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Guest post: “My attractive married friend is unloading on me about the state of her troubled marriage. Maybe I will sleep with her?” (Question #101)

"Hi! It would be a terrible idea to get involved with me. Want to dance?"

I’ve got a post up at Feministe today about movie casting and stereotypes.  In retrospect I should have called it “Stop boring the shit out of me, Hollywood.”

Major Mishap is here once again to answer today’s question and take this letter writer to post-divorce friendship school, aka, don’t fuck that lady!

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m recently divorced. (just over a year or so) My ex-wife was originally from out-of-state, we met on-line, she moved to my town to be with me, and we had a good near-decade run. At the end, she was pretty lonely, unsatisfied, and miserable.  I was never a “bad” husband. (no substance abuse, no infidelity, no physical/emotional abuse of any kind). I aint sayin’ I was good husband, I just wasn’t horrible. She was miserable and a saint to put up with me, totally justified in leaving, but this wasn’t one of those “put his clothes in a box, tape it shut, and light it on fire” kind of divorces. No kids, no money issues, no real animosity that couldn’t be suppressed.

 My friends and I have a monthly get-together at a bar, and one month we chatted up a husband-and-wife there. Next month rolls around, we’re chatting again with the same couple. He’s a nice guy: works in a garage, loves his car, watches UFC but isn’t a macho douche’. He looks a little like me, except he’s younger, in better shape, has more hair and less of an aura of despair about him. She’s nice too: relatively smart, works in the same field I do, knows how to be a girly-girl but is OK “hanging with the guys” and being foul-mouthed.

So the husband starts hanging out with my circle of friends other times. (We have a weekly get-together for a common hobby) Husband’s interested in the hobby, wife isn’t. But the wife hangs out because it’s social. I see the wife is lonely and bored and doesn’t really connect with what’s going on, so I make an effort to include her. For example, we do a beer tasting, but she doesn’t drink beer. OK, so I suggest to the group we do a dark chocolate tasting next. That’s all I’m doing: little changes so she’s included, but not things people wouldn’t enjoy anyway. (I think. I hope. Probably. I dunno.)

Wife helps out one hobby-day when husband can’t make it, and puts in a lot of work for a hobby she doesn’t enjoy, so I offer to treat her to a meal at some future time, as a thank you. I swear that was all I was thinking; it was a “Hey, thanks for doing all that. You really didn’t need to. I owe you one” kinda thing. (Yes, in hindsight if it was a guy, I would have offered to pick up the tab at the next bar night; the gesture was a mix of gratitude and friendship). A month or three go by, and she texts me about that dinner, because her husband is working late. 

We sit down at the restaurant, and she just starts opening up about how unhappy and lonely and despairing she is. How she’s thinking about leaving him next spring, about how how she moved out here with him from another state, and how she doesn’t have any friends out here. All I can do is listen, nod, try and offer vague but helpful remarks. She’s venting. But in my head, I’m thinking “this is probably what my ex-wife sounded like a few months before the end”…

What the hell do I do? I’ve got options, but none of them seem terribly good. I would like to be her friend and his friend. (I like them both, for different reasons) If there’s any way my experience could help someone else avoid divorce, I’ll take it. Divorce sucks under the best of circumstances; mine was almost a best-case scenario and I still wouldn’t wish it on my enemies.

Is it even possible to help this situation? Is helping her as a person going to run counter to helping her marriage? (if it even can be helped… the sinking feeling in my stomach suggests it can’t) I think I’m being a friend to her, but am I really, or am I just greasing the skids on her marriage? If I am deluding myself about my motives and/or effects, should I just stop trying to be a mensch, and instead be a bastard about the whole thing and try and get into her pants, knowing she’s leaving the state in the spring anyway? Should I just pull back from contact with her? (because that would involve pulling back from a circle of friends, and these days, I value my social contacts).

Help me Captain Awkward, you’re my only hope,

Probably a Bastard in Denial

Dear PABID,

Thank you for writing to Captain Awkward about this issue. Major Mishap has a lot of serious things to say to you because I’ve been in something of a comparable situation. It’s great that you have Real World Experience in relationship awkwardness. I’m counting on you to reach back into your memories and utilize all of the painful lessons you learned from your divorce. As I said: this is serious.

I want to congratulate you on your positive outlook towards marriage. It’s an institution that, when operated properly, performs miracles. Major Mishap can see that you drink the Kool Aid (as do I), but let’s say that again. Marriage is one of the most powerful things on the earth. It’s up there with giving birth. It’s isn’t to be tinkered with.

You, my caring friend, are tinkering.

