When to tell your friend their partner is being unfaithful and when to say nothing
Finding out your friend’s partner is being unfaithful puts you in a quandary.Do you tell them and break up a relationship, or not tell them and have them find out that you knew and did nothing? According to marital experts there is no easy answer
If you had a good friend whose partner was having an affair – you know, they don’t – do you tell them?
Put this quandary to a dozen other friends and the responses may be contradictory and unhelpful:
“Stay out of anyone’s private business.”
“I would tell. I would feel totally betrayed if the boot was on the other foot and they didn’t tell me.”
“Don’t tell. If you do, you will be blamed. Who wants to be responsible for ending a relationship.”
“Tell for sure, I’d rather be told by the friend, than find out she knew and said nothing.”
Flip the dilemma on its head – “would you want to be told?” and the answer will probably be a resounding yes: nobody wants to be left in the dark.
According to Hong Kong-based marital therapist and affairs expert Nikki Green, there’s no right or wrong answer.
“I am often asked whether we should spill the beans when we know a friend is being cheated on. Those of us who value honesty above all else (and are often comfortable with conflict) will say ‘absolutely’, and will do it regardless of the cost,” Green says. “At the other end of the spectrum are those who value an easy life (and are often conflict avoidant) who say, ‘No, why stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong’. My answer to that question, like many of life’s dilemmas, is, it depends.”
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First, Green says, we need to clarify what constitutes an affair.
“An affair isn’t just about a sexual indiscretion, it’s also about secrets, intimacy and the destruction of trust. When there has been a sexual transgression it’s easy to define, but when physical intimacy hasn’t yet happened, the ‘affairee’ [innocent party] often recognises on an emotional ‘felt-sense’ level that they’re in dangerous waters, even if the ‘affairer’ [the person having the affair] flatly denies it, or accuses the ‘affairee’ of being oversensitive or clingy.
“People cheat for many reasons, ranging from purely opportunistic lust that means nothing ]to the affairer], to getting a physical or emotional need met that their partners are not offering.”
Green, who believes the rate of infidelity is much higher than the 30 per cent to 50 per cent that studies indicate, says that when it comes to telling someone their partner is having an affair, many of us like to live by the credo “do unto others as you would like done unto you”, but often don’t take the time to understand the situation the affairee is in.
“Instead we tend to assess it from our vantage point, and being with someone who lies and cheats is so unacceptable to most that we would rather leave if that behaviour continues. We believe we would certainly want to know. For some, though, leaving is not the preferred option,” she says.
Green gives an example to illustrate her point. “Say you were a mother of three children under five, and you had a debilitating illness and could hardly get through the day. Would you really want to have to deal with something at this point in time that could potentially break up the family and leave you without support? Or maybe you developed a debilitating illness later on in an otherwise good relationship that makes it difficult to have sex or, due to your upbringing, you were never inclined towards physical intimacy other than for procreation.
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“You don’t wish to work with a sex therapist, yet there’s a lifetime of shared memories, family and finances keeping you comfortably united … When you choose not to know, you are always taking a risk that your partner may fall in love with the other party.”
Don’t assume others want to know as much as you want to unburden yourself of guilty knowledge. Telling a friend can damage that friendship, as a friend of mine, Lucy, remembers. She told a good friend about her partner’s infidelity.
“I knew first-hand that my friend’s partner was being unfaithful, not via gossip. I told her and she was furious – with me, not him! She didn’t speak to me for about two years. I thought our relationship was irretrievably damaged,” Lucy says.
“She said I was only saying as much because I didn’t like him – which was true, I didn’t. He was an idiot, which is why I never considered trying to discuss it with him. Their relationship ended a while after my revelation and our friendship did recover eventually. She confided, then, that she had suspected all along, but didn’t want to hear for sure, hearing confirmed it was for real.”
When I asked those whose partners had had affairs, and who discovered themselves, their positions were rather different. Samantha found out about her husband’s extramarital activities trawling his photos online. “It was horrific,” she recalls. “I wished he’d confessed himself.”
If a friend had known, she says, she’d have liked to have been told, and “if I discovered a friend’s partner was being unfaithful, I would confront the cheater and ask if they planned on telling my friend themselves. I would give them a couple days and if they didn’t come clean, I would tell my friend everything, including that I gave their partner a chance to tell them first”.
John suspected his wife was being unfaithful, and when a friend confirmed his suspicions months later, he was relieved he wasn’t being paranoid, that his intuition had been spot on. Both John and Samantha are adamant: “Otherwise my life wouldn