What I Learned from My Friends' Divorce

His wife forgave him, but I wasn't ready to let go of the betrayal so easily

The free-spirited artist life suited all of us.

Eric and I fooled around once senior year, but mostly we were like instant siblings: half the time, teasing each other; the other half, staying up late in the stairwell of our dorm, eating air-popped popcorn and reminiscing about childhood. I was goofy and straightlaced, Eric was funny and brash. He had a series of serious girlfriends and, in between, a series of pretty-girl conquests. We graduated, both drifted for a while, but still wrote and called often.

Then he met Sienna. Sienna was intellectual, talkative, creative, carefree. She invited him over for spaghetti and, like that, they were an item. They got married and moved to Chicago and seemed wildly happy. Between what she was bringing in as a photographer and part-time photo researcher and what he was making as a standup comic and part-time proofreader, they had very little to live on. But the free-spirited artist life seemed to suit them both.

Eric was puppy-faced in Sienna's presence, wanting nothing more than to please her. He kept the place clean and neither cooked. They seemed to live on salad and coffee and their own ambitions. Sienna shot photos during the day, chasing the natural light, while Eric stayed out late at night, comedy being a late-shift gig. They got cats. She landed grants to go on month-long retreats to work at an artists' community in a 19th-century mansion upstate, while Eric flew to California to crash on my couch for six weeks at a time, eager to dip his toes into LA's bigger pond.

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Eventually, they made the move west. I got married, too, with Eric as emcee at the wedding. My husband and I saw Eric and Sienna often, over brunches, birthday parties, vacations, comedy and photography shows. Things seemed fine, good, sure. We were all coasting into middle age together, happily enough. OK, there was the dinner before the announcement, when they arrived separately with vague explanations, Sienna much later than Eric, both of them uncharacteristically withdrawn. We all had our off nights.

But then, a month later, I got a text at work from Eric, telling me to call him when I could take a little time in private. I paced in the hallway outside the elevator while he told me, quietly, haltingly, that he and Sienna were splitting up. Turned out he had been screwing around for years, and Sienna had been understanding enough to give him another chance, and they'd grown up together, and she was his best friend, but then it happened again, and at the end of the day somehow their marriage just wasn't right anymore. He'd messed up, and he was deeply, deeply sorry about it all, and Sienna was being great about everything, but ...

I was shaken, shocked. How could he have done that—repeatedly—to his wife? Could he be trusted as a friend? How could I have had no idea? Was my marriage OK? I hugged my husband tight that night, and we exchanged reassurances, but I didn't sleep well.

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Yet Sienna's reaction was so zen. She admitted she'd been furious at first, yes, but she'd made mistakes too, and the truth was, she was happier now. She didn't want us to pick sides. Years before, Sienna had coined a saying: "Don't rehash old potatoes." At the time, I'd laughed and thought, wise words. But that was when they were married, and little compromises were part of the deal. But now all bets were off. Now she had every right to be irate, every right to be wronged. She could have played the martyr card so easily.

But she didn't. Instead, she was meditating and doing yoga and reading self-help books and moving on. Before long, they were showing up at the same parties. A few months later, Eric started seeing someone else, and so did she.

Somehow, she forgave him and wanted to still be friends. I wasn't ready to let go of the betrayal so easily. Sure, I wasn't the one betrayed, but why let that get in the way of my righteous indignation? I was stalled in anger while Sienna had seemingly sailed through to acceptance.

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For a long while, my friendship with Eric teetered. Oh, I still talked to him, if slightly begrudgingly. In return, he still talked to me, if slightly begrudgingly back. On some level, I felt that if I simply let Eric off the hook, it would be condoning his behavior, and no matter how Sienna reacted, it was up to the rest of us not to hand him that free pass.

But as time went by, I began to wonder. What was the point of hanging onto those hard feelings? After all, I wasn't in a position where Eric could hurt me that way. And if I thought he was self-centered, I had to admit that making their divorce somehow about me wasn't the pinnacle of selflessness.

If moral superiority was what I was after, I had to bow down to Sienna's generosity of spirit. Sienna seemed content, her life uncomplicated by regrets or resentment. Maybe there really was something to be gained from letting go. Slowly, I walked back from my self-imposed distance from Eric and learned to forgive him—and myself. Much as I tried, judging by my judgmental side, I wasn't perfect either.

As I got ready to write this, I went back to a podcast a mutual friend had told me about years earlier—an interview Eric had done with a comedian friend that had turned to the subject of his marriage breaking up. I heard him recall his struggle, his guilt and anguish, his wanting to make things right but not quite managing to do it, instead putting obstacles in his own way that set him on the crash course he somehow felt deep down was the right path.

As I listened, my heart softened. Turns out I didn't need to tell Eric how to act. He already knew, and he'd already tried, and he was truly sorry. Just like he'd said. Sometimes things are just like that. It's sad for a while, but only for a while, unless you make it forever.

Tags: marriage