You are surprised to hear Major Mishap say this. You’re a committed friend to everyone in your social group. I’m betting that when you went through your divorce, some of those friends you cherish were very much there for you. But let us think back to those days. What did your friends REALLY do for you?

Major Mishap has a theory. Your friends listened. Good friends do that. Your friends helped you move, or your friends invited you over for dinner when you could not stand the thought of eating alone. Your friends called you, they said Happy Birthday, they said Chin Up, they said It Will Get Better. None of them, however, I am guessing, tried to tinker with the broken marriage. No one tried to help. No one tried to save it, or give advice on how to fix it, or recommend a marriage therapist, or said Take A Vacation Together, It Will Make You Closer. No one did that. They just listened, and they waited for you to get through it.

No one did that because they respected the process that needed to happen between you and your Ex.

And if someone did do those things, did you value that stuff? No. It probably irritated you and you might not even have known why at the time. Truth: no one can help you – or anyone – get through a divorce. Everyone has to do it alone. Those who try to help are banished from the island, always, eventually.

PABID, you are inadvertently insinuating yourself into a situation that not only can you not help, but also has sexual overtones. This should be a major red flag for you – I suspect in your heart you already know it’s going to be a problem. Fact: you cannot. You. Can. Not. be friends with the woman in this picture. Not right now, and most likely not ever. Your male friend has been with you longer, and you have never thought about what it would be like to have sex with him.

But her? She has the unfortunate disadvantage of having breasts. Look, not everyone is going to like this but it’s the truth. Men and women can indeed be friends, but not under these circumstances. Someone’s gonna get their feelings hurt. Someone’s gonna read body language wrong. Someone’s gonna get more attached to the other one because she’s going through the end of her marriage (fact: it’s happening) and she’s going to develop feelings she hasn’t had in a long time and then, my sweet man, you are going to feel much more awkward than you do now.

Captain Awkward is a hero of Major Mishap’s. Captain Awkward is a true friend because the Cap. taught me a long time ago this word: boundaries. The Captain said: use them. I encourage you right now to employ your boundaries with the lady who appears in this story. (Here’s how you do that:  You never mention the dinner conversation you have again, and if she mentions it, you say “It was really nice to see you.  I’m really sorry for your troubles, and I don’t want you to feel weird about our conversation, but (husband) is also my friend and I’m not the right person to talk to about this.  I’ll see you at next (group social event).”  And you don’t hang out with her alone, ever. - CA)

Second: if the time comes that the marriage fails, and it will because your lady friend is absolutely gearing up for it, then stand beside your man friend. Invite him to dinner when he can’t stand the thought of eating alone. Tell him It Will Get Better. Listen more, talk less. But find a way to let him know that you’re there and you’re waiting for him to be through his hell ride.

I want you to view this as a very black-and-white situation, and make a very black-and-white decision. And then let me know what happens.

-Major Mishap

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24 comments
  1. aprilhl said:

    something that sticks out like a sore thumb to me is that, uhm, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything in the married-lady-friends-agenda about sleeping with the LW. so why is it important enough to get a headline? LW mentions he’d do anything to help avoid a divorce for someone, but uhm, is already talking about how he can get into her pants.

    she’s venting. sometimes, even in the best of relationships, we need to vent. if you’ve been there before, you understand, and maybe she thought getting a male perspective from her husband’s friend would be helpful. her venting to a friend doesn’t mean she wants to sleep with you.
    I mean, geeze, you said it yourself: “this is probably what my ex-wife sounded like…” and now think of if your best friend, who your ex vented to, admitted all he could think about was getting in her pants. (or worse, actually doing so).

    avoid it at all costs, whether or not they are getting divorced, whether she’s leaving, or what’s going on. seriously. follow Major Mishap’s advice and stay.away.

    • JenniferP said:

      It got a headline because the Letter Writer is already thinking about how he can get into her pants, which tells us that he knows that this is a shady situation (even if the lady’s motives are entirely above-board). “…should I just stop trying to be a mensch, and instead be a bastard about the whole thing and try and get into her pants, knowing she’s leaving the state in the spring anyway?”

      • aprilhl said:

        yeah. exactly. I wasn’t sure if the headline was his or CA’s… but yeah, shady situation. avoid avoid avoid!

        • JenniferP said:

          I wrote the headline because I thought it was funny. I think the LW wants to do the right thing (which is why he wrote in), but this is a definite case of “Don’t fuck that lady!”

  2. Intern Paul said:

    I heartily approve this message of Don’t Fuck That Lady

  3. k said:

    LW, don’t even. Just don’t.

