I co-own a business with my oldest friend. We’ve always been close – we holiday together, our wives are friends. But I recently discovered that he had a fling with a female employee who then resigned. After denying it for months, he shrugged it off. I now suspect he’s having another affair. I feel as though I no longer know him, and I certainly don’t trust him. My wife is threatening to tell his wife, so it’s potentially a massive mess. I’m stuck between my loyalty and my values.
Excuse us while we pop a beta blocker. This is such a massive mess that we’re going to answer your letter together, because we feel too unsafe to split up. And we can sense your shock that the narrative of your life (two friends who went into business together and lived happily ever after) is about to change completely.
First things first… When your life moves harmoniously in parallel with someone else’s, you can begin to think you are the same person. But you are not.
Nor are you responsible for his choices, so free yourself from some of the guilt you feel with regards to being complicit in your friend’s behaviour. We have seen men we know return from stag parties or business trips horrified by the actions of their married friends (strippers, prostitutes, etc), and slightly traumatised by the fact that they have felt compelled to keep these secrets. They hadn’t behaved badly but felt compromised by association.
In normal circumstances we would say that his marriage, his fidelity, his choices are actually none of your business. You could make your disapproval or discomfort known, then detach and go about your daily life. You are not, however, in that situation, as there are two huge and inconvenient complications:
1. The work issue – namely that it is not OK to have sex with employees. When you go into business with someone you have to trust them to respect the professional boundaries. And since he hasn’t, you need to set him an explicit boundary that says, ‘Never, ever do this. It imperils the company, compromises our reputations and creates an unsafe environment for female employees. The bosses set the tone.’
2. Now to the unexploded (as yet) bomb that is your wife’s relationship with his wife. Your wife is likely to feel very threatened, and not just because of your stress, the threat to your friendships, the implications for your business or the fact that she is now complicit in the infidelities. She may also feel threatened because we all want our guy to hang out with the good guys, not the bad guys. Not the priapic idiots. So her telling his wife is as much about your marriage as theirs. She is protecting the moral compass of your family.
Despite the gathering storm, there may be some bargaining to be done here. Is it worth asking your wife to say nothing for a while? And telling your friend that he has two months, say, to get his house in order; to go to couples’ counselling, or find a way of coming clean, or start taking whatever steps he needs to work out what he wants? If he refuses, on his head be it – it’s up to your wife what she wants to do.
Because this is a man in crisis – he has managed to create chaos in every segment of his life: home, work, friendship. He may shrug it off as no big deal, but he sounds to us as though he is deep in self-destruct mode.
So buckle up, Stressed. And remember that, however charming the storyline (childhood friends, decades of nothing but love and laughter…), very few things last for ever.
And, when it comes to human beings, nothing moves in a straight line. This man is your work husband and he’s catastrophically rocking the boat. It will be OK. But, right here, right now, it’s hard to tell what OK will look like.
Do you have a question or dilemma that you’re grappling with? Email Annabel and Emilie on [email protected] All questions are kept anonymous. They are unable to reply to all emails personally. Next week's column: 'My friend has breast cancer - I don't know how to speak to her'