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I am sorry if this is a duplicate, the closest situation I could find here is this one. This is a bit long but given that I am not entirely sure if there was any advance to be concerned about in the first place, I think it is important.

Context

I was friends with Alice for a couple of years back when I was in High School and we enjoyed each other's company a lot. We dated casually for a while till we eventually drifted apart because we were both young and wanted to explore other possibilities and of course, college. That was 2010. It was not a bad break up or anything, we parted on amiable terms, but as it happens, we got out of touch entirely over the years.

Only contact that I have had with her since then was through mutual friends. Heard she met another guy and married about three years ago.

But then I got a text from her a few days ago (Please note all the communication below is via social media, we both live in different cities now). I found that odd but I was happy to catch up with her. I asked her if she needed something, she replied she only wanted to see how I was doing. I asked about her new life, found out she's a mum now and dropped out of college for some reason. She asked me if I was seeing someone, I answered honestly that I wasn't.

The catching up continued well onto the next day so again, I asked her subtly that why is she contacting me after all these years. She first gave me the old "catching up" reason but later admitted that her husband was abroad for some reason and she's been feeling rather lonely. To handle that, she says, she decided to use this time to catch up with all the friends she's gotten out of touch with lately.

It's not that I didn't enjoy talking to her again but something just felt off. Knowing her, I knew she will tell me what's wrong when she wants to. And she did, a couple of days later she told me about her marital issues, how she and her husband were drifting apart and how her husband is a suspicious/smothering kind of person. She drew parallels between me and her husband and how we are so different and he does not appreciate her at all. I listened, because well, I wasn't asked for an advice and it's not my place to meddle in her personal affairs.

The breaking point was when she asked me to switch to another app. I asked why's that? She replied that she doesn't want her husband to find out that we have been talking because of his suspicious nature. I told her that if her husband is not okay with her doing that, she should not be doing that without taking him in confidence. What followed was an emotional deluge. She went into extreme details about how she is unhappy with him, how her life is crumbling apart and how she is not trying to cheat on her husband, she just wants to be heard by someone she knows who cares, who values her etc. I spent the next fifteen minutes talking her into discussing all this with her husband and reminding her if she really wants her son to grow up in a broken family (She's always had strong views on a strong traditional family). She just wouldn't stop asking me to stay in contact with her. I told her that while I can't stop her from going behind her husband's back and possibly sabotaging her marriage, I refuse to be a part of it. With that I said goodbye. I got a few calls which I did not receive and then another call the next day that she is trying to stop bothering me but it is hard for her. I told her that's because it's the right thing and that I did not wish to be in any form of contact with her if she was going to keep it a secret from her husband. And after that I did not hear from her but she sounded pretty hurt.

The Question

I think I did the right thing but I still feel like I did it horribly. Of course it was going to hurt but she seemed very distressed. The ship's sailed but I'd still like to know if I could have done it in a better way?

My goal was:

  1. To convey to Alice that while I am not seeing anyone at the moment, I just don't feel that way about her any longer.
  2. To firmly establish that I won't get into any sort of "secret relation" with her without accusing her that she is trying to cheat on her husband given that I am not entirely sure if that's what she wanted.
  3. As a former friend, I do have her interests at my heart and I don't want her to throw away her marriage like that. If she wants to end things with her husband, she should do precisely that instead of seeking out former romantic interests to stay in touch with her secretly.

Full disclosure, I am an old member of the wider Stack Exchange (Although not of this SE). The reason why I am using an anonymous account is because I don't like discussing my personal affairs like this. I can't discuss it with old friends or family because they do know her (I don't want this one moment to redefine their perception of her as a person). You can say that this anonymity is the shield I am hiding behind. I won't be upvoting this via my real account.

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    I think that the full disclosure is wholly unnecessary. You wish to keep things private, and it's your prerogative to create a second account if you so wish. – AndreiROM Feb 20 '18 at 16:55
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    @AndreiROM Thank you, I thought It's better to be safe, I don't want to be accused of creating a sock puppet or summat. I'd rather disclose this information right away than have some mod discover that my usual account and this account use the same IPs. – Hannibal Feb 20 '18 at 16:58
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    I'm puzzled why you feel so strongly that she should only interact with other people on her husbands terms. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but as it stands it seems dismissive of her own agency. of course you should only be in contact with someone in a situation you are comfortable in, but it seems strange to be so protective of a marriage that doesn't involve you directly. – Spagirl Feb 20 '18 at 17:55
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    @Spagirl I don't think she should only play by her husband's rules. What I think is, It's a bad sign if she is contacting a former romantic interest without taking her spouse on board with the intent to keep it all a secret. I'm a firm believer in the idea that people should take their SOs in confidence when they are in a committed relationship if they are doing something they know their SO is not okay with. Two good ways, She can either take her spouse in confidence, or she could assert that she will not let him control her social life. The whole "it can be our secret" is neither of those. – Ardeshir Feb 21 '18 at 8:02
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    @Spagirl As for the marriage, Altruistic reason, Divorce is a big deal here and carries a lot of social stigma. Selfish reason, we both come from a small town where people know each other and gossip a lot. Sure we don't live there anymore but our relations do. And if something happens, I don't want my name to be involved in the ensuing drama in any fashion. Besides, as I said, If she wants to end things with her husband, she should do precisely that. So you could say I am not protective of the marriage but I want her to think it through without getting involved. – Ardeshir Feb 21 '18 at 8:06
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The distress you're feeling is only natural as a result of Alice's emotional outburst, however you've done nothing wrong, and should you ever go though a similar episode again, there's really nothing much that you should do differently.

