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My pal’s hubby cheats. But she won’t leave!

A friend’s spouse is a serial cheater; however, she refuses to challenge him. Dr. Gail Saltz offers advice on offering advice.

Q: How do I persuade my friend that she should leave her cheating husband?

They have been married for 10 years and have two kids. But, although my friend has been confronted by a few of her husband’s lovers — and she acknowledges that she suspects several more — she refuses do anything about it.

Is there a way I can make her see that she should?

A: No, there is not. The operative word here is “make.” You cannot “make” somebody do what you think they should.

If you were in the same situation, you might do something else — like confront your husband or leave him. But you cannot make someone else feel how you would feel or act how you would act.

(In fact, you might think you know how you would react, but you can’t know for sure until you are faced with those very same circumstances.)

Something is making her stick around. There are many reasons spouses do so — feelings they don’t deserve better, fears of being alone, threats of financial loss, the belief that staying is better for the children.

It is unlikely that anything you say will galvanize your friend into action if she doesn’t see it herself. In fact, telling her what she “should” do will almost certainly backfire. It’s likely she will get defensive and rebuff you.

You need to be a little more subtle. For instance, if she expresses negative feelings toward her husband, she has provided you with an opener where she is showing that she is at least willing to reflect on her situation.

Be cautious about being too negative or accusatory toward her husband. It’s better to say gentler things like, “You don’t deserve this,” or “He should treat you with more respect.” Then you can determine how much your friend is willing to discuss this. As a friend, your main role should be to provide her with support and gently guide her; this could include discussing the possibility that she and the kids could be happier without this man. Such thoughts, however, should not be the first ones out of your mouth.

While it’s good for friends to be honest with each other, this situation is not about honesty. It’s about a conflict your friend must work out on her own (or with a therapist.) Forcing the point too much will be fruitless.

In the end, it’s a judgment call about whether to emphasize your views about this difficult topic. You are right to be concerned about her well-being, but if you choose to pursue it, be prepared for a strong negative reaction toward you.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: You can be a supportive friend, but you cannot make someone feel or act the way you think they should.

PS: You say your friend knows about her husband’s unfaithfulness. If she didn’t know, here’s a simple way to decide whether you ought to tell her: Ask yourself what you would want if you were in the same shoes.

In my experience, most women would want to know if their husband were having an affair. But it’s not 100 percent. The other touchstone: Make sure you don’t tell someone information like this unless you are absolutely, completely positive about it.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.