Friend's wife confided in me about their marriage and I'm worried. How can I help?
May 28, 2012 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Not too long ago, I was hanging out with a very good friend's wife. I have been friend's with him for almost ten years now and have known and been friends with his wife for half that time. She confided in me something very disturbing about their marriage - that they hadn't had sex in a few years (about the same amount of time as their marriage) and it feels more like a room-mate situation. I am going to keep the details to a minimum but I'm sure you can extrapolate.

I did not want to hear all this but given how far back our friendship goes, I believe she needed a patient ear who wouldn't judge. We are all of the same age (early 30s) and it was hard for me to believe this, especially since they get along fabulously well and have a good relationship. I only know one half of the story here but from what I hear, he doesn't initiate it much and isn't very interested when she does. From the sound of it, she isn't happy with this situation and feels undesired and I am afraid she may seek that attention or feeling of being wanted elsewhere (even if she doesn't commit adultery). I love them both dearly and want this to get better.

I suggested to her that they definitely need to go to a therapist and/or mix things up in their lives by taking an adventurous trip someplace and break their routine and re-connect in a different way. However, I'm a little worried if she will run out of patience and do something outside the marriage that she'll regret later. Through that conversation I ended up talking a bit about my own adventures/escapades (I am single) and I now fear if she might be influenced by that. I really want to help them but I can't talk about this directly to my friend and I know he can be uptight about these things. I want to tell him to address this soon and really own his wife and be affectionate and intimate the way a man should. I want to caution her not to do anything out of impulse. I want to tell her to be more compassionate and understanding about what is going on in his mind.

That being said, I really don't want to step on shoes and give unsolicited advice or cross my boundaries. Is there anything I can do? I am concerned for two of my best friends. What is my duty as a friend here?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Stop right now. Don't get involved further. There is nothing good that will come of you going to your husband's friend and suggesting he have more sex with her. You're not their marriage counselor, your not his or her therapist, and you should stop all of this immediately. If anything, suggest she get therapy, or suggest to her that they get couples counseling. And then butt out.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:08 PM on May 28, 2012 [42 favorites]

I think you've done what you can -- suggest that they get therapy, find new ways to be close, etc. beyond that, nobody can see inside anybody else's marriage, and who knows what the dynamics are, but it's up to them to work it out. all you can do is continue to be a friend, in the company and support modes, and more or less forget you heard about this otherwise.

good luck!
posted by acm at 6:10 PM on May 28, 2012

Stay out of it. Confiding sexual problems in a marriage to a mutual friend is completely unacceptable. She has now poisoned your relationship with your friend, putting you in a situation of judging your friend without being able to hear his side. She crossed some major boundaries, I'd take anything she says with a large grain of salt.
posted by saucysault at 6:11 PM on May 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'll just add that this isn't that rare. I've known other couples like this. It's almost a type unto itself, dammit. :\

And, FWIW, it's ended in divorce in every one of those couples.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:13 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

You have to accept that you can't fix their marriage. As a friend, your responsibility is to listen sympathetically and then stay out of it. If you attempt to meddle you're likely to make things worse.

You suggested a therapist already - that's about the limit of the unsolicited advice that you can give. You don't know what it's like to live in that relationship, and telling them what to do ("you need to be more proactive about sex with her," "you need to be more understanding of his feelings," etc) is not your place.

So basically, you need to get over the idea that you have any control of the outcome. Take a breath. Let them live their own lives and make their own mistakes. It's sad but it's all you can do.

And don't talk to someone else about something that you've been told in confidence.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:15 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

What BlahLaLa said!!!

All you can do as her friend (and her husband's friend) is to encourage her to communicate/mix it up/seek couple's therapy or a sex therapist. Going directly to her husband would be incredibly inappropriate and would do MORE harm to their marriage. It would break not only your friend's confidence in you, it would (more importantly in my opinion) break HER HUSBAND's confidence in his wife, his marriage, his privacy, and the intimacy they do share.

You can be a friend and listen. You can listen and encourage her to get help or communicate differently until she is ready. You cannot go to her husband.

A script might be, "As your friend, I'm really concerned that you aren't getting the intimacy you need out of your marriage. You've talked with me about this over _____amount of weeks/months, and I appreciate that I can be your friend and listen, and that you feel comfortable confiding in me. But I'm worried about you, especially since I see that you and (husband) have such a good relationship overall. Is there anything that I can do that would allow you to get the help you need easier to do?"
posted by shortyJBot at 6:16 PM on May 28, 2012

However, I'm a little worried if she will run out of patience and do something outside the marriage that she'll regret later

Sounds to me like there's a chance she's testing the waters with you.

Follow BlahLaLa's advice.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:18 PM on May 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

The last person I heard complain about this got pregnant shortly thereafter.