    You really aren’t the right person to be hearing her venting about her husband and how she wants to leave him, so please deliver Captain Awkward’s script to her at the next available opportunity.

    I’d suggest that you also think about finding a way to make your dating pool bigger, if you really are feeling like you’re ready to possibly make a pass at married acquaintances. It sounds like you have an awesome group of friends, but maybe start making some forays into bars that aren’t the one you’re a regular at, and stuff, you know? My rule when single is, “When your platonic friends start looking like dating prospects, start finding ways to meet new people.”

  4. ugly and loved said:

    I agree. Don’t fuck that lady.

    BUT

    Why are we behaving as though LW is a better friend of the husband than the wife? It’s clear that the friend group met the two of them at the same time. Is it because she’s a woman and it seems maybe that the friend group is primarily male? Because she is not into the hobby the same way (even though she attends the get-togethers)? This I don’t get. I don’t see why the advice is to support the husband but not the wife. (Other than to perhaps help LW to keep it in his pants. But he is a grown-up, he’s perfectly capable of keeping it in his pants now that he has received everyone’s excellent advice.)

    Cause if I were going through a divorce and every male I enjoyed spending time with suddenly wouldn’t be alone in a room with me because maybe I would develop feeeeeeelings? WOULD PISS ME RIGHT THE FUCK OFF.

    • Sarah said:

      Agree with ugly and loved. It obviously depends on lots of other factors, but if a couple are jointly invited out with a group over a period of time (even if one of them fits in more, for gender/hobby/whatever reason), it sucks when one of them is conspicuously left off invitation lists/ignored. It’s happened to a girl I know recently and it’s hit her really hard – not only is she going through a break-up, but friends are being awkward with her/making excuses etc.

      Also agree that LW should definitely note fuck that lady though! And I think he knew that.

      • JenniferP said:

        I see what you guys are saying and why it is unfair to the wife.

        However, if you took genders out of it or made it all Torchwoody and omnisexual what you have is: (A group of friends who hang out weekly around a shared hobby) * (A friendly spouse who also hangs out) * (Once alone with one of the other friends, immediately unloads about marriage problems). Rhys might need to bitch about Gwen sometimes, but he should call Banana Boat or Daf, not Andy or Jack.

        Intern Paul and I have a lot of mutual friends and made friends with each other’s friends. When things went south, you know who we didn’t call for support? Each other’s friends and/or mutual friends who met us both at the same time and who might feel weird and conflicted. We retreated to our core groups and licked our wounds.

        If Unhappy Wife follows through on moving away, her husband will stay behind and need his friends (and weekly hobby) around him. If she stays and the marriage works out, the LW will be able to be friends with both of them (but only if he hasn’t been up in the middle of their problems and able to play darts or whatever without having to be like “Bullseye? Also, your wife might be leaving you? I know because she told me?“). The wife didn’t write to me, the letter writer did, and there is little advantage for him to get in the middle of this marriage and become a confidant of the wife’s. I feel really bad for her. Remind me never to move to the town where wives become sad and lonely and need to leave, btw.

        Edited to Add:

        I think when you’re equal friends with both halves of a couple who is breaking up, a good way to handle it is to invite both people to things and let them work it out.

        But if you’re better friends with one half (for whatever reason, even if everyone met at exactly the same moment), it’s ok to choose. It’s sad to be left out. It’s sad to be dumped. It’s sad to hear about parties that 3 months you would have been invited to as half a couple but now you’re not. But that’s called “moving on.” If you go auditing all of your mutual friendships and trying to claim ‘fairness’ you’re going to alienate people even more because you’re the one making it weird.

        • The Windup Bird said:

          I totally agree with ugly and loved. But I have a question that may slightly be off topic. How often does this sort of situation happen but with the genders reversed? It seems like the half of the couple to be excluded is the more often the woman. E.g. the anecdote from sarah, question #83 (although that is sort of an inverted situation, and I agree that the friend-girl should back off), and I’m sure we all have stories of friends who lost their whole network because of something like this.

          • JenniferP said:

            I don’t know how often it happens to women vs. men. The anecdotes I can think of run the other way – The woman is more of a social director and initiator of doing stuff with the group, or more extroverted, or was friends with people first, or is the one who is not making it weird (by stalking, or making every social interaction with mutual friends about the ex and the breakup). Or, the couple stays friends with each other (after a short break) and the friends actually say “We like you both and we want everything to be cool. How do you guys want to handle it?” and it is cool.

            Is this really an issue of gender fairness (bros before hos)? Is fairness in friendship something you can audit?

