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Should I keep quiet about my cheating brother-in-law?

The question

I'm in a pickle and have no idea where to go. I'm in a family business, which my brother-in-law and I run. We are married to sisters. A few months ago my bro-in-law revealed to me that he is having an affair. To top things off someone else knows and sent his wife an anonymous e-mail but she never pursued it further other than confronting him. He told her he was very sorry and that he was ending the affair. I advised him to end the affair and seek counselling with his wife and on his own – he has sought counselling but the affair continues as he can't make up his mind. I have told him to figure this out and move forward. I'm in constant stress due to all the possible angles and fallout. Other family members are suspicious and because he unloaded on me I am the sole keeper of this secret.

The answer

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I love the scene in Goodfellas when Robert De Niro as Jimmy tells the young Henry, just making his bones as a wise guy: "You took your first pinch like a man and you learned the two greatest things in life. Look at me. Never rat out your friends and always keep your mouth shut."

I love the gangsterish redundancy of that last sentence. Because, obviously, "always keep your mouth shut" would have pretty much covered it.

Under most circumstances that's what I'd advise you to do: Never rat out your friends and always keep your mouth shut.

But your pickle, sir, is a little too ticklish to leave it at that. The real question here is: Do you tell your wife? More generally: Does the mafia code of "omerta" (silence) apply in marriages?

I discussed this one with my own wife, Pam. And I have to tell you: We don't see eye to eye on this issue.

I tell her everything. After 20-plus years, she knows me inside out. As she has often said, quite proudly, a) "I know you better than you know yourself, Dave," b) "I can read your mind." It's true, too. So it would be very foolish indeed for me to attempt to keep any kind of secret from her.

She, on the other hand, is a bit of a vault and has very naughtily kept numerous secrets from me, as I have learned through stealthy detective work over the years.

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So naturally when I asked about your dilemma, she said: "The guy should keep his mouth shut. It's none of his business! It's between the other guy and his wife!"

To me it doesn't quite sit right you keeping it from your wife. If your wife finds out you've been keeping from her vital information pertaining to the well-being of her sister – well, sir, I hope you have a comfortable couch in your living room. On the other hand, if you tell her about your friend's, uh, dalliance, she is (I would guess) almost certain to tell her sister and in that case you would have fatally interfered in a marriage and your brother-in-law would loathe you and it could even explode your business.

Bottom line, I guess: take Pam's advice, observe the code of omerta, keep your mouth shut and if you get "pinched" i.e. your wife finds out you've been holding out on her just hope she can forgive and understand your motives. And if it does, look at it this way: Probably the last thing on everyone's minds will be what you did or did not know. If you do happen to blurt out this secret, or mutter it in your sleep, I think you should forgive yourself and so should your brother-in-law. He's asking a lot, after all, when he asks you to keep a secret from your own wife.

As to how to deal with your brother-in-law, tell him, man to man: "You're not being a wise guy. You're not being a good fella. Mensch up and either end this affair or end this marriage. I'm sick of holding this secret for you."

Otherwise he's like the dog in the fable that sees another dog in the river with a bone in his mouth and lunges for it and loses the bone in his mouth. In other words, you can't have your bone and eat it too. Tell him that, once, but after that it's his problem – or let's say his affair, and he should take it from there.

What am I supposed to do now?

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