“I was depleted by their dynamics and by being triangulated into their lies.” Sheri remembers the toll keeping secrets took on her back in 2012. At the time, the NYC resident says she was collaborating on a therapeutic theater project with two colleagues who were having an affair. Both had led her to believe that the wife was privy to the nature of their relationship, but it soon became apparent to Sheri that wasn’t the case. She recalls one gathering at the husband’s house; she noticed his wife sitting alone in the corner of a massive living room while everyone was in the backyard and kitchen. “It was bizarre and sad,” Sheri tells HealthyWay. “While [the wife] understood [my colleagues] worked together for many years, her affect and isolation suggested she may have suspected more was happening but was misled to believe it was a platonic relationship.”
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The science of infidelity is still murky territory and the statistics, well, bleak. Take for instance, this stat from private investigating agency Trustify, showing that 36 percent of men and women admit to having an affair with a co-worker (and this doesn’t account for those who don’t own up to the fact). Since cheating includes a spectrum of behaviors, there’s no way to pinpoint an exact number of how many people are unfaithful, but what we do know for sure is that divorce rates in the U.S. are staggeringly high. According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. While cheating has a negative emotional impact on all involved, one lesser talked about effect is the one on bystanders: mainly, the witnesses to these clandestine relationships. “It puts the third party in an untenable position,” says NYC family therapist, Kathryn Smerling, PhD, who specializes in creating healthy and meaningful relationships. “If she admits to seeing it, it could destroy her relationship with these people, and it makes her the secret keeper, and that’s a horrible position to have.”
We asked Sheri what she did after finding out.
Sheri says that the clandestine way in which her colleagues concealed the truth of their relationship around certain people reinforced to her their lack of transparency. After weighing her options, she decided to speak with her colleagues about her concerns, but she says this did not go over well. “I was characterized as irrational and difficult for insisting on honesty.” After this eventful meeting, Sheri says she felt disoriented from the gaslighting and absence of any sort of ownership or remorse. But confiding in her colleagues didn’t lead to any kind of meaningful resolution. Instead, her refusal to be complicit in their dishonesty only spurred anger, she says, and this led to a major falling out. Her colleagues’ toxic behavior afterward took more than an emotional toll, Sheri says. She began experiencing physical symptoms from the stress soon after. “My back went out, and I evidenced signs of metabolic stress for a while.” Eventually, Sheri says it became clear she needed to end the friendship and the collaboration they had developed. “I was so disillusioned by the turn of events that I took leave from this project that I poured my heart and soul into.” “I did consider exposing the affair,” she admits. “But I so desperately wanted to remove myself from the partnership that I feared the reprisal and further involvement.”
“Knowing another’s secret, in general, is uncomfortable,” says Laura Dabney, MD, a marriage psychiatrist from Virginia. “If you have the added impact of this secret possibly negatively impacting the workplace, it’s a double whammy.” The experience places an undue burden on the person who knows, she explains, and this often manifests in the way of anxiety and stress, including symptoms such as insomnia, irritability, avoidance behavior, chronic headaches, and worrying. “It can be unsettling,” says Juli Fraga, PsyD, a relationship therapist based in San Francisco, because the person can feel like they’re holding a secret, and it can make interactions with colleagues more than uncomfortable. She notes that depending on the person’s personal background, they can also experience longer-term effects. “If their parents divorced because of an affair,” she explains, “it could reopen childhood wounds and trauma.” Additionally, Fraga asserts that it might bring into question what trust means in relationships and cause the person to question how seemingly good people can do dishonest things. Depending on the person’s spiritual or religious beliefs, it can be that much more emotionally distressing. If we were already conflicted and uncertain about our willingness to love and be loved, the witnessing of an affair can have a long-term effect on our decision to (or not to) enter intimate relationships, stresses Mark B. Borg, Jr., an NYC clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships. “If it is a person or couple that we admire and respect, it can [also] impact how we feel not only about them and their coupleship, but how we feel about relationship itself.”
Pause and give yourself a moment to grieve.
