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Question 32: May a man continue a friendship with a woman against her husband’s wishes?

I am an unmarried man, twenty-six, teaching high school religion. Ann, a colleague who teaches chemistry, is a childless married woman, thirty-five. We have been friendly since I began teaching here two years ago last September, and during the past several months we have been lunching together regularly. Ann’s marriage has not been entirely happy, and I have been trying to encourage and support her.

One day last week we wanted to continue talking after school, and she invited me to her place for dinner, expecting that her husband would get home shortly after we arrived. As it happened, he had left a message on the answering machine that he would be delayed, but we had a pleasant dinner and sat talking at the table until he finally arrived around nine. He and I had met before, but do not know each other well. He greeted me coolly; she explained to him what had happened; and I left.

Ann called the next morning and told me that she and her husband had exchanged words about our friendship. He told her it plainly is becoming too warm. Though she insisted that it is no different from her friendships with various other people, to which he does not object, he not only said she should never invite me over again but insisted she quit lunching with me—something he knew about because she had mentioned our lunchtime conversations. She ended by telling me that, when her husband is so domineering, she wishes she had never married him. I refrained from telling her I share that wish, but instead said she must make the best of her marriage. We concluded that we would have to be careful and, except for formal greetings and the like, have not talked since then.

Ann seems miserable, and I find it terribly frustrating to be unable to comfort her. Her husband is being completely unreasonable. Married people surely have the right to be friends with people of both sexes, and we have never done anything unchaste, but always limited ourselves to a friendly squeeze of the hand or a consoling hug. Our conversations have been entirely innocent, mostly just small talk about matters of common interest. The others with whom we could share lunch spend the whole time gossiping and complaining, so that conversing with them is a boring waste of time. Also, breaking off our friendship is unfair to Ann, for she has benefited by my encouragement and support, and still needs my help.

Therefore, I am inclined to suggest to her that we give up other contacts but maintain our friendship by lunching together. Her husband need never know, and, since she is not obliged to obey his arbitrary order, she has no obligation to tell him. Otherwise, I see no alternative but entirely breaking off our friendship, and I hardly can do that without quitting my job. That would be a pity, since my teaching has been going well.

May I suggest to Ann that we resume lunching together, or must I begin looking for another job?


The question is whether this teacher may ask his colleague to resume lunching together despite her husband’s insistence that they not do so. The matter calls for conscientious judgment, which must take into account the good of the troubled marriage. A clandestine relationship would involve both an implicit, conditional intention to deceive and serious risks. Certain elements in the statement of the question indicate that the colleagues’ relationship has an unacknowledged romantic element, at least for the questioner. So, in my judgment, an attempt by the questioner to continue the relationship is likely to hurt his colleague rather than help her. Therefore, it seems to me, rather than ask her to resume lunching together, he should suggest that she seek appropriate pastoral assistance.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I often wish it were possible to talk in person with the people who write to me, so as to clarify what they have told me about the complex situations giving rise to their moral questions. That is especially so with questions such as yours, which involve subtle nuances of meaning and feeling. While doing my best to respond, I realize that I may miss the mark in some respects. If so, do not be offended, but make what use you can of my response in judging for yourself, as you must, what you ought to do.

If it is possible and prudent for you and Ann to have any further relationship, beyond what you and she have with other colleagues, surely her husband must be fully informed. If he were not, he might well question her, and keeping the secret would then require evasion, deception, and perhaps even outright lying. Implicitly, then, the choice to resume lunching without telling him would include at least a conditional readiness to deceive him. And even if you could be sure he never would question her, he might nevertheless learn of the continuing relationship, think he had been misled, and conclude that Ann was doing something she needed to conceal. Because of the power of rumor and gossip, and the likelihood of accidental disclosures, there would be a substantial risk of that happening. And because their marriage already is troubled, the husband’s perception that she is being somehow untrue to him might well spell disaster for them.

But should you and Ann try to continue your friendship even without hiding it from him?

