Recently, one of my close friends told me that she was having a love affair with the husband of another of my close friends. (I’m going to call them Wife and Mistress from now on.) She asked me not to saying anything to Wife because Husband was going to tell her soon. I felt really uncomfortable about keeping this secret from Wife, but I didn’t say anything because I decided that ultimately it was not my place to do so. Then, 10 days later, Husband told Wife about his affair with Mistress – which they both plan to make a long-term thing because they’re madly in love. Wife completely understood why I hadn’t told her and hasn’t criticised me at all, though she is devastated by the affair, particularly because Mistress is the former psychotherapist of Husband. They finished the therapy when they realised they were in love, and started having the romantic relationship three months later. Wife thinks Mistress is a manipulative and abusive monster who should be struck off the psychotherapy register. (Of course she does, right?) And Mistress thinks Wife is a bitter, dishonest, character-assassinator (again: of course she does!)
I knew very early on that if I love and want to support all of my friends (which I do), my only viable course of action is to say supportive things to all while not ever agreeing to any nastiness or joining in with any of the spite being hurled around. And that’s what I’ve done. I say things like ‘I’m so sorry – this must be so hard for you.’ I never say anything mean or harsh about anyone. I behave at all times as if all three of them are listening to everything I say, and say nothing disloyal.
Last week I received a letter from Mistress accusing me of ‘a terrible betrayal of our friendship’. She said that I had said terrible things about her, and given Wife the details of her secret Twitter account. I had done neither of these things, which I told her. She then apologised fully and said that the reason she’d believed I had done this is that Wife had told Husband that I had. She then tried to persuade me to confront Wife about her lies. I said, ‘If she’s been lying about me, it’s probably only because she’s so desperate to show Husband that someone is on her side – I can understand that and I’m not angry with her for it.’ At this point, I just wanted to retreat and said so to Mistress. I said, ‘This is all too much and too nasty for me – I need to take a step back from all three of you, as I’m finding this really destabilising and not good for my mental health.’ Mistress said, ‘I completely understand and respect that.’ (At this point, I was v hurt and angry that Mistress had believed that I would betray her in the way she accused me of in the letter. I was furious that she had gone straight to accusation without first asking ‘Is this true, this thing I’ve heard?’ I was already thinking: I probably can’t ever feel the same about her now that she’s sent me such a vicious letter. I would never, ever, send anyone three handwritten pages of vitriolic accusations and nastiness. (Yes, these are my thoughts, not facts – but I very much want to keep my thought that the letter Mistress sent was, to quote her, ‘a terrible betrayal of our friendship’.)
Anyway, having said she respected my need to step back from it all last Wednesday, Mistress sent me a new message yesterday saying, ‘I know you said you needed to step back, and I respect that, but I need to ask you a favour. Wife is telling Husband all the time that I’m manipulative and dangerous and a terrible person. You’re my friend and you know me well – I need you to tell Wife that I’m not manipulative or dangerous or a bad person in any way. Please? I’d do the same for you if the roles were reversed.’ I was enraged that she would dare to ask – after her letter, after I’d explained my need to step back. But I was too scared to say, ‘No, I won’t, because in fact your recent behaviour to me makes me worry that you are, in fact, rather manipulative and dangerous!’ I said something waffley instead, like, ‘I will do my best, as I am trying to already, to make all of you feel heard and supported’. That wasn’t good enough for Mistress who said, ‘At the very least, please tell her X and Y.’ Now, she has no right to ask me to do anything – but my worry is: why am I so scared of her that I won’t set a boundary? I’m furious about the way she’s treated me, and too scared to say so. I also don’t think saying things like that ever does any good. I want to say ‘No’ to her request but I’m scared to do that too! I want to say ‘Please don’t send me any more messages about how my good friend (Wife) is a bitter monster who lies all the time.’ Too scared to do it, because I fear there would be another attack from Mistress. How can I say only supportive and positive things to Mistress and take care of myself too?