Sometimes people have dry spells. It may not be a big deal.
posted by gentian at 6:21 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe she needed a patient ear who wouldn't judge.

I want to tell him to address this soon and really own his wife and be affectionate and intimate the way a man should. I want to caution her not to do anything out of impulse. I want to tell her to be more compassionate and understanding about what is going on in his mind.

That's judging. Look, no one knows what really goes on in anyone else's marriage. Even when someone in the marriage tells you, you have no idea what it's really like being in that couple. If you want to stay friends with both of these people, you need to walk her back across that boundary when she starts to tell you about her problems with the marriage. If you're okay with being mainly her friend, go ahead and let her talk about it. But just by paying witness to her version of the conflicts in her marriage, you are choosing sides.
posted by gingerest at 6:25 PM on May 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

To play devil's advocate, it's possible she told you this because you're more his friend than hers (it sounds like you are) and she hoped you might talk to him. Granted, if she can't talk to him, there's a problem right there. If you have the kind of relationship with him that you can say "hey, how are things going" and leave it at that, that might be ok.

However, I certainly would not go beyond that, and honestly, I'd be tempted to say nothing and just be there as a friend to listen. She kind of placed you in a shitty situation, and if you bring this up with him directly you risk influencing things in a negative way and with harm to one or both of your friendships.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:30 PM on May 28, 2012

This line "woe is me, I haven't gotten laid in ______, it feels like we're just roommates!" is often a set up for an affair.

Whether it's true or not, and whether she is testing the waters with you, the situation is totally inappropriate. You are not her therapist, as others above said. Next time she starts with this, just shut her down. And be clear that you are shutting her down. Something along the lines of "it's not fair to talk about my friend behind his back this way. Please seek couples counseling, or individual counseling with a person who is actually qualified to listen as you decide what to do in this situation. How about those Mets!?"
posted by bilabial at 6:38 PM on May 28, 2012 [9 favorites]

Yeah, the point was for you to listen, you listened, that's all you do.

While we cannot know this from what you've written, she may - may - have been testing the waters with you - this is how these things can start - so that's something to be aware of.

You involve yourself any more in this, all you'll wind up with is more drama than you can deal with.
posted by mleigh at 6:39 PM on May 28, 2012

I wouldn't jump to conclusions: this friend may have been simply and sincerely been sharing an important issue with you. If that's the case you did the right thing by being an ear, but doing any more would likely be a mistake -- drop it from here on in. Being an ear for situations like this can be helpful; continuing to be in that role probably isn't. Talking to the other partner definitely isn't.

The same advice holds, only more so, if there was anything other than sincere advice seeking going on.
posted by feckless at 6:42 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Should I essentially forget that I ever heard this and hope that she does not pull me into it more (by way of confiding or telling my friend, her husband about the conversation) ?

I think I did my job to listen as a friend but I wish I wasn't privy to this and may have inadvertently taken her side since she told me, though I know there is always another side to the coin.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:48 PM on May 28, 2012

However, I'm a little worried if she will run out of patience and do something outside the marriage that she'll regret later.

This is going to sound cold, but that is none of your business. She is responsible for her own actions. Do not entertain these conversations with her any longer.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:49 PM on May 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

The reason why there are therapists is so you can discuss your personal life in all comfort with a (trained) stranger. I think she put you in an uncomfortable (an inappropriate) position. If you are married/otherwise committed, mention this to your SO, and do not discuss the subject with this woman again.

Even if she does not have an "intention", I am sure her husband would not be happy to know you know such a personal thing. You do not want to be in the middle.
posted by Tarumba at 6:50 PM on May 28, 2012

I want to tell him to address this soon and really own his wife and be affectionate and intimate the way a man should.


Aside from that, I really think you need to keep out of this, it's not your business. It's not your business what this guy and his wife do or don't do, and it's certainly not your business to try and avert something that may or may not happen. Stay out of it. Really. Nothing good can come of your involvement here.
posted by biscotti at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Women talk about their sex lives with their friends, that she chose to talk about it with you, her husband's single male friend, sends up major red flags - either she is very immature or she is testing the water. That you shared sexy stories of your own with a married, but starved for affection, woman indicates that you need to be on guard in not crossing in appropriate boundaries with women who show you attention.
posted by saucysault at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

This is what you tell her:

"You will be better served by discussing this issue with your husband and perhaps a marriage counselor. I would appreciate it if you did not involve me in this. "

and you are right. There are two sides to this coin, and neither concerns you.
posted by Tarumba at 6:58 PM on May 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'd say forget you heard about this. You have no duty other than to stay clear - anything you do to try to steer them towards the solution will piss them off, create drama, and delay a solution.

