‘Infidelity doesn’t just affect the couple who are involved,’ says Dr Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of Marriage Rules: A Manual For The Married And The Coupled Up (Gotham Books). ‘If a couple are good friends of yours, it can feel like a personal loss because all those years of doing things together as couples are over,’ says Lerner.
Read on for common issues that come up; knowing how to navigate them can help you help your friend – without losing your own way.
TRAP #1 She wants you to hate him too
A safer way to respond to your friend’s husband bashing, says life coach MJ Ryan, author of AdaptAbility: How To Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For (Crown Archetype), is to mirror her feelings, not her words. ‘You can say something like, “I don’t blame you for feeling hurt and angry” or “Anyone in your shoes would feel betrayed and upset,”’ Ryan says.
TRAP #2 She shares too many intimate details
Because infidelity involves sex, it’s almost inevitable that your friend is going to share personal details about her and her husband’s bedroom habits. ‘Everyone has a different tolerance for talking about sex, and if you feel you’ve reached your limit, it’s okay to say so,’ says Dr Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist and coauthor of After The Affair: Healing The Pain And Rebuilding Trust When A Partner Has Been Unfaithful (William Morrow Paperbacks). ‘But you want to be sensitive about how you say it.’
TRAP #3 She’s emotionally needy
Happily, experts say you don’t have to say much. ‘The best thing you can do is listen, especially in the first few months, when her feelings are so raw and she’s still sort of in shock,’ says Val Walker, a grief educator and author of The Art Of Comforting: What To Say And Do For People In Distress (Tarcher). ‘You don’t need to be wise or try to fix anything; you just need to show up and be empathic.’
TRAP #4 You feel the urge to give advice
Friends should steer clear of giving advice, says Lerner, and avoid serving as go-betweens for a feuding couple. ‘The only thing you should encourage your friend to do is take her time,’ says Lerner. ‘Even if she makes the wrong choice, it’s important that it’s hers and hers alone.’
TRAP #5 She doesn’t seem to be moving on
There’s no timetable for how long it should take someone to work through infidelity – but it probably takes longer than those who haven’t experienced it expect. ‘Your friend is going to feel disorientated and obsessed by all the details. She’ll want to talk about the same things over and over. That’s one way people come to grips with something so shocking. It can be hard, but if it’s a close friend, hang in and let her sound like a broken record,’ says Lerner.
TRAP #6 You feel worn out
If you spend too long in the emotional trenches, compassion fatigue will set in, experts say. Call in reinforcements, set boundaries or you can try a technique called ‘containment’, says Ryan. ‘Just say, “I understand that this is always on your mind and you really want to talk about it, but I’d like to practise talking about other things to take your mind off your troubles for a while.”’ Then switch the conversation to movies, town gossip or a funny anecdote.
TRAP #7 Her problems spill over into your marriage
‘Everyone feels vulnerable to affairs. They’re afraid it’s contagious – that one partner’s permissiveness will rub off – but there’s no evidence that this actually happens,’ says Spring. Still, you need to be conscientious about not putting all your emotional energy into helping your friend – and, above all, avoid treating your spouse with silent suspicion or hiding your doubts.
By Jane Wilde