My wife's having an affair with a married man. Should I tell his wife?

My friends and my therapist disagree. Who do you side with?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 15, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

So, long story short? My wife is having an affair with a married man. We've been married four years, together nine. He's been married about 11 months; I've no idea of any history of his beyond that. My wife and I are getting a divorce, though I was willing to (attempt to, at least) forgive and forget in the interests of our child, our history and our marriage and try the counseling and support route; she has decided she has no interest. She maintains the affair has nothing at all to do with the divorce, that the marriage was broken for two years and this is just a recent development. I maintain that that may all be true, but if she wasn't in the fantasy of an affair, she might make a more rational evaluation of the choices we have -- divorce, counseling, therapy, etc.

But, that's not the advice I seek. I struggle with whether or not to tell the married man's wife.

Friends and others are split about 80/20 on this. Most say some version of, "She has a right to know, and I'd want to know." Both of which I agree with, but that's not my decision to make. The other 20 percent say it's none of my business, she'll figure it out on her own, and what if she goes crazy and harms herself, her husband, my wife? I think I could be a help to this woman in a legal sense for certain, as I have ample legally admissible and incontrovertible proof of the affair. I worry she may get pregnant thinking she's in a perfect marriage. Of course I'm also aware I can't be objective enough about my motives -- my own satisfaction in ending my wife's affair, "punishing" him, exposing the affair to everyone who thinks somehow the divorce must be my fault, and so on.

I've got an "anonymous" blog online and this topic has been the biggest comment-generator since inception. I get loads of conflicting advice, testimonials and other input from both sides ... I have a professional therapist who is generally against the idea of telling the lover's wife, but can't really articulate why, other than "It's not your place."

So -- thoughts?

Wanting to Tell

Dear Wanting to Tell,

I agree with your therapist that you should not tell her. I do think, however, that in an ideal world, she ought to know what's going on.

How to resolve the apparent contradiction? Why, if she should know, should you not be the one to tell her? I think there are reasons in three distinct areas: practical reasons, ethical reasons and deeper, murkier, unconscious/cultural/religious-belief-type reasons.

The practical reason is that you risk damaging your own reputation by telling the wife; as you yourself note, you can't be objective enough about your own motives. Some would say you tattled for revenge. Because your own motives are admittedly so complex, you would have little defense against such an accusation. If it came to light that you had told such a secret, others might be reluctant to confide in you secrets of their own, fearing you might use such secrets to your own advantage.

The ethical reason might be put like this: When rescuing a baby from a fire, it doesn't matter what your motives are -- you may be just showing off, but it's still a good thing. The baby was an innocent party in peril, whose need for rescue was clear and unambiguous. Your situation is different. Adults in personal relationships knowingly assume certain risks, among which is that they may be deceived by their partners. Unlike babies, they are not innocent and helpless creatures to whom we owe a duty of protection. You may feel because of your connection to this woman that you owe her some duty of protection. But your connection to her is not personal and direct; it is only proximate. If you were ethically bound to tell her, then why wouldn't you be ethically bound to become an informer on your neighbors to whom you are also proximate, noting every infraction in a detailed record that you could turn over to the authorities? You might say that the authorities deserved to know the secret activities of those living under their jurisdiction, because of possible harm that might come as a result.

As to the murkier reasons for feeling you ought not tell, there is the Western cultural bias against judging others, rooted in the biblical imprecation against a mere mortal taking upon himself duties more properly reserved to the Almighty. Judge not lest ye ... God will punish ... Let him who is without sin cast the first, etc. Allied to these lofty thoughts is the bedrock maxim of playground justice: Don't be a snitch.

So those three areas -- the practical, the ethical and the cultural -- all militate against your telling her. Moreover, it's not even certain that telling this woman would be a good thing; she may not want to know about this affair; it's not certain that telling her would save her from harm; it might in fact do more harm than good. What if the husband were planning to break up with your wife tomorrow, and this affair was never going to come to light?

However, I can't help feeling that she just ought to know! We don't like to see people deceived; if one is deceived, we might all be deceived! You know who ought to tell her -- the husband ought to tell her, that's who! Don't you think?

So what would it take for the husband to tell his wife? I don't know. But this does point up yet one more way in which your telling her might cause more harm than good -- it would deprive the husband of the opportunity to do the right thing on his own, and thus would deprive the parties of the chance to work it out between them, to learn something from it, to grow and understand -- as you, incidentally, were hoping to do in your own marriage.

So, while I can't make this long story short because it's already long, let's just say that revelation of this affair is up to the parties involved. However painful this must be, you are getting divorced from your wife, so you may as well try to start letting go. Letting go of the matter will free you to deal with more pressing matters of immediate concern in your own life -- your divorce, your own damaged trust, and the all-important job of raising your child.

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