Let's analyze the situation:

  • You've seriously drifted apart from Alice over the past 8 years (a significant time-frame).
  • She went out of her way to contact you, not the other way around.
  • She was unloading her emotional baggage on you, and you were kind enough to allow her this.
  • She asked you to switch to a different platform, which sent your spidey-senses tingling.
  • When you requested clarification, she broke down and told you that she wants to keep your conversations a secret from her husband, which was something that you were not comfortable with, and did not want to be a part of.
  • You firmly stood behind your principles, and laid down some rules for your continued interaction (aka transparency with her spouse).
  • She did not acquiesce to your request, and tried to make you change your mind.
  • You decided to cut her off, because you don't want to be involved with that sort of drama.

In all this, you've done nothing wrong. You have my respect for standing on your principles, having the fortitude to withstand her emotional guilt tripping, and staying out of her marital drama.

You don't know all the details of her relationship. It's been 8 long years, and all the info you're getting is decidedly one sided. You are not in any way responsible for her life choices, nor do you owe her any sympathy, understanding, or advice. You engaging with her over her issues, and lending her your ear was an act of generosity, not something you should feel guilt tripped into providing, especially if it makes you complicit in her hiding things from her husband.

Perhaps the only thing you may have suggested - if she really does feel like her husband is a tyrannical entity (that was unclear) - is that she contact some local resources and get out of the house while he's away. However, I feel it bears repeating that this is the sort of advice that someone far more familiar with her situation would be better positioned to give.

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    Thank you, That makes me feel a whole lot better, I was feeling like I'd turned my back on a friend in need but it just did not feel right. From she's told me, it's not that the relationship is abusive to the point that she'd need to escape from the House with help of the Authorities. From what I gathered, they are just different people and she does not feel valued or appreciated. But I suppose It's not my problem any longer and further contact even to pass her this piece of advice might only encourage her or send the wrong message. – Hannibal Feb 20 '18 at 17:25
  • And Sorry apparently I can't Upvote your answer from anon account. – Hannibal Feb 20 '18 at 17:27
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    @hannibal - no worries. It sounds like Alice needs to engage her husband in some important conversations, not cry about her unhappiness on a (relative) stranger's shoulder. IMO you made the right call cutting her off, and you have my respect for it. – AndreiROM Feb 20 '18 at 17:37
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I am writing this answer looking mainly from your point of view and I hope some other members can give us insights from the woman's perspective.

The breaking point was when she asked me to switch to another app. I asked why's that? She replied that she doesn't want her husband to find out that we have been talking because of his suspicious nature.

Red flag: since the husband is suspicious, your continued friendship in the form of a covert interaction would certainly have been misinterpreted as romance, even if it wasn't. With due respect to all parties concerned, the way you expressed yourself to Alice while disengaging from the interaction at this point might appear cold or selfish to some people, but it was technically the right way, in that you promptly and categorically told her exactly why you did not want to continue interacting with her on those terms (I mean the terms of ambiguous secrecy implied in the above extract), instead of dallying/ making excuses/ misleading/ lying to extend the interaction.

I told her that if her husband is not okay with her doing that, she should not be doing that without taking him in confidence.

You are essentially telling her that you don't feel comfortable getting involved in her marital problems. You probably said it kindly enough, and with consideration for her distress, or else you can learn to express yourself softer next time. But the fact remains that you gave her your real reasons, and if she did not get you to be a sympathetic comforter in her time of trouble then it is also true you are not her brother or cousin, and as far as I can understand from your question it is not your problem, unless you want it to be. [For example, Travis McGee makes it his business to help women in distress and punish men who physically or emotionally hurt women, but you don't have to do it if you don't want to.] You made that explicit when you had to:

She just wouldn't stop asking me to stay in contact with her. I told her that while I can't stop her from going behind her husband's back and possibly sabotaging her marriage, I refuse to be a part of it (...) and that I did not wish to be in any form of contact with her if she was going to keep it a secret from her husband.

The only reason you could've had to remain in contact with her after your assessment of the circumstances, and against your general principles, would have been if you hoped to somehow rekindle the old romantic relationship, even if she didn't. Certain individuals would welcome the opportunity to play the role of comforter to an old flame whose marriage is 'on the rocks', but it is generally considered exploitative and unethical to take any romantic advantage of a person in distress. It also appears that such 'sneaky' behavior goes against your personal values and possibly the cultural values of the society you live in.

I spent the next fifteen minutes talking her into discussing all this with her husband and reminding her if she really wants her son to grow up in a broken family (...) As a former friend, I do have her interests at my heart and I don't want her to throw away her marriage like that.