The requirements of marital fidelity, which are identical for husbands and wives, do not preclude either spouse from participating in any genuine human good, including friendship, compatible with fulfilling marital responsibilities. And, in general, married persons can carry on legitimate friendships with persons of the opposite sex. Couples very often are friends with other couples, or both husband and wife enjoy a common friendship with a single person. Even when a friendship is not fully shared, it can be carried on safely under certain conditions. The marital relationship itself must be happy and secure enough that it always will seem to the married party to be his or her best and most valued friendship. The married friend’s spouse must always be kept informed, so that nothing is done clandestinely. To avoid conflict with the marital relationship, the friends must forgo doing things that would interfere with fulfilling marital and familial responsibilities; plans for common activities (such as an invitation to dinner) generally should be cleared beforehand with the spouse. Finally, the friends must not allow their relationship to become romantic (see LCL, 428–30).

Among the marks of an incipient romantic relationship are a couple’s becoming more interested in each other than in any common interest beyond themselves, separating themselves from the surrounding group and wishing to be alone together, feeling deprived when they cannot spend time together, believing themselves uniquely suited to meet each other’s needs, being preoccupied with each other, and experiencing even light bodily contact as significant in itself rather than merely symbolic (for example, the typical handshake) or incidental to communication (for example, the friendly pat on the back accompanying words of praise or encouragement). A married person developing an extramarital romantic relationship very often shares marital problems with his or her friend, and, feeling drawn toward intimate union, the two of them wish they were free to marry.

Erotic feelings will arise at times within most heterosexual relationships, and they must be recognized as such (not always easy for those experiencing them!), regarded as inappropriate, and not acted on. Candid spouses confident of each other’s understanding do well routinely to share such experiences. Matter-of-fact openness objectifies the feelings, firmly puts them in their place, and prevents them from acquiring undue significance. Such openness also enables the spouses to support each other in maintaining their chastity. Other spouses and single persons can serve the same ends by sharing such experiences with a confessor or other confidant who will take a sound and detached attitude toward them.

You say that you see no alternative to resuming lunching with Ann except entirely breaking off the friendship by quitting your job. I do not accept your view of your alternatives.

Suppose a young man’s father punished him with a severe beating for using foul language to his mother. The father says: “Of course, I feel terrible about beating my son, but I had to teach him a lesson, so that he will learn to respect his mother.” Outsiders would see clearly that he was ignoring other possible methods of discipline. Moved not only by his stated reason but by unacknowledged hostility, he saw the beating as the only adequate means of discipline. Had he acknowledged his anger and considered the inappropriateness of indulging it, he would have thought of less violent alternatives and chosen a form of punishment more likely to nurture respect. Thus, the father’s blindness to an alternative obvious to others is evidence that his practical thinking is vitiated by self-deception regarding his own mixed motives (see LCL, 276–77 and 280).

I see no reason why you cannot continue working at the school, share your lunch with others or eat alone, and behave toward Ann as you do toward your other colleagues. That you overlook this alternative suggests you are partly motivated by unacknowledged feelings that make it seem necessary to lunch with her. What are those feelings? Several things in your letter suggest an answer. You say you have been lunching together regularly for several months, apart from the others, whose company you disdain. You say that, since her husband told her to stop lunching with you, she seems miserable, and you find it terribly frustrating to be unable to comfort her—indications of a sense of deprivation. You feel she still needs your help, as if your encouragement and support were irreplaceable. You say you always limited yourselves to a friendly squeeze of the hand or a consoling hug—a hint that you needed to restrain impulses toward more intimate contact. While you characterize your conversations as “mostly just small talk about matters of common interest,” they included Ann’s important confidences about her unhappy marriage and your significant efforts to help her. Finally, you say you share her wish that she had never married her husband.

