Friendship: Can you keep a secret? Should you?

03/28/2011 08:41am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Hi Irene,

I've been burdened with the knowledge that the husband of one of my closest friends was unfaithful to her. They have two very young children (one 3 years and the other 6 months old). I am certain that she is not aware of the incident. And I have known about it for several months, debating on what I should do about it.

I believe that the knowledge will severely damage their marriage and I don't want to be the one to cause the damage and ruin the children's family. I do understand that I am not the one that caused the problem, the cheater is; but I would be the one that told.

Whenever I consider just keeping this to myself I just feel terrible for my friend not knowing what a creep her husband is and what a bad friend the woman he cheated with is to her (this will also ruin her marriage, she also has two young children). And of course, I have no idea if the incident I know about is the only time he has done something like this to her.

I have considered talking to the husband about it and trying to convince him to tell her. But I'm not sure if he would and I feel like I would end up blackmailing him in a sense "if you don't tell her I will"... And I feel like she would expect me to tell her if she could say so. I just don't know what to do. Please help.

Sad Friend


Dear Sad Friend,

Your question was so challenging that I've struggled with it for a couple of days. I can imagine how uncomfortable this situation has to be.

Initially, I thought you should tell your friend about her husband's infidelity. Aren't friends supposed to tell each other everything, certainly everything that's important? I imagined you sitting with her at the playground or in her kitchen with her kids. I realized, if I were in your position, how uncomfortable I would feel withholding information like that from a close friend.

Then, I thought more logically about the consequences of telling her and not telling her---and came down squarely on the side of you not saying anything. As you point out, talking about this incident might further erode her marriage. There's also the risk that she might get angry that you didn't tell her sooner, feel exposed and embarrassed, or upset that you overstepped your boundaries as a friend and got involved at all.

Other questions popped into my mind as well:

• How can you be certain this transgression occurred?

• If it did, might your friend already know or suspect her husband's been unfaithful?

• Is there something more complicated going on within their marriage than what she has shared with you? Could they have an understanding that she hasn't told you about?

• Can you be absolutely certain that your friend would want to know this about her husband?

• Might her husband's transgression be a one-time thing that is over? What sense would it make to give it currency months later?

• If it's over for him, what is the sense of your raising the issue?

In general, when there are so many unanswered questions, the prudent approach seems to be to say nothing. Don't think of it, by any means, as you protecting her husband. Think of it as you protecting your friend. If her husband's infidelity continues, she will likely find out about it some other way and may come to you for support.

There is no hard and fast rule that says a friend has to tell her friend everything. Your responsibility as a friend, which you have taken very seriously, is to act in in ways that you believe are your friend's best interests.

I hope this is helpful.


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