All of the responsibility to fix this lies with them. It's sad to know people you care about are struggling in this way, but I think after you sleep on it for a couple of nights it will be easier to just let it go.

If she brings it up again, I think you should say something like "I'm so sorry you and Bob are dealing with this, but I feel uncomfortable hearing about it and it puts me in an awkward position. I truly wish I could help, but I really think you need to be talking to him and perhaps a therapist, and not to me."
posted by bunderful at 7:05 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Should I essentially forget that I ever heard this and hope that she does not pull me into it more (by way of confiding or telling my friend, her husband about the conversation) ?

I think I did my job to listen as a friend but I wish I wasn't privy to this and may have inadvertently taken her side since she told me, though I know there is always another side to the coin.

You can't forget it, but you can back away. If it comes up again from her, say, look, you need to talk to a professional therapist, I am not impartial and I feel really uncomfortable talking about this. And keep reiterating that until she knocks it off.

You seem a bit worried that your friend might find out later that she talked to you and get mad that you didn't say anything to him. And this is tricky. If that happens, you need to be honest and say you didn't know what to do and couldn't figure out a way to say something that wouldn't cause even more problems, and you were trying to stay out of it. You have been put in a bad position and are trying not to make it worse.

So to lend credence to that claim, start staying as out of it as you can right away.

It is not your job, in any way shape or form, to save this marriage; you do not have that power. Your job is not to make whatever is happening worse or about you.
posted by emjaybee at 7:10 PM on May 28, 2012

"People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young people. Well here are a few simple admonitions for young and old: Never interfere in a boy-and-girl fight..." William S. Burroughs
posted by facetious at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2012

Everything BlahLaLa and saucysault said.

How do you help? By refusing to be an unhealthy, unproductive outlet for your friend's sex woes. If she brings it up again, tell your you're sorry she's having a tough time, but you're not the person she needs to be talking to about this - the person she needs to talk to is her husband. If she presses and tells you that her husband won't listen, tell her that perhaps you can help her to find a therapist or counselor who will listen, but you are not that person.

Beyond that, stay out of it. There is no reason for you to be meddling around with your friends' intimacy issues, much less discussing your sexual escapades with your friend's sexually frustrated wife.
posted by keep it under cover at 7:18 PM on May 28, 2012

I was the wife in this type of situation. Permit me to explain how things might be from the inside.

I was young and got together with someone; we had sex a few times before getting engaged, and then it just... stopped. The reasons were varied, but for the most part he was extrapolating things about my discomfort that doomed us for the rest of the marriage. He was excellent at shifting blame. Comments like, "It's your fault that I have an erection at times I don't want to. You shouldn't just come up to me with your breasts hanging out. They're too big..." were pretty common -- and typically served as the reason he couldn't get it up when we wanted to do things together. Everything was my fault.

We were together for around 5.5 years and married for 4.5 of those. Around two years into the marriage, I started doing things like making sure my Christmas gifts weren't overly personalized, in case we split up.

We went to therapy before the wedding. It soon turned into individual therapy for me. He refused to take responsibility for the success of the marriage; I was the one with the problems, and he was perfectly satisfied with the way things went. When I finally got the courage to say I was unhappy, probably unhappy enough to "do something" -- not even knowing what that might be -- I said, "I'm unhappy." His answer: "Well, I'm not."

I worked my way up a little more. "This is really, really bad. If this doesn't change..." and it took me a while to say the big D word. "Well, that's not going to happen," he said. "Why not?" "Because... well, because I love you." Uh huh.

Eventually I "came out" to a friend who knew both of us. She was shocked. I told my mom a few months later. I couldn't see any way out of the situation. I couldn't believe that I, a smart person with no real abuse or dysfunction (visible, at least -- HA!), had gotten herself stuck in this spot.

But the worst part was that, to everyone we knew, we were the perfect couple.

We were always together. We worked nearby -- in the same building at times -- and ate lunch together every day. Everyone we knew commented ALL THE TIME about how sweet we were, what a great couple we were, all that. And then we'd go to the pizza place and he'd berate me for not having my wallet open in time and supposedly holding up the line.

So when I got out of the shower on Thanksgiving and found him sitting on the couch, and he finally admitted that "this isn't working," it was horrible and terrifying but ultimately a huge relief. For a couple of days we danced around a bit, but he moved out on Monday -- across the street.

And then we told our friends and colleagues, who were uniformly shocked because they thought we were just the best, closest couple ever. I was so ashamed that I'd been living this fake life, which didn't help.

He had the GALL to ask that I not have sex with anyone until we were officially get divorced, because "I would prefer that the first person to have sex with my wife not be someone else."

I got together with someone two months later, completely unexpectedly. We soon found out that there was absolutely problem at all with my side of the equation.


