I’ve had this question several times by email — “What should I do? My best friend is having an affair. Should I tell his/her spouse?” Or maybe your sister or brother. Or sister-in-law. Etc. Someone you’re very close to. I’ve also seen this question in variations in the search engine requests that lead people to my blog. It’s a tough one. I DO think it’s situational to some extent — there is no one answer — but I think I’d still like to weigh in on it.
And let’s be clear — we’re talking about someone very very close to you. Not an acquaintance or a minor friend. Or a distant relative. No, we are talking about someone you have a close, trusting relationship with.
And you have certainty on the subject. This does NOT mean that you have simply heard your close friend has committed adultery, or that you know about their situation because a random person told you. Or you have a gut instinct. You know this for a fact. Directly. They’ve told you, or you’ve absolutely witnessed it in some way. You know there’s an affair going on. Not one that’s dead and in the past. The affair is still going on and you are sure of it.
Of course, the number one question most people is this — should I inform their spouse? A tough one. It’s very situational in some ways. And yes, it carries a lot of risks too. If you rat your friend out, chances are you that you will lose this relationship in your life permanently. Nobody wants someone close to them to rat them out, throw them under the bus, and be the instrument of their marriage going up in smoke. Who would look at that as anything but a betrayal of the close friendship?
I guess part of evaluating whether to tattle or not is this — how close are you to the spouse? Are they also a friend? Are there children involved? What is your evaluation of the situation in terms of the spouse’s life and future? Would telling them save the marriage or protect someone you also care about? Again, it’s a tough call. Affairs are wrong, but should you, a trusted friend, be the “morality police” in this case? I doubt that I could do it. The consequences of disclosure of an affair are very unpredictable. Betrayed Spouses have killed cheating spouses when told of the news. And maybe taken children away etc. Are you prepared to live with that? Do you know for sure what will happen if you tell? No, not really. For me, I probably would not.
However, I think what you do is kind of what I do on my blog and my private email here — I counsel people as if they were my close friends. And with current or potential cheaters, I counsel them always to NOT embark on an affair, and if they are in one, to get out NOW and to cut off all contact with their affair partner, learn from what they’ve done, really be honest with themselves as to why they did it, and confront their marriages directly — should I be married? If so, how can I take this tragedy and make something better out of it? I counsel them to basically repent, make amends, improve, and live a more honest and authentic life and never do anything like this again. I think it comes down to that.
Here are some suggestions:
Maintain their trust. You hold a bomb that could undo their life right now. Don’t blow that trust. You should be an entirely safe place for your friend to land and they should know that nothing they say to you will leave your lips. Don’t be too judgmental. If you say things like, “How could you do such a thing? (The reality is that it’s much more complicated than you could imagine), or “I won’t have anything to do with you until you end your affair!” (Not only is this unlikely to be much of a motivator, why would you assume that being associated with someone in an affair means you approve of their actions?), you will push them away. They won’t trust you. They won’t confide in you. And you will lose any chance you have to influence them.
Support, yes, but don’t become an affair supporter. Don’t get caught up in your friend’s justification for having his/her affair. No matter what their spouse has done, or said, or is, it’s not justified. They will try and get you on their side on this. It’s part of their own internal justification. Don’t buy it. You should tell him/her that it is the wrong solution, ethically and practically, to a bad marriage.
Guide their thinking. Support them, yes, in terms of your friendship. You have an “in” with them that perhaps nobody else does. You can guide their thinking by showing understanding, and compassion, but insisting to them that what they are doing is wrong and how to get out of this terrible situation they are in. Guide them. Most couples or people in sexual crisis need to be pointed in the right direction. They are confused or shell-shocked. They are in a fog. They may literally be caught up in something they did not expect and are in over their heads. They may be in love with their affair partner. They are scared. They are unsure what to do. They are in pain and for many, their world has just been upended. There are very few of us equipped to deal with the intricate issues that should and must be addressed in situations like these. But we can be pointers. Give them suggestions. Encourage them to get help (such as a therapist). I would focus more about the consequences to themselves and to others around them than to judge them. If you indicate in any way that you seen them as a “scumbag” or a “Skanky whore” for doing what they are doing, they are going to shut down. You will lose their confidence by judging them too harshly, no matter what you are thinking. You can be their Yoda. Help clarify their thinking and lead them out of this mess. You have some real power here.
Telling them to confess probably won’t work. If you believe the only way to move on is for your friend to come clean with their partner, keep it to yourself. It is not your place to decide that for them no matter what your morals are. You can tell your friend about honesty and try to talk them into confessing, but don’t be too persistent. It will annoy them and may shake the trust they have for you. It may convey the idea that if they don’t tell their partner, you will, even if you have no intention of that. You want them to trust you. You don’t want to make them shut down and cut you out. Your knowledge of their affair is already a threat to them.
Talk about termination. Encourage them to stop the affair. Immediately and irrevocably. They will never get out of the fog and resume clear thinking until they do. Many people involve themselves in affairs with people whom they have no intention of being committed to. Tell your friend that it will make them the stronger and better person if they initiate terminating the affair. Acknowledge that your friend will be crushed between ending an affair. Yes, it’s hard. It’s pain, but it’s the right thing to do. And that you are there to help them. Even suggest how they do it, such as what they might tell their Affair Partner to cushion the blow as much as possible, but ensure that their decision is final.
Try and remind them of how hard it will be if they leave their spouse for their affair partner. Remind them of the familial, societal, financial and other consequences of getting divorced. If your friend wants to take the relationship with the affair partner to the next level, help them see what a mess their life will be if something big is going on while they are emotionally distorted. If they have kids, tell them how devastated they will be. How this will scar them for life and how it will affect your friend’s relationship with her children forever. Point out the long odds of a legitimate relationship that results from an affair working out.
In the end, recognize that you yourself are going to feel torn about this, and maybe even resentful. You want to be there for your friend, but you’re probably also disgusted with them and appalled at their choice, and pissed that you have to carry this burden of knowledge and their secret. Perhaps have to keep this secret forever. Not only might you resent having to shoulder this burden, but you also know that it could explode in your face too, especially if you know your friend’s spouse well. But you have a real opportunity to guide them out of this mess and to a better life. Don’t abandon them. Help them.
That’s what friends do.