            It’s a good argument for keeping your own friendships strong and not falling into the Geek Social Fallacy of “Friends do everything together!” and “All my friends are friends of each other now!” or investing your whole social life in your partner’s network. Your friends are the people who invite you to shit no matter what. Those people who used to invite you to shit when you were dating their friend but now have stopped inviting you to shit like your ex better than they like you and need to be kissed up to Jesus. Not very comforting after the fact, I know.

            I think if you’re in that situation where it turns out your mutual friends are inviting your partner to big gatherings but not you, and you want to salvage the situation, a good thing to do is to call the people you really like up and ask them to do stuff one-on-one or in small groups, and focus that time on stuff you have in common. Don’t use it to bitch about your ex or to cry about why you’re not invited to parties anymore, and see if you end up having a direct friendship with that person. You can’t force it, and it may not work, but it removes the pressure of figuring out the whole social group at once.

        • I also wondered about the assumption that this guy was chummier with the male half of the couple. It really doesn’t sound like he is, or that he knows either of these people all that well — which is why the “who to choose/be more loyal to” question seems moot to me. He doesn’t need to get more involved in either party’s life than he did before if his attraction to the lady is making him feel weird and conflicted. He doesn’t have to become BFFs with the husband if the husband decided to start confiding in him or spending more time together, though I agree that would be a much safer friendship to explore.

    • Diamond Shoes said:

      I agree that it’s not particularly fair for him to choose the husband over the wife but I think that’s the way it has to be. He’s already developed feelings for her so attempting to be her friend and support her through the divorce is likely to turn into into unintentionally getting to close and then to situations where they end up sleeping together. I have experience of the brain’s amazing self-deluding powers in these circumstances :(

    • k said:

      The thing is though, in this situation the feeeeelings are already there. He’s internally comparing her to his ex-wife and himself to her husband. Though he thinks it would be an asshole move to go after her and get him some of that, he is vaguely contemplating it. Even taking her out to dinner as a thank-you registered for him as something he wouldn’t be doing for another friend.

      All signs that, although obviously men and women can be purely platonic friends blah blah blah Harry and Sally was a dumb movie, this man and this woman are probably going to have a hard time keeping it platonic at the present time.

  5. I’m a stay at home dad and my social life involves a lot of hanging out with women during the day when their husbands are at work, and one thing I’d like to point out is that the path forward here is quite simple, and many of the comments have mentioned it – stop spending time alone with this woman.

    Listen, if you are spending time alone with a woman, and you think “hmm, there might be something dangerous going on here” the edge of the falls is closer than you think. Paddle that canoe to shore. Fast.

  6. kate said:

    Among other reasons to Not Fuck That Lady, he likes his circle of friends. If he violates the DFTL edict, and people find out (don’t they always?), and the marriage fails (as it looks like it’s going to), his social circle is going say it was his fault. The most generous may say he was “only” the straw that broke the camel’s back, or that he just accelerated the demise. The rest will say it was flat out his fault, that the split might not have happened at all if not for him (couples do go through very tough times and then work it out, but his behavior would have guaranteed that didn’t happen). He will become persona non grata. No one will want him around their wives, because every marriage has its ups and downs, and the guys will figure he’s the kind of unscrupulous, opportunistic vulture who takes advantage of those wobbly moments to get himself some action with his friends’ wives. Ew. Even the other wives will probably think he’s a slime bucket to take advantage of a woman at such a vulnerable time.

    • I’m not taking it for granted that this lady’s marriage is going to fail. But if she sleeps with the LW and then goes back to her huband? Also awkward.

      • kate said:

        Good point!

        • JenniferP said:

          Don’t pee in the pool! Don’t fuck that lady!

  7. john said:

    LW obviously likes the woman and has the whole time he’s known her, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried to organize a dark chocolate tasting. This is out of character for hetero men who are not crushing.

    • Absolutely. After all, hetero men only enjoy sports, beer, and wet t-shirt contests. Chocolate? Bah!

    • k said:

      Um, what now?

      The point is that he’s realized that he’s doing things that are out of character for him, an individual person. Not that the Hetero Male Hivemind strictly forbids chocolate tastings unless there’s more than a 50% chance of bonin’.

      • john said:

        ugh… Let me simplify. An uninterested man would not try to organize an event for another guys girlfriend.

  8. Sheelzebub said:

    LW, do not fuck that lady. EVER.

    Do tell her that to talk to her husband about what she’s going through, and to go to counseling. Draw that boundary. “I am friends with both you and your husband; this is something I should not be hearing. I like you a lot and I like [husband] a lot. You need an impartial professional to help you with this, not me.”

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