Your good friend Susan loves her boyfriend Jim—so why is she at the bar across the street with her arms around a strange guy? When you catch a friend violating the trust of the relationship he or she is in, is it your responsibility to tell?
It may be tempting when you know about an indiscretion not to tell. It’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, and anyway, your mom always told you to mind your own business.
Yet if you don’t tell, you’ll feel like an enabler, a liar, an accomplice to the cheating. Perhaps you’re friends with both parties in the relationship and don’t know how to be loyal to one friend without betraying the other. How do you make the right decision?
What Constitutes Cheating?
First of all, let’s define our terms. Being in a monogamous, committed relationship means being faithful, and that doesn’t include just sexual fidelity—it means reserving one’s romantic affection of any type, including passionate kisses and flirty emails, for the person you’re dating. Any form of violation of that trust, any sharing of one’s romantic side with a third party, would probably be considered cheating by the partner whose trust was violated.
What’s the Severity?
But before you go rushing off to tattle to your friend’s boyfriend or girlfriend, ask yourself this: how serious is the offense? Some types of cheating are worse than others, and different types deserve different reactions.
For example, if you see your friend Liz drunkenly flirting with the drummer of the band you both just saw play, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s looking to cheat on her boyfriend, Mike. It definitely would be hurtful to Mike if he saw it. But then again, she may be flirting for all kinds of reasons (to help her feel young, to get back at Mike for an argument, to make her girlfriends laugh) that don’t translate into a real desire to date or make out with a random drummer.
Your friendship instincts probably scream out “Protect Mike!” But in a case of low-level cheating like this, the best way to protect Mike and his relationship is actually to talk to Liz. And it’s well within your rights as a friend to call it like you see it:
“Hey, you were talking a little too friendly with that guy. And you were disrespecting Mike, when you know how much he worships you. I don’t want to have to be two-faced around your boyfriend if you flirt with guys behind his back, so if I ever see you doing something like that again, I’m not going to hide it from him.”
Your friend might be a bit hurt or caught off guard. But if you stress that you’re giving her a friendly warning because you want her relationship to succeed, in the long run she’ll thank you for your candor. Deep down, your friends know they need to be faithful in their relationships, even on a purely emotional level.
Caught in the Act
But what do you do if you catch your friend, who’s in a committed relationship, doing more than just flirting with a stranger? In the case of our fictitious couple, what if you catch Mike on a secret lunch date with that curvy redhead he pretends not to know? Or worse, what if you accidentally see a wayward email that proves Mike was spending time with another woman when he was supposed to be on that business trip in Miami?
In this case, your friends’ relationship is really on the line, and you know keeping Mike’s secret would be wrong to Liz. If sexual infidelity is going on, it’s even more important to tell, because Liz’s health as well as her trust would be compromised if Mike contracts an STD.
But even in this scenario, if you feel Mike really loves Liz and just made a profound mistake by cheating, it may be advisable to give him a chance to make things right: Liz might do better to hear about the cheating from Mike himself. It’s never enjoyable to learn that your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse is cheating. But if your boyfriend tells you himself, and at the same time stresses the lesson he’s learned and the steps he’s taken to ensure that it never happens again, healing can happen faster than if you hear it “through the grapevine.” In this case, you can gently explain to Mike that he has a deadline of, say, a week or less to tell Liz, and if he doesn’t, he won’t get the luxury of telling her in his own words.
The Unrepentant Philanderer
But what do you do if your friend has become a shameless cheat, who has no intention of changing his or her ways? What if the friend is even having a long-running affair or numerous affairs, and you’ve already talked with him or her but see no light at the end of the tunnel?
If you feel morally compelled to let your friend’s boyfriend or girlfriend know about the cheating, be prepared for a rough experience. Let’s say Liz is the one constantly cheating on Mike. Mike is almost certainly aware that something weird is going on—she’s probably exhibiting emotional distance, or defensiveness, or evasiveness, or irritation caused by her guilt, and there may also have been problems in their relationship leading up to her affairs. Then again, Mike may be totally in denial, allowing himself to be fooled because the knowledge of being cheated on feels somehow more shameful than living the lie.
Minimize the shock and anger that Mike might feel by coming prepared. When you meet to tell him Liz’s secret, have resources ready, such as the phone numbers of good marital or relationship counselors that he can turn to. If Mike and Liz are a couple with children, offer to babysit or help out so that they can have some alone time to process things. If it makes things easier for you, bring another close friend with you—not only will Mike feel more support from more than one person, but it will help you back up your story if Mike is in such disbelief that he tries to argue with you about what you know. And let Mike know that no matter what decision he makes in regard to his relationship with Liz, you’ll stand by him.
The End of the Friendship?
One sad fact about infidelity is that it hurts so much that people will sometimes blame everyone but themselves and their partner. If you feel compelled to tell your friend’s spouse or partner that their loved one has been cheating, be prepared to lose one or both parties in the relationship as friends. However, if you’re lucky, and if your intervention comes in time, you might just help steer their relationship back on track toward a richer, more trusting and respectful love. At the very least, they’ll know that you are a person who cares enough about them to put their relationship needs above your own comfort.