I’m single, but during the second lockdown I fell back in touch with my friend’s ex-boyfriend, who I’d always got on very well with. I was sad to lose contact with him after the break-up (instigated by my friend, who had begun seeing another man), but unsurprised as I figured he just wanted to move on with his life. But then he contacted me out of the blue, years later, to see how I was doing. We ended up agreeing that he would visit me for a proper catch-up (he lives a few hours outside of London).
One thing led to another, and we ended up sleeping together. Since then, we’ve been messaging fairly regularly and while it’s very early days, I think we do have feelings for each other. There’s been an indication from both sides that we’d like to meet up again but we haven’t made any definite arrangement. There are other complications that could get in the way of anything serious happening, but my biggest concern is how my friend might react to finding out.
While it’s been years (as far as I know) since they’ve spoken and they’ve definitely both moved on with their lives in major ways, I know her well enough to think she could take it badly. I’m concerned that telling her now, before me and him have even talked about whether we want to take this further, could create unnecessary upset – but not telling her (and then seeing him again) would feel like lying to her. What should I do?
The fact that you’re writing me this letter in the first place tells me something crucial – that something doesn’t feel right about the situation you have found yourself in with your friend’s ex-boyfriend. We should never ignore our gut instincts, especially when they make us feel unsettled. When we find ourselves feeling conflicted about something, it’s usually for good reason.
We each have a unique moral code of behaviour and a sense of what is “right” and “wrong” (for us, even if not for anyone else). When we do something that goes against that very personal inner code, we feel it – some call it “cognitive dissonance”, and it shows up when the way we behave is different to what we believe. I think the reason you wrote this letter is because you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance around what happened with your friend’s ex – even if, at this very moment, she remains unaware and so it is arguably causing her little harm.
Don’t beat yourself up – human beings are chaotic and unpredictable, we feel awkward passions when we’re not supposed to and want things we can’t have. We make mistakes. But we are also fragile and sensitive creatures, and we need consistency between our beliefs and our behaviours to feel truly at peace with ourselves. When we act in a way that we know is out of character, we feel it, and sometimes physically – there’s a reason being anxious about something makes us queasy (the “beer fear” phenomenon the morning after a night out, where we wake up dreading what we may have done or said, is a perfect example).
Those reading this reply might recognise these feelings by asking themselves the following searching questions: have I ever done something and regretted it? Have I done something and then found myself trying to justify or minimise it; either in my own head or when describing it to other people? Have I found myself jumping through mental hoops to make it seem (and feel) “okay”? Have I ever tried to hide my actions, from others and from myself?
Take it from me: if you’ve ever sent an embarrassing or drunken text message, then deleted it to make yourself feel better and to pretend it didn’t happen – you are not alone.
Now, back to your letter: I don’t think you can pursue a relationship with this man – because you clearly feel so worried about your friend (and the secret you are carrying) that any chance of long-term happiness with him is (probably) doomed. You’re not starting from a healthy point of openness and sharing. You already feel stifled with deceit.
But here’s the next important point to make: you feel this way because you’re a good person. Good people aren’t exempt from messing up, but good people feel those mistakes. They worry about them, just like you are. They have concern for the friend (or lover, or spouse, or colleague) that they might have hurt. If you had written to me to say that you didn’t give a s**t; that you were laughing about getting one over your friend behind her back, then I would be wondering about your apparent lack of empathy. But in truth, you never would have written the letter in the first place if you didn’t care.
So, think about how important her friendship is to you, and whether you’re prepared to risk it if you carry things on with this man. If you believe he’s worth the gamble, so be it – but go in with your eyes open. You’ll have to find a way to talk openly to her about it, and you may lose more than you bargained for.
As for whether or not you should tell your friend about what happened, well, that can only come down to you – my advice? If it was a one-off (which I believe it should be) then consider not telling her what she doesn’t need to know.
It can sometimes hurt others more to be told hard truths that belong to the past – ask yourself who it would really be helping to reveal all about a random night of passion you had with someone she once cared about. If you’d only be telling her to assuage your own guilt, then I’m afraid you might have to do the truly loving, self-sacrificing thing: keep quiet and live with it.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact email@example.com
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