The question I’m a man in my 40s with a close group of male friends who I’ve known since our university days. We still meet regularly as a group and I love them all dearly and equally – I’m far closer to them than to my siblings.

In the last couple of years, though, I’ve noticed I get impatient and snappy with one of this group (usually when we’ve had a few). I also talk down to him and notice that I respect him less than the others. My horrible behaviour is subtle. I apologised to him once, but he seemed oblivious. I feel ashamed afterwards and promise myself I’ll improve my conduct, but then find myself snapping at him again.

I think I know the root of the issue. Years ago, in our 20s, he had a bad break-up with a girl he loved (she was unfaithful and then mercilessly dumped him). He was in pieces for a long while afterwards. A few months after they split, I had a one-night stand with his ex. It was drunken and sordid. I’ve never told anyone. The guilt and shame over it has hugely increased recently, coinciding with my negative behaviour towards him. I feel compelled to confess to my friend to both relieve my guilt and apologise to him. Despite the decades that have passed I know it could hurt him. This secret keeps me awake at night. I’m worried I will sink a friendship I hold very dear. Any advice on how I can resolve this?

Philippa’s answer I have no advice, but I have some thoughts about secrets in general and have some questions that may help you answer your own question.

Is a secret ever really a secret, or do they tend to leak? When one person has a secret that concerns the other, that person might not notice. Or they may feel it keenly, depending on how sensitive they are to things like atmosphere, body language or a sense of something being unsaid. In the psychotherapy room with a client, a sign for me of something unspoken that needs to be said, is when my attention starts drifting. To reconnect to the client, I must ask them: what do you need to tell me that you are not telling me? I have to ask this because if they were talking about what they needed to be talking about, I know I would feel fully engaged. And it is an intervention that gets us back on track.

This is what a secret does to two people. It comes between them. When I’ve have my antennae deployed while I’m working, I’ll notice, but when I’m in the pub with my mates I probably won’t. But I still think the ghost of any secret will be present – even though with the banter and booze it will not be so foregrounded as it is in a psychotherapist’s office.

By the way, I can’t help feeling sorry for this woman. She seems to be cast as a “baddie” by you. Sometimes we need to make others bad to make us feel better about ourselves. Rather than using the word “sordid” around this woman can we just think of her as a young person trying to find her way in the complex world of relationships and sex in your 20s? Indeed, just as you, too, were trying to find your way through this complex world at the same age. You were a bit of an innocent, not realising that one night of no-strings sex might have consequences 20 years later. Please forgive yourself and think kindly of her; it sounds as though you both may have been somewhat lost. I hope she and your friend have now found lasting happiness in their respective lives… but I digress.

This secret is affecting the connection you have with your friend. But are you going to tell him or not? Who would you be confessing for? For him? You? Both of you? What if the boot was on the other foot and he had sex with an ex who you were heartbroken over? Would you want to know? Have a think about each of these questions, because the answers will help you to answer your own.

Another question I have is this: did you have sex with his ex, not because you were attracted to her, but you somehow wanted to get one over on him? Or show yourself you are superior to him? I notice you love your friends more than your siblings, which makes me think your own sibling dynamics may be tricky. Maybe you feel you lost the game of sibling rivalry and to gain a sense of equilibrium you unconsciously look for someone else to get one over on. It may be the ghost of your sibling dynamics that keeps you being mean to this friend.

Confess and he might see you as a bad person. But you are not a bad person now (except perhaps for how you seemed to judge that poor woman) and I hope he could see this. To tell might risk your friendship with him and possibly the entire group and yet you may feel freer and more able to be open with all your friends going forward. Neither of us can know whether confessing is a good idea or not, you will only know whether it was after you do it – if you do it. And although it may come at a cost that choice is up to you.

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