Knowing about the infidelity of a friend’s significant other can be the most awkward situation ever. You want to inform and console your friend, but you don’t want to damage your relationship with them and end up being the dead messenger. If you think (or know) your friend is being cheated on, here are some things to consider.
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Should you be saying anything at all?
You might be wondering why this section is even here, but many people believe it isn’t their place to tell. There are a lot of things to consider before you say or do anything. This event, depending on how it’s handled, could potentially ruin your friendship. Your friend might decide to ‘shoot the messenger’ and get angry with you for telling them or for waiting too long to tell them, or just assume you had some part in covering it up. Even if you’re fortunate and they don’t outwardly show any anger toward you, they might always think of you as a starting point for the whole painful incident. In their minds, everything was hunky dory until you told them, and they may want to distance themselves from anything that reminds them of the pain.
As Mark D. White, Ph.D, at Psychology Today explains, you’re going to feel caught between wanting to do the “best” thing (like finding a way to help your friend and protect your friendship), and the “right” thing (like telling them straight away). The problem is, doing the “right” thing can be handled poorly. And doing the “best” thing might mitigate some of the damage, but it can also cause problems of its own since it requires a little more time and thought. Keep in mind that you’re not a bad friend for carefully weighing all of your options here. In fact, taking the time to find the ideal way to approach (or not approach) this particular situation makes you a better friend.
The first thing you want to consider is how close you are to the person that was cheated on. Lifehacker’s Vanessa Marin, a licensed marriage therapist currently at the helm of Lifehacker: After Hours, suggests that it’s not worth putting yourself in such an uncomfortable situation if you’re not that close to the person. They may be your ‘friend,’ but what does that really mean? Are they a co-worker, a gym acquaintance, a friend of a friend? How often are you around them in a social or personal way? Don’t inject yourself into a situation that you don’t belong in. You might not be worried about ruining a friendship that isn’t very close, but there is a lot more at stake than that. You could destroy a relationship, cause other people to draw lines and destroy other friendships, and maybe even make some enemies of your own along the way.
The second thing you need to do is make sure you are absolutely positive that someone is actually getting cheated on. Do not share suspicions, rumours, or gut feelings with your friend or other members of your friend group. Dr. Nerdlove, relationship expert and blogger, explains:
Telling your friend that you think their partner is cheating on them is introducing a drama landmine into the relationship. If you’re going to tell them that you think they’re being cheated on, then you had better be 100% sure — and by which I mean someone confesses to you that they’re cheating on their partner or you see said cheating happen.
You might want to consider the inner workings of their relationship as well. You may think you know what their romantic situation is like, but it’s quite possible even a close friend won’t tell you every nuance of their love life. Marin explains:
Don’t make any assumptions about your friend’s relationship. Lots of people have arrangements with their partners that they don’t choose to share with other people.
Remember, you aren’t a part of their relationship. You may feel like you know everything because you share things with your friend, but there is bound to be plenty you don’t know. You can try to do some digging, but it’s a hard topic to bring up in conversation without sounding off any alarms. As you decide what you should do, definitely consider the possibility that everyone already knows what’s going on.
Lastly, you have to take the humiliation factor into account. When you get cheated on, you feel foolish for having put so much trust in someone. It’s incredibly painful, and knowing that others are aware of it all is even more painful. As Nerdlove points out, there are plenty of times you’d rather not have witnesses to the darker times in your own relationships, so it’s safe to assume that your friend feels the same way. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not worth telling them still, but it should definitely be something you think about when you make your decision.
If you’re still struggling to decide what you should do after you’ve taken everything here into consideration, White suggests you ask yourself “What would my friend want me to do?”
It might seem like there is an obvious answer to that question, but really think about it. How do they react to bad news normally? Do they prefer to have the bandage ripped off or peeled away? Imagine how they’re going to react and consider your approach accordingly. With all that considered, you now have a few different options:
Option 1: Don’t tell them
This is the safest option if you’re not that close with the person being cheated on. It’s also the safest option if you are not 110% positive that anything actually happened. There’s no denying that choosing not to say anything can feel awkward, and maybe even a little wrong, but you’re probably avoiding a slew of other problems by staying out of it.
Nerdlove notes that whatever happened, whether you’re certain of it or not, may have been a one-time mistake that won’t ever happen again. If you blow the whistle, you could be ending a relationship that might have otherwise survived. Keeping quiet doesn’t put the cheater in the right by any means, but it does give the couple a chance to adjust to things on their own terms.
Option 2: Tell them (and support them)
If you’re certain that your close friend was cheated on, it might be time to face the music. The last thing you want is for your friend to shoot the messenger, however, so you need to approach them with caution. Marin recommends you decide quickly and tell them as soon as possible:
The more time you spend mulling over your decision, the more uncomfortable it can get. Your friend is inevitably going to ask “when did this happen” or “how long have you known?” If it comes out that you sat on this information for months, it can feel really awful for your friend.
Things will not go well for anyone if you wait too long, so it pays to be quick. Still, the way you actually say it is important too. Even if you witnessed the act first hand (or heard it from the horse’s mouth), you need to remember that it’s possible their relationship works differently than you thought. Bring attention to what happened, but try not to sound judgemental.
For example, you could say something like: “Listen, I found out about this and wanted to let you know. I don’t know what your arrangement is, and I’m not looking to judge, but I felt like I should tell you in case you didn’t know.” They may surprise you with a “yeah, I know,” and they may not. Either way, in that scenario, you’re avoiding inflammatory, judgemental language, name calling, and avoiding blaming words like cheating, cheated, cheater, etc.
If they were unaware of what happened, they will probably be a little shocked and upset. In fact, they may not even believe you, and they might get mad at you. Nerdlove explains:
As much as people swear they’d want to know, the knee-jerk response I see from people being told that their partner is cheating on them is to call bullshit and — frequently — get mad at the person telling them. This gets even more complicated if you have (or are believed to have) feelings for the person being cheated on. I’ve gotten letters from dudes who’ll swear up and down that they saw Boy J cheating on Girl K and are eager to inform K about said infidelity. Of course, there’s the fact that they have a not-so-secret crush on K complicating the matters. It almost always ends with K being pissed at the letter writer for trying to break the two of them up.
Think about how the situation might look to them before you tell them. Do you have a past with your friend’s significant other, even if it was just a crush or casual thing? Do you have any feelings at all for them? It’s a good idea to take a third-person view of all the puzzle pieces before you jump in.
It’s also important to empathise with your friend when you tell them. You might not believe it either if it happened to you; and you might be just as angry. If they want your support, give it to them (even if they’re being a little mean). Show that you support them no matter what they decide. Relationships are complicated and it’s not your place to tell them how to live their life, but you can still be a good friend and back them up on whatever they do.
Option 3: Confront the cheater
Confronting the cheater themselves might be the safest option if you feel the need to address things, but are afraid of damaging your friendship. Just as if you were to tell your friend, this is only something you should consider if you’re certain of what’s going on, so don’t accuse people of things without the facts to back it up. Nerdlove suggests that confronting the cheater gives them a chance to stop and come clean with your friend on their own or you will tell them.
This comes with its own dangers, of course, because a malicious significant other could potentially throw you under the bus and tell your friend that you knew the whole time. That being said, if it seems like the cheater made a mistake and knows it was wrong, this option can allow the couple to work things out on their own and keep you out of the fray. You can help your friend and avoid becoming a casualty of love.