Your concern for the future and stability of her marriage may not match her personal reality and expectations. May I also point out that it is much more difficult to achieve the "without hurting" part of your objective, even if you never do or say anything that is actively hurtful. She may be disappointed or hurt just by your well justified decision to withdraw from the interaction, but getting involved with a married woman for whatever reason is a sure recipe for disaster in most parts of the world, and there really is no need to get into trouble on multiple fronts just because you might hesitate to say no for fear of hurting someone making (under the circumstances, and in her distress probably not realizing it) an unreasonable request.

  • Thank you. That's essentially why it felt wrong. I did not want to rekindle the old romance or lead her on into thinking that it was a possibility. And I don't want to be the "Home-wrecker" or even mistaken to one. And frankly It's not really my problem, she chose that guy, she chose everything that's brought her to this point. If she wants some safe way to just vent, she can use free services like 7cupsoftea.com. The sneaky behavior would be seen as off-putting in all cultures I believe. – Ardeshir Feb 21 '18 at 8:24
  • So true @Ardeshir, and you are most welcome. I asked a question on this site in August about exactly those concerns of a person possibly being misunderstood, with potentially dangerous consequences: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/1819/… – English Student Feb 21 '18 at 8:30
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    "May I also point out that it is much more difficult to achieve the "without hurting" part of your objectives, even if you never do or say anything that is actively hurtful. She may be hurt or disappointed by your well justified decision to withdraw from the interaction, but getting involved with a married woman for whatever reason is a sure recipe for disaster in most parts of the world, and..." __ Please also see this edit to the last part of my answer @Ardeshir. – English Student Feb 21 '18 at 8:45
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Don't help her cheat but why not let her make her own choices?

There is a big difference between listening to her problems and cheating. I can't tell if she was being flirtatious but it sounds to me like she was in a situation where she felt she had to put on a mask from all sides. She can't turn to anyone too close or they might feel the need to get involved or let something slip or just give away their feelings to her husband. You, a relative stranger, were the perfect sounding board where she could get things off her chest.

Now if what she wants to get off her chest is clothing then fine, cut ties, but if she just wants to talk and feel safe that it will never get back to her husband then why not let her make that choice?

What if your sister came to you and made you promise that none of what you talk of would get back to her husband? There is no romantic interest there and you care for her as a friend.

I'd say get back to her and express your desire to keep things platonic but you're still there if she needs to talk with comfort of knowing she is in control of what filters back into her life. Your conversations are a sandbox for her to explore her restrained emotions.

This way you'll have stopped her advances without cutting her off from a more necessary connection.

Edit: To make it clear, this isn't to point out that you have an obligation, only that she may have an innocent reason for wanting to talk. Your question asks how to stop advances without hurting them, in short this answers says point out you aren't interested and then, if you want, keep in touch, don't assume the only reason she is talking is to pursue a romantic attachment.

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    It's unclear why the OP should become this woman's shoulder to cry on (or "sandbox for her to explore her restrained emotions" as you put it), as well as betraying his principles. Your claim of "What if your sister came to you" is a false equivalence. This woman is not a part of the OP's family, and he owes her nothing. Your very first statement is patently wrong as well. This is not about the OP barring Alice from making a choice. He is, however, himself choosing not to engage with her on her terms. Funny how you're telling the OP to value her desires over his. – AndreiROM Feb 20 '18 at 19:55
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    @AndreiROM He asks how to stop the advances, not now to cut ties. I was pointing out that it is more than plausible that she has a justified reason to want to talk to a stranger. The parallel with a sister is not to imply he should be doing something, only to point out that you needn't suspect everyone who wants to talk away from their husband of wanting to do so to make advances. – Lio Elbammalf Feb 20 '18 at 20:02
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    I can see where you're going with this, but you're still ignoring two important facts: 1) The OP did not stop Alice from making her own choices. 2) The OP was uncomfortable having contact with Alice behind her husband's back. That's a critical piece of information. You're trying to argue that he should ignore that and just maintain contact with her anyway, as he would with a family member, but you're not bringing a good argument to bear as to why that is. As I mentioned, he owes Alice nothing. Why become her shoulder to cry on? – AndreiROM Feb 20 '18 at 20:08
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    Furthermore, you're quite fixated on the fact that the OP was assuming that Alice wants to cheat with him, and that he "shouldn't suspect". I think that's a fairly legitimate concern when an old flame gets in touch after 8 years, & wants you to become her emotional support system behind her husband's back. Not to mention, it's drama that most people don't like dealing with. You're ignoring the overarching question that the OP is asking in favor of a very particular point, and you're not even providing very strong arguments in favor of your approach. – AndreiROM Feb 20 '18 at 20:11
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    @AndreiROM The title of the question points out that the intention is to stop the advances without hurting the person. Not how to break contact with them. You don't need to owe something to a person to be kind and listen. I said he need not assume the only reason she wants to talk is for romance. Perhaps part of it was that but if he wants to limit hurting her (and he stated he did) then cutting her off entirely isn't in line with that. – Lio Elbammalf Feb 20 '18 at 20:15

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