Your (female) friend needs you. She feels ashamed and lost and very, very, very alone. She's probably tried absolutely everything that she can think of. If something changed now, she'd grab onto it with everything she had.

But nothing is going to change.

What she needs from you:
Listen to her without judgment.
Tell her, again and again, that it's not her fault -- because whatever role she's played in the dysfunction, her husband is not holding up his side of the wedding vows.
Help her grieve for what she's lost.

What she does NOT need:
"You're better than him. You deserve so much better than this. He's a jerk. He's scum." Keep in mind, here: this is the disintegration of her dream, her life, the thing she's fought for. Sometime in the past, she loved him. She probably still loves him. She already feels bad enough about getting into this situation, slowly but steadily. She needs to know that it wasn't wrong for her to be in love with this guy.

As much as I've probably made assumptions here, you cannot make ANY assumptions about what's going on in their marriage. And, unfortunately, you really can't influence her husband to do anything about this. You risk losing both of them as friends. Hell, you will almost certainly lose one of them. We kept several friends in common, but ultimately I think most people just lost patience with him. The things that drove me crazy eventually drove them crazy, too.

I know you've known this guy for years, longer than you've known her. But take a look at him as you get together. How does he act? Is he showing love to her? is he REALLY showing love to her? (Is she really showing love to him?)

If you want to do something, don't tell him to do anything. ASK him what's going on. Give him space and time to explain himself -- if he wants to. If he doesn't, leave it alone.

If she wants to contact me, for any reason, please send me a PM with her email. I'm here.
posted by Madamina at 8:17 PM on May 28, 2012 [24 favorites]

Data point:

This has happened to me. The wife confided to me what your friend mentioned to you. At that time, I didn't know what to say so I stayed silent. I think she may have confided to other friends as well. 6-8 months after that, they separated. It turns out that the husband was in the closet.

It sounds very soap opera-ish, but unfortunately, it is true. Here in HK and the greater China area, society strongly frowns upon homosexuality. Gay men are still expected to marry and have children. I've known of people who whilst in grad school here in HK take advantage of their relative freedom to date people of the same gender; they have told me that upon returning home, they have to get married and carry on the family line.

As for my friend, she and her husband got back together.
posted by onegoodthing at 10:05 PM on May 28, 2012

The best case scenario is that she's so far at the end of her rope that she's lost perspective on how inappropriate it is to go to his friends - or she's become alienated enough from 'her' friends that you really seem like the closest friend she's got. The worst case is that she's setting you up for a proposition.

Either way I think the best response - if she brings it up again - is something along the lines of "Relationships are complicated and every couple has to find their own way. I love and support both of you on your individual and shared journey, and I won't judge either of you, but as your husband's friend, I don't feel comfortable speaking about this with you behind his back, nor am I able to offer the kind if help and support that would be really helpful for you. Please only speak with me about things you'd be comfortable with me speaking with him about, because I can't play the secrets game."

Then if they do end up separating, you can stay out of the 'oh but they were such a perfect couple,' wails, remind people that the inside of any relationship goes way deeper than outiders can see, and she can have the comfort of knowing that at least one person isn't judging her for being heartless capricious etc.

If they stay together, you are at least out of the secrets game (on every level, including the potential cheating partner level), and can remind yourself that the inside of any relationship goes way deeper than outsiders can see, and the one possible glimpse you were given may well not tell much of the story.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:05 AM on May 29, 2012

You gave good advice, you gave her a chance to vent a little. I don't think you need worry about your tales of being single having much influence over her actions, why would they? Honestly this is incredibly common, and doesn't even necessarily mean they're headed for breakup or adultery.

If she comes back for more advice, just tell her that you don't think that she should do anything on impulse and that you advise her to be compassionate. And then say that you're not comfortable being her confidante because it puts you in an awkward position with her and her husband. You certainly should not get MORE in the middle by talking to her husband.
posted by desuetude at 7:40 AM on May 29, 2012

This line "woe is me, I haven't gotten laid in ______, it feels like we're just roommates!" is often a set up for an affair.


If she's going to screw up her marriage, make sure you're not involved in any way.
posted by luckynerd at 10:59 AM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

A lot of this advice strikes me as very callous. I can't say what your relationship is like, only that you are this woman's friend. Maybe her best friend, maybe her only friend, but certainly one she felt like she could talk to. I like what was written by Madamina. As someone who is also going through marital troubles, I can also say it is extremely hard to talk to people about it, and I only chose to do so when I was at the end of my rope. Your friend is probably there also.

I would ask you to be as kind as possible to this woman. Yes, this may have been (slightly) inappropriate news to share with you, but please don't tell her so in a rude or offputting manner, she is going through enough.
posted by I am the Walrus at 2:52 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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