What should you do when you know that your friend's significant other is cheating on her?
You might expect a friendship advocate to champion, "Always tell your girlfriend the truth! Our loyalty is to each other!" And while I agree with that second sentence, I don't think the first sentence always leads to that result.
How we tell that truth is often what matters most.
Principles to Consider Before Confessing News that Could Ruin Her Life
Do you tell a girlfriend when her husband is cheating on her? Most women say they want to know... but how we do it can determine whether the friendship is protected.
Every friendship is different, every marriage is different and every affair is different. There is no one answer to the question that will fit everyone, all the time. Some of us will have added complications if we also feel loyal to the person we know is cheating, if we all hang out together regularly as couples or families, if we know she's had painful history with this subject, if she thinks her relationship is perfectly fine, if she's pregnant or has young kids or any other number of variations.
Here are some things to consider before you tell her what you know about her husband or boyfriend that could devastate her.
First, know that your burden isn't the priority. Yes, it feels like the worst secret ever. And you're sick to your stomach with what you know. Unfortunately, that is not the biggest concern here. What you are feeling is nothing compared to what she will feel. Your feelings are big and scary, but if you're thinking of confessing the truth so that you feel better -- that is the worst reason to do so. Even if it is causing fights in your own marriage or keeping you up at night -- that is not her fault. Vomiting the truth so that she hurts and you feel better is not friendship. Maturity means we learn to find our peace in the midst of painful situations. So if you do tell her, don't breathe a word about how it's impacting you, what you would do in this situation, or how mad at him you are. As much pain as you are in, don't make this about you. This is her nightmare.
Women know when they're ready to know, usually. I've talked to many women after they found out that their husbands were cheating and almost all of them saw warning signs and red flags when they looked back at the relationship. We might act like we don't know, for a while, because we're not ready to face the truth or because we're not ready to have it called into question. So think long and hard about whether you think your friend doesn't already know. In the coaching world we say, "Don't have their ah-ha for them." It's usually more life changing for her to come to her own truth, than for us for force feed it to her. So if you do tell her, I'd start with the least amount of information you need to give. Being loyal to her doesn't mean telling her everything you know, it means telling her enough so that she can try it on and make her best decisions. It's usually best to tell her what you know with a little bit of doubt, allowing her to save face if she chooses denial for a little longer. Don't force a long conversation or intervention now, just move on. You can know she'll undoubtedly keep thinking about it.
You need to know that most women stay. I think it's worth reminding you that most women stay in marriages even after an affair. And unless you've been there, you can't judge it. Sometimes there are higher values at stake, other needs being met and alternative priorities that she chooses. That is not a choice of weakness; to stay is hard and it takes tremendous strength. But you need to know this because it's not a given that she's going to thank you for the information and leave him tomorrow. Supporting her means supporting her relationships, choices, decisions and timing. Supporting her means accepting her no matter whether you approve. So if you do tell her, then be sure you tell her that it's okay if she stays or wants to try to work it out and that you can still understand what she loves about him. You should feel no invested stake in what choice she makes (even if it affects your ability to go out on double-dates -- that is not the highest priority right now!), when she makes it, or how; let her know that you will fully support her and journey with her in any direction. And you'll support her if she changes her mind down the road, too. Life is a journey, let her take hers.
Women don't want to have to defend their family. Even when we know our mom is impossible, we don't want someone else to say it. Even when we know our children are trouble-makers, we don't want everyone else to think less of them. Even when our spouse makes us madder than mad, we don't want our friends to not admire him. In fact it's common that most women will blame the "other woman" more than they will their own spouse -- its how we react to people we love. Like a mama bear with her cubs, chances are high that she will defend him; it's partly how she defends herself. So if you do tell her, be very, very careful to still speak highly of him, to only share the bare minimum and to never speak poorly of him or their marriage. Even if she reacts with anger toward him, tell her you understand the feelings, but don't agree with her or express your own opinion. What he did was a hurtful thing, but he is not a bad man. Even if she leaves him eventually, she will heal better if people around her aren't devaluing him or feeding her anger.
The messenger can become the threat. If she's defending him (or herself, since we all want to believe that we chose the perfect person, are worthy of their love and have a great marriage), you are at risk for being seen as the threat. At her very healthiest, she would be able to separate you from the message, but when we're scared, we don't always react rationally. She may accuse you of lying, see it as evidence that you've never really supported her relationship with him, or simply be so ashamed she can't face you anymore for what you come to represent to her. If the truth comes out later, she may not want to face you and feel the embarrassment of an "I told you so," and if she decides to stay, she may feel like she can never talk about it with you. So if you do tell her, know this distance is normal and a likely consequence of telling the truth. The best way to minimize this is by never placing yourself against him; rather just keep expressing how much you love her and will stick by her no matter what. Express deep regret for having to tell her, but simply tell her you would regret it more if she someday found out you knew and didn't tell her.
Be ready and willing to handle the grief. If you're not close enough to her to be someone who is ready to go through the grief cycle with her, you may not be close enough to her to tell her this news. She will likely need to grieve; whether it ends her relationship or not, there is still some loss. The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, and depression -- all of which she may take out on you. All of which are healthy and normal stages. Pray for the courage and tenacity to not take things personally. So if you tell her, you need to be committed to showing up in all those stages, reminding her how much you love her and support her. That might mean doing all the initiating for a while. That might mean being her place to vent or her person to ignore. No matter what she does, you should just keep saying to her, "You have a right to be mad. I would be to. That's okay. But I'm going to still be here no matter what. You can yell at me, but I still love you." It means being ready to clean up the vomit that was spewed. Because that's real loyalty.
You've been put in a tough place knowing this information. But you can handle this choice.
Loyalty may mean protecting her from this news for now if you feel that's the best option. Loyalty can also mean helping her face her feelings, no matter how reactionary they are.
Either way, you can love her and help her see her best self, so that when she goes through phases when she can't see it herself -- she can see herself through your eyes.
For more articles that deal with friendship break-ups, drift-aparts and rifts, go to Shasta's Friendship Blog.