Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Picture of co-worker's husband looks a little too familiar
D.C.: I moved into a new office a few months ago. I hit it off immediately with one of my new officemates, who has a very generic name. Recently, she showed me vacation pictures and I realized that her husband (who has a different name) was a guy I had, um, hooked up with numerous times. After I did the math, I realized that I had hooked up with him while he was dating and engaged to my officemate! What makes it even worse is that we've exchanged e-mails in the past few months, but clearly nothing substantial enough that he figured out I work with his wife.
Now, I feel horrendous. I didn't know the guy was dating someone. While it was a casual thing (and thus, we were both open to seeing other people), he was clearly very serious with her. I have no intention of telling her, but it's clear that our friendship is heading in a direction where I will likely meet her husband and socialize with him. I really don't know how to handle this one.
Carolyn: If it's inevitable that you meet the husband, then I think you have to admit you dated him. You don't want to get in the position of having to maintain any fictions here.
That doesn't mean you hand over the intricately detailed truth; it just means you decide right now that it's not your job to cover for anyone else.
In response to her questions, you give truthful but limited answers. E.g.: "When did you and he go out?" "A few years ago/a long time ago/in the '90s" — whatever broad answer applies.
If you're worried that will make you an agent of marital destruction, think of it this way: You don't know which horse is the right horse to bet on here.
In other words, is helping to protect this marriage absolutely the route to the best outcome?
Sure, maybe — but maybe your well-meaning reflex to shield her from the truth will only strain things further between husband and wife, if and when she does find out.
Maybe she already knows a good deal of this already and just doesn't know the ID of the mystery woman — and your dissembling would introduce doubts about his version of events, not to mention ruin her opinion of you.
It's just not possible to figure out where this is going to go, and so your only choice is to be outcome-neutral and, again, studiously avoid creating any fictions you would then be obliged to maintain.
The best way to get this new policy started, I think, is to stop e-mailing the husband, and to cop to having dated him next time you see a photo (or the man himself). "When I saw the pictures, I thought, no way — too much of a coincidence. But now I'm sure, he and I once dated." If you're already absolutely sure it's the same guy, force the issue, by saying, "This is bugging me. I think your husband is someone I once dated."
Finally, in case it needs to be said: Any resulting mess is just the culmination of an old one he created, not a new mess created by you.
So, ah, good luck with that.