The question: I have a friend who's deeply conflicted. She's found out her partner's been having an affair – and continued to do so even after she found out. He says it's a short term thing, but obviously isn't willing to put a stop to it just yet. She has left him a few times but keeps moving back in. She loves him and wants the relationship, but if she stays she feels like it endorses his behaviour. What should she do?
The answer: Seeing a friend that you care about go through the pain of relationship issues and infidelity can be heartbreaking. But the question is not what she should do – but rather what you should do.
As much as you may want to tell her what to do or help navigate her toward what you think is best for her, she ultimately has to make this decision. You hit the nail on the head when you said she is deeply conflicted – balancing both her feelings of love toward her partner with the myriad emotions she must be experiencing after finding out he's been having an affair.
From an objective perspective, the situation is crystal clear: He has been having an affair; she wants him to stop; he continues. There is no ambiguity – her staying with him does endorse his behaviour, as evidenced by him continuing the affair despite being caught.
Your role as a friend is simple: Give unconditional support. This doesn't mean that you need to agree with her decision, and in fact you can be candid about your feelings regarding her situation (in a respectful manner, of course). You can let her know that it is hard for you to see her going through so much pain and that you want her to be with someone who respects her and is loyal to her. Make sure she understands that your concern for her comes from a place of love. Communicate that you don't judge her and you will support her in the best way you can.
Try to be empathetic to the reasons she keeps going back. Her decision may be affected by a number of factors: the length of the relationship, their relationship history, past behaviour she may feel guilt about, whether she has children, her self-confidence, her age or her financial status. Try to understand why she wants this relationship so badly, in the face of continuing disrespect. Does she fear repercussions from him if she were to leave? If there is any indication of threats or violence, her safety should be the first and foremost concern.
Often, people tend to stay in untenable or hurtful situations not because they want to, but because they feel there is no other option. To her, the alternative of being alone may be feel terrifying. Your role is to help her consider her options and see that she could make it on her own if she left him, even if the road seems hard.
Certainly some couples are able to effectively and successfully move on following infidelity. If he were to stop the affair, and indicate remorse and desire to repair the damage that has been created, they could consider moving forward.
Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help you Cope, Heal and Move On – Together or Apart" by Douglas Snyder, Donald Baucom and Kristina Gordon is a book I would recommend for your friend, regardless of what decision she ultimately makes about the relationship.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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