as a military student he had to relocate).

Here I am, back home, trying to keep it together and not go back to the usual drunken compulsive behavior that dictated my life before. Not that I'm perfect -- I still go out and get silly, but I have more self control and I've made positive changes and have a better sense of self-preservation.

I thought this secret, although uncomfortable because of the proximity with my friend's family as we grew up together, would basically just fade away through time. I thought wrong. I have no idea how she found out, but she did. The only person I told was my now boyfriend, in an effort to be completely honest about my former life.

I haven't spoken with her. She simply told her fiancé to call me and tell me that she knew. Now I'm completely panicking. I've known this girl my whole life. We haven't been particularly close as of the last two years, but we grew up together and I am close with her family and her friends.

Her fiancé is very flirtatious and tried to make passes at me even when he was sober. In fact, everybody in my small town was sort of confused by his non-fiancé-like behavior, since the relationship had been long distance for a while.

I have no idea what to do. I thought about writing her a letter but I don't see what good it will do. I know she will eventually forgive her fiancé (I have spoken with him and they are talking even though she is obviously devastated), but I don't think she's ever going to forgive me.

I would never, in my right mind, do that to a friend. I know alcohol is a really lame excuse, but in this case it instigated something in me that was completely out of character. I feel terrible about what I did and she has every right to be angry and hateful toward me. I can't even fathom how much emotional pain she must be in.

I'm in my early 20s. I know we young adults make mistakes, but this is huge. It is so confusing. I wish I could just blot out the whole thing, but I can't. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Trapped in a Weird "Jerry Springer" Episode

Dear Trapped,

First of all, let me assure you that what you did is not so terrible. Terrible things are things that you can go to prison for. Terrible things leave people dead or crippled for life, childless, penniless, addicted to heroin, missing a limb, with burn scars on their faces, or standing among their few uncharred belongings watching their dream house turn to embers. What you did was a drunken indiscretion of the sexual kind. I think it's admirable that you hold yourself to such a high standard. But I think you need to get a more balanced view of what you did in order to un-paralyze yourself and decide on a course of action.

Now, all I know about making amends for past indiscretions has to do with the 12 steps and all that. There are many misconceptions about that step where you go around making amends. It isn't exactly like you're peeling off $20 bills and handing them out in the neighborhood. (Did you see the "Seinfeld" episode where George Costanza hears that a guy has gotten sober and so George wants his amend? It's hilarious because George, as one would expect, is not satisfied with the quality of the amend that he gets, and demands a do-over.) There's also a whole God component in the amends step, but since you're not doing the 12 steps, we can skip that. It's very useful even without the God thing.

Simply put, you took something and you would like to make restitution. In matters like these, you can be said to have "stolen" or "broken" a friendship. So what you need to do, to make restitution, is "restore" or "repair" that friendship. What that means is that you first state clearly that you know what you did and that you're sorry. And then -- this is the important part -- you actually try to restore what was destroyed. If trust was destroyed, then you restore trust. How do you do that? By being of dependable service to her or to them.

Paradoxically, that service may consist of nothing but silence. She may not want to have you around or be your friend. If so, don't force yourself on her. But if she wants something from you, some gesture or favor, then you perform that gesture or favor for her. If it's "Stay away from my fiancé, you bitch," then that's your service to her. If it's "Come move my couch," then that's your service.

There are infinite complexities and subtleties to it, but that's the basic picture. Also: no whining, no histrionics, no asking her for forgiveness, no mention of her fiancé's questionable behavior. You're not in this for yourself. You're not in this for absolution. If you're asking for absolution, then you're putting yourself in her debt again; you're taking again. The key to restitution is in the purity of the giving. You're in this for her, not for you. That's the key -- it's got to be a selfless act.

And then, when you're done, don't look for thanks. Your only thanks is the knowledge that you've done what you can do to right your past wrong.

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Cary Tennis

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