To me, it seems clear that this friendship has developed into romance, at least for you. No doubt, you did not will to become romantically involved with Ann; you meant only to be friends, and to encourage and support her in her unhappy marriage. However, you apparently did not recognize and deal with your erotic feelings, as you would have had to do in order to conduct your friendship appropriately. Unfortunately, moreover, Ann’s marriage is troubled. Her wish that she had not married her husband implies that she does not consider her relationship with him her best friendship. She apparently was trying to include her husband in your friendship when she told him about your lunchtime conversations and invited you for dinner, expecting him to share it. But it is not clear she told her husband she was confiding in you about her marital dissatisfactions, as she might have told him that she was seeking help from a counselor. To resume lunching surreptitiously—“Ann’s husband need never know”—definitely would be to exclude him from your ongoing relationship.

Plainly you meant well in trying to encourage and support Ann in her troubled marriage, but you underestimated the difficulties. Because lovers often are discreet and romance often blossoms suddenly and unexpectedly, even the most chaste heterosexual friendship, viewed from the outside, appears ambiguous, and friendships marked by signs of romance, no matter how slight and unclear, are likely to cause strain even between trusting spouses in a happy marriage. Apparently, Ann’s husband has noticed signs and drawn the same conclusion I have. Even if you think us mistaken, you surely can see that our inference is plausible.

Put yourself in Ann’s husband’s place, and realize that you must seem a rival for her affection. Given his perception of your friendship with her, trying to continue it is likely to generate more conflict and make matters worse for her, not better. Granted that she needs help, you cannot be the only person in the world who can help her, and, indeed, your emotional involvement prevents you from really doing so. Therefore, it seems to me, you should not try to continue your friendship with her, even without hiding anything from her husband.

What should you do? As I said above, you can lunch with the others or eat alone and treat Ann as you treat your other colleagues. If that seems impossibly difficult, consider it a clear sign of your inappropriate feeling for her. Still, you need quit your job only if you judge that continuing at the school will be an occasion of sin.

Ann and her husband should seek appropriate professional help if they have not done that. Troubled marriages generally improve only if the couple cooperate in examining themselves, identifying factors that have led to the trouble, and dealing with them (see LCL, 721–25). If joint marital counseling has been tried unsuccessfully or is not feasible, Ann probably needs pastoral guidance and support. In that case, it seems to me, very likely the greatest kindness you can do her would be to suggest that she seek appropriate help and, perhaps, identify someone from whom she might seek it—an experienced and successful pastoral counselor entirely faithful to the Church’s teaching.

If you are not already doing so, I suggest that you also obtain pastoral help to examine yourself, make a good confession, and clarify the steps you must take. Keep in mind that God’s plan includes a resolution of your difficulty that you should discover and welcome, and pray earnestly and constantly for the light and strength you will need to do whatever God asks of you.

The will to be married to one’s spouse is central to marital love; directly contrary to that will is the wish that one had never married or had not married this person (see LCL, 619–20). Regardless of the provocation, Ann’s wish that she had not married her husband is a very serious matter. So, it also seems to me that you should suggest to her that she discuss that wish with her pastoral counselor, if she seeks such help, or with her confessor.

To avoid communicating your own feelings about what has happened—which would risk inflaming them and provoking a response from Ann—you probably should make these suggestions in a brief, careful note. Without saying so, make that note your last outward act of friendship toward her. Of course, you may continue your friendship for her by praying that she and her husband grow in mutual love and enjoy a more satisfying marriage.

Finally, you could go on being friendly toward Ann without treating her differently than your other colleagues if you began treating them more affably. You say the others spend the whole lunch hour gossiping and complaining, so that conversing with them is a boring waste of time. Surely, not all of them are that bad. Perhaps the lunchroom conversation does leave much to be desired, but constructive efforts by you and one or two others might well raise its quality. As it is, your colleagues probably sense your disdain, even if they are not fully conscious of it; and, if you stay at the school, you must make a serious effort to improve your relationship with them. On the other hand, if you change jobs, learn from this painful experience to seek better relationships with all your colleagues while taking care to avoid inappropriate emotional involvement with any.