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On the Frontline of a Friend's Divorce? Be a Trusted Friend, Not a Gossip Girl

If you have a friend who is going through a divorce, you may find yourself privy to information, and jonesing to jaw about it.
08/13/2014 04:59pm ET | Updated October 13, 2014
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People love to talk about other people's divorces. It's not hard to see why. The plotlines often include heartbreak, betrayal, revenge, calamity, and temporary insanity. In other words, it's like a reality show involving people you actually know. And unlike a reality show, this stuff is actually real!

If you have a friend who is going through a divorce, you may find yourself privy to information, and jonesing to jaw about it. On the one hand, talking about your friend's divorce in an effort to support her is understandable. On the other hand, blabbing about your friend's divorce for entertainment value is unconscionable.

So how do you crosscheck your motivations and make sure you're not breaking the friendship code and turning into a gossip girl? Years ago, the pastor at my church offered us a test about gossip. Before passing along information about someone else, Fr. Patrick suggested asking the following three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

If the information is not true -- or you can't be sure that it is -- then you have your answer right there; there's no need to move on to questions 2 and 3. But if the information is true, the next step is to consider whether repeating it is kind. If the scoop is both true and kind, under Fr. Patrick's test it is okay to pass it along. But even if it is not kind, it might still be okay to pass the information along if doing so is necessary -- say, if someone's safety were at issue.

Fr. Patrick's test was good, but I feel there's room for improvement. (After all, he's not infallible -- he's a priest, not the pope.) Using Fr. Patrick's test as a starting point, I developed a test that is more specifically tailored to divorce situations. With twice as many questions, it's a lot clunkier than Fr. Patrick's test. But the extra questions are necessary in order to reduce the number of false positives.

Unlike Fr. Patrick's test, I don't start with "Is it true?" Spreading stories that you know to be untrue would make you a liar. I'm going to go ahead and give you the benefit of the doubt on that. Besides, if you're a liar, you have bigger problems than my little test can help you sort through. My test begins with this question:

Is it your story to tell? If it is, then you have the right to tell it. But even if you have the right, other factors could still weigh against doing so. For example, let's say you took your friend to lunch to cheer her up, but the two of you ended up bumping into "the other woman," which caused your friend to have a crying jag right in the middle of the restaurant, and you had to escort her out of there without even eating. That story is totally yours to tell -- not only were you there, you were smack dab in the middle of the whole scene. But that doesn't mean that running around telling it wouldn't be a jerky thing to do to your friend.

If it's not your story, is it well-sourced? Just because someone tells you something -- and even if that person swears it's true -- that's not necessarily enough. And if you're not sure it's true, then you shouldn't repeat it -- even if you also explain that the information isn't verified. After all, "I was told she also had an affair," and "I was told she also had an affair, though I don't know that for sure," are equally disparaging.

Was it told to you in confidence? It goes without saying that repeating something you were told in confidence is generally a jerk move. (There are, however, exceptions -- like this one: "I am going to kill him. Don't tell anyone.") And even if you weren't expressly told to keep something confidential, there are times when that should be obvious. For example, if your friend calls you in tears, saying she just discovered a bunch of incriminating emails between her husband and another woman, and she's not yet sure what she's going to do, you should know better than to tell anyone.

Are you telling it in context? Even something that is technically true can be misleading if told out of context. "She zeroed out their savings account," may technically be true, but if it's December and she used the money to pay the property taxes on the family residence, which was what the money was for to begin with, that context makes a big difference.

Why do you want to tell it? There are two components to this question: the "why" part and the "who" part. Let's consider the "why" part first. Do you want to tell because you are looking for input on how to best support her, or are you looking for popularity points for having the juiciest scoop at book club? Be honest. But even if the "why" part checks out, you still have to think through the "who" part. If you end up telling someone who isn't going to be similarly judicious with the information, you can nonetheless end up being an unwitting accomplice in your friend's betrayal.

Could you end up regretting it? How would your friend feel about your disclosing this information? And how does your friend feel about the person to whom you're considering disclosing it? Would it bother her if she found out that you told this certain thing to this particular person? And would it bother you if she found out that you did? If so, don't do it.

Working through these questions might cost a couple of minutes of your time, but it could save your friendship. Worth it? You tell me.