Should I tell my friend her husband is cheating on her?

Source nytimes

My husband and I have been friends with another couple for many years. We have spent vacations together as well as many holidays. My friend and I are very close — like sisters. Recently a mutual acquaintance who knows my friend’s husband well told me that he has been cheating on my friend on and off for years with someone who once worked with him.

I know that if I reveal this information, my friend will take their child and leave her husband. Do I sit on this information and pretend the affair isn’t happening, or do I tell her? Name Withheld

Can it be wise to have someone live in a fool’s paradise? Many years ago, the philosopher Robert Nozick asked us to imagine an “experience machine,” which could deliver any experience you liked: Although you would actually be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to your brain, you wouldn’t know it — you would think that you were writing a great novel or making a friend. Should you get hooked up? Nozick was clear that you shouldn’t. It matters that we’re in touch with reality. All of which is to say that a cheerful life lived in ignorance of important facts about your situation is worse than a less agreeable one lived with the truth. In a sense, what you don’t know can hurt you. And — assuming your informant is reliable — it’s an important fact about your friend’s marriage that her husband has had a long-term extramarital relationship.

Even if you agree that it’s good to know such things, however, you might judge that leaving her husband would make your friend’s life so much worse in other ways that it would be best if she remained in the dark. So let me point out that it’s not so easy to predict what people will do. For one thing, your friend might know more than you think.

Your first order of business, though, isn’t to anticipate how your friend will respond to the news; it’s to figure out whether your friend is entitled to hear the news from you. Here, you’ve got two friends, and friendship imposes obligations — contrary ones in this case. Even if you felt equally obligated to her and her husband, however, the fact that one party is in the wrong weakens that party’s claim on your loyalty. And your statement that you and your friend are “like sisters” suggests that you feel more obligated to her anyway. So she has a greater call on your loyalty. It further simplifies matters that you didn’t learn any of this from her husband and have no duties of confidentiality to him.

What are the considerations in favor of keeping quiet? One is simply the thought that this is none of your business. Yet the betrayal of a close friend is your business. She would expect you to tell her something like this; I assume you would want her to tell you if the situation were reversed.

The second consideration is that, were you to intervene, the results would, in some respect, be on you. We can predict that your friend’s husband would think you’d destroyed his marriage. Her child might agree. Playing a causal role here doesn’t mean that you’re to blame for the outcome — the fault would lie in his own bad behavior — but it would certainly end the friendship between your two families. That’s a reason for consulting your husband about how to proceed; it isn’t a reason not to proceed at all.

But it’s for her to decide how to respond to this betrayal, not you. That’s why she’s entitled to your candor. By protecting her from the truth, you would be taking a decision that rightly belongs to her. What you could do, as her close friend, is tell her what you know and then help her to think through with you what she ought to do. Given your evident belief that she would be unwise to leave her husband, you can make the case for trying to work things out. If what’s stopping you from telling your friend what her husband has been doing is that you think she’ll make the wrong decision, why not try to help her make the right one?

I work in a Title I high school — a public school serving a largely low-income community — that has about 2,000 students. I teach in a smallish program with high-needs kids. By needs, I mean any and all needs you might imagine. Our school has a single social worker, who is obviously stretched thin and has a complicated personal life. I often refer students to this social worker for anything from pregnancy to friend drama. I seldom hear back unless I hound this person with follow-up emails or in-person visits. This person has difficulty keeping one student straight from another and is often unavailable and often responds with “news” or information that I already know (or have even provided). The social worker makes grand, sweeping gestures (like painting affirmative slogans in the student restrooms) but is, in my opinion, ineffective and even negligent on an individual scale.

A degree of classroom social work is inherent in any teacher’s job, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I often fall asleep at night worrying about this or that student or multiple students, and this year, several of my students have dropped out — all of whom I previously referred to the social worker.

There are many administrators and counselors and a nurse on our campus, all of whom should see what I see. We teachers seem to be in agreement when this issue comes up in conversation, but is it really our place to point out to an administrator what he or she should observe so plainly? I mean, it’s not as if the person who, say, stocks office supplies isn’t doing his or her job. Students’ well-being (and teachers’ by extension) is at stake.

I did speak to this social worker face to face once and was asked, “What do you want me to do differently?” I was honest. Nothing has changed, and the situation is devolving daily. I think the social worker needs some support, too, and I’m not without compassion for this person, but what about all these students? Name Withheld

One social worker with 2,000 students in a high-poverty district? That’s a lot of counseling, case management and assessment for one person to do. Whether this social worker is incompetent or simply overwhelmed (or both, in some measure), the school authorities ideally should do something: get a better social worker or get this one more help. As a teacher of high-needs pupils, you’re more likely than most teachers to see what happens when social-work support fails. The administration should take you seriously, then, if you say that your students aren’t getting the assistance they need. And the administration should be even more inclined to help if a group of teachers expressed that worry.

You seem to think, though, that administrators, counselors and the nurse on campus should know there’s a problem. Let’s suppose that they’re genuinely, if culpably, oblivious. In that case, you should approach them with a group of your colleagues and tell them what you’ve observed. It may be that they do know the score, though, but aren’t doing anything about it. Is this merely out of institutional inertia? Then I would consider drawing the problem (anonymously, if you fear being penalized) to the attention of someone in the educational establishment outside the school — including the parent committee, if there’s an active one.

But perhaps the administration thinks it can’t do anything much about the problem: getting another social worker on staff may not be an option. The needs of the students are, rightly, your paramount concern. Because you’re a caring teacher, you’re already doing whatever you can to help, and you’re frustrated at your inability to enlist help from this social worker. You’re focusing, understandably, on the shortcomings of an individual. Yet the broader failures here, I suspect, go far beyond staffing choices. They most likely have to do with the limited resources available to the school, despite Title I funding, and the ways in which low-income families have been let down by support systems outside the school.

Maybe this social worker isn’t terribly good at the job. Maybe this isn’t a job that any person, however skilled, could do terribly well. Keep doing what you can to make things better, and keep trying to encourage others to pitch in. But systemic problems ultimately require systemic solutions.

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