Too often, the witness thinks only about what to do with the information, says Borg, and they completely overlook their own shock, hurt, and disappointment over being exposed to such uncomfortable, perhaps shocking, and shattering information. After learning of her colleagues’ transgression, Sheri tells us she felt duplicitous and hypocritical colluding in the betrayal. But the loss felt two-fold—she was mourning the end of the friendship and her creative vision. “I was caught up in trying to protect my work from people who I erroneously believed were upholding and contributing to my personal mission to bring therapeutic theater to disenfranchised populations.” “It will weigh on you,” Borg asserts, “and it is likely that you will need to grieve over losing the image that you had of this person before you found out.”
Define your boundaries ASAP.
Whether it’s narrowing all exchanges to cordial pleasantries or blocking the person’s number for good, it’s best to get distance from someone who’s having an affair, says Dabney. “They are consciously choosing to deal with a problem by doing something destructive and cruel, and it’s only a matter of time before the witness will get hurt as well.” Conversely, if a friend starts to tell you about an affair, she insists it’s best to hold up a hand and let them know that’s information they should be talking about with their partner or therapist, and you would appreciate not being put in that awkward position. Smerling also wants us to keep in mind that becoming overly involved in other people’s affairs is a clear signal that we’re blurring the lines between what we’re responsible for and what we are not.
Carefully weigh your options.
So…should you mind your own business? Expose it? Below are options to considers, though “there isn’t a right or wrong answer,” Fraga asserts. “It depends on each person’s judgment.”
In the case of a close friend who is being cheated on, Fraga says we should ask ourselves this one guiding question: If my friend knew my partner was having an affair and didn’t tell me, how might I feel? “I’d also say that it’s not [your] responsibility to do anything unless you feel compelled to do so.” Along the same vein, Borg says exposing an affair to a partner will most certainly backfire in some way, and it’s more than likely that the affair-haver and the cheated-on other will both use you as a target of their hurt, their fear, and their rage—a “shoot the messenger” scenario. “It creates emotional displacement,” he explains. “If we assume that affairs happen for a reason, it’s possible that the reason will be convoluted, lost, or misdirected if you intervene.” “The issue here might have less to do with how or if you expose the person’s infidelity,” Borg adds, and more about how it impacts your relationship with that person (as well as the person who is being cheated on). And in the case of a virtual stranger (e.g., a college professor) experts agree that exposing the affair would be even more inappropriate unless someone was in imminent physical danger.
Talk to both parties about what you witnessed and let them know how you feel.
In general, it’s healthiest to never speak about anyone’s problems or issues with anyone else, says Dabney. “However, an affair in the workplace can be destructive, so this may be an exception.” If possible, opt for a better way of dealing with your experience rather than exposing it by offering to discuss what you’ve witnessed and felt with that person. But this can be tricky, notes Smerling, as approaching the couple and letting them know you’re uncomfortable could jeopardize your job (depending on the hierarchy).
Talk to human resources or your boss for guidance.
Your best bet is staying far from the chaos, but going up the ladder could be necessary if the affair is creating a toxic work environment. While opting to tell HR can be risky business since they exist primarily to protect the company, expressing your concerns openly can provide a paper trail in the event of a colleague’s retaliation. “If your colleagues are at a higher level, then it is best to stay out of it because you run the risk of being the ‘fall guy,’” says Dabney. However, if the colleagues are of a lower level or if the couple is mixed levels (one higher than the other), she recommends letting the person above them know. But Dabney offers one caveat when telling: It’s best to be brief and stick to the known facts and not draw the conclusion of “affair.”
Seek advice from a therapist or trusted friend.
The consensus among experts is to seek advice if what you know is affecting your day-to-day. “It’s not something you can handle on your own,” says Smerling. “You need to get help from a professional who can guide you into how to compartmentalize the feelings you have by knowing about the affair.” Likewise, Borg believes making sure that you get whatever support, care, and love that you need after experiencing the way that someone else’s crisis was acted out is a good first step.
In the aftermath of the falling out, Sheri says the betrayal impacted her ability to re-engage meaningfully with the theater project she had worked so hard to develop. “The affair was a glaring reflection of the duplicity I refused to see,” she says. “It awakened me to how my desire to manifest my creative vision blinded me to exercising better judgment.” It’s now been six years after everything went down, and Sheri tells us she’s in a better place. Satirizing the whole experience in a play has allowed her to channel her feelings and find catharsis and healing. We asked how being witness to an affair has changed her. “I became much more guarded and meticulous as to who I would continue to involve myself with,” she says. “It led to my doing a complete overhaul of my relationships.”