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Opinion: Secrets among friends and spouses, by John McGauley

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I meet once a week, in the morning, with one of my close friends, at Brewbakers in Keene.

Like a lot of aging men, our glory days, pathetic as they were, are fading. Our discussions are mostly about how the world has disintegrated. We gossip and tell tall tales about ourselves. We’re long past having to impress anyone — there’s no one we have to kiss up to for money or jobs — and we have nothing to prove to anyone any longer. We laugh a lot.

He told me a story weeks ago — a brief story, really, almost an anecdote — that has taken on a life of its own in my mind. I can’t shake it.

He said this happened to him years ago when he was a young man. He was out fishing with this guy — a friend. Things were going along as they do on a fishing trip — light conversation, chit-chat about such things as whether to use worms or artificial lures, that sort of thing, you know, the catfish are jumping and the cotton is high sort of stuff, as in George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

Then, out of the blue, his friend tells him that he’s sleeping with the wife of a mutual friend. You know, he says it as casually as if he’d asked my friend to hand him a ham sandwich.

I just about spit out my coffee.

I’ve thought about that short scene so much that I’ve now placed myself as the third guy in that fishing boat, lures in my hat, beer in my hand, line in the water. In my imagination I’ve gone so far as to conjure up the kind of weather it is — beautiful — and the conditions — pristine, smooth water on a lake with no other fishing boats around.

Has anyone laid a bomb on you like that, completely unexpected with no build-up in a setting that couldn’t be less appropriate? I mean, man, that’s like fishing with a real, live Dear Abby letter.

I immediately had a bunch of questions for my friend. Was there any segue leading up to this stunning revelation? No. Had he any inkling this affair might have been going on? No. Did he swear you to secrecy? No.

And, finally, I asked my friend if he revealed this secret to their mutual friend?

No.

I wouldn’t have either. Why pull the pin on that grenade?

My friend was married at the time this occurred, and I asked him if he told his wife this news. No, not at the time, but years later he mentioned it to her when they were going through a divorce. She got really mad at him for withholding that information, for not confiding in her, but by that time the whole thing was moot and the lack of his confiding in her was the least of their problems.

The fishing boat scene has conjured all sorts of other mental wanderings in me.

Conducting an affair while you’re married to someone else is bad, OK? I think, in general, most would agree. Not all, as evidenced by how frequently it occurs. But why would you choose to have one with the spouse of a best friend? Why, why, why and why?

And, why on earth would you reveal it to a mutual friend? Just like that, with no introduction, on a fishing boat?

It made me wonder if couples tell each other everything. I mean, everything. Let’s say you were in that boat. Would you let your spouse know that blockbuster?

For the past several weeks, I’ve polled people of both genders and asked that question: Do you share everything with your spouse or partner? Do you tell them everything you hear or know about?

Here’s the responses I’ve gotten: at first, no answer because I can see they’re thinking, and I know what they’re thinking — they’re trying to recall the stuff they’ve not told their spouse.

Then almost all of them answered, “No.” Well, one woman answered “Yes,” but I don’t really believe her.

Another woman had a much more nuanced answer. She said that if the person who confides information to her with instructions to not tell anyone, BUT does not specifically say don’t even tell her husband, then she tells him.

A couple of men told me there are a lot of things they don’t reveal to their wives. I didn’t ask for specifics. I can’t wait to tell my wife virtually everything I know and hear, even stuff I make up.

Then I thought, maybe I would have told the mutual friend, but then thought about sometimes when you deliver terrible news to a friend, some of that bad juju sticks to you, and they kind of stop being friends with you. It’s a variation of the “kill the messenger” thing. Also, there’s an old saying that it takes two to create bad news — the one who does it and the one who tells you about it.

Then I’ve tried to place myself in the shoes of the guy who revealed such a big secret about his affair with his friend’s wife. But I can’t do that because he’s such a stupid, freakin’ jerk. My friend, my buddy, said after this guy told him that news, he wasn’t the guy’s friend anymore. Neither would I be.

Generally, I think it’s a good idea to follow your gut on secrets, either others’ or your own — if your gut says keep quiet, keep quiet. Keep your own counsel, as they say.

And, if you’ve got a really big secret and you must tell someone, maybe it’s best to confide only in a stranger. In another city.

John McGauley, an author and radio talk-show host, writes from Keene. He can be contacted at mcgauleyink@gmail.com.

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