Keeping a friend’s confidence becomes personal burden

A very good male friend of mine recently admitted to me that he is engaged in an extramarital affair. My wife and I are close friends with this individual and his wife, and so he has asked that I keep this information in strict confidence. In other words, he does not want me to tell my wife and, so far, I have not done so.

However, last week my wife went to dinner with the wife of our friend and came home rather upset. It seems our friend’s wife is increasingly unhappy in her marriage and feels that something is terribly amiss. She cried and asked my wife if she knew of any reason her husband might be acting with increasing indifference and callousness toward her. Obviously, there is a reason, and I’m not sure what to do with what I know. — Al in Orinda

Dear Al: There seems to be some troubling behavior afoot in this situation, and you are wondering how to respond given what you know about it. In order to come to a course of action, you might start by considering to whom you are most responsible. Is your primary obligation to your friend, his wife, your wife, yourself, God? We can be fairly confident of God’s opinion. Along with a distaste for adultery, God rates bearing false witness as a pretty basic no-no. Additionally, in Parashat Vayechi, the Torah explicitly instructs: “Distance yourself from a false matter.” So there’s that.

Then there is the important concept, cited before in this column, of shalom bayit, or “harmony in marriage.” Clearly your friend’s marriage is experiencing a significant level of disharmony. You know he is behaving dishonestly and you know his wife is distraught. Since your friend seems comfortable sharing confidences with you, it would certainly not be out of line to let him know his behavior is negatively impacting his wife. You can also remind him of the two commandments he is violating or, if he is not religious, cite the all but universal values of honesty, fair play and common decency. There is a reason your friend unburdened himself to you, and maybe he’s looking for someone to help set him straight.

Are you required to tell your own wife what you know? Some observant Jews believe we are allowed to omit certain truths that might hurt someone if revealed. Your question does not state whether she asked you directly about knowledge or insight you might have into this friend’s behavior. If she did, answering falsely goes beyond accepted omission. Furthermore, sometimes keeping a truth from a spouse is detrimental to the secret keeper and, as such, it may diminish your own harmony.

There are two important aspects of this situation that remain unclear. How do you view this predicament, and, secondly, do your friend and his wife have children? As to the former, since you asked in the first place, let’s assume you are looking to do the right thing. If children are involved, any unhappiness resulting from your friend’s behavior will spill into their lives with sad consequences, which raises the stakes — for him and for you.

Mensch recommends your first course of action should be a frank conversation. Tell your friend you are uncomfortable keeping his secret and that you know his behavior is making his wife unhappy, something you cannot abide. Try to be firm without seeming accusatory or judgmental so that he has the opportunity to answer non-defensively.

His response should inform your next course of action. Perhaps he will tell you the affair is already over or that he intends for it to end so that he can preserve his marriage. Perhaps hearing your piece will inspire him to come to that conclusion. If so, and you detect true sentiment, maybe keeping his confidence a while longer will do no harm. On the other hand, he may feel betrayed by your unwillingness to conspire in this deception and insist the matter is his alone to reveal. In that case, you can remind him he lost that privilege when he brought you into it  — and then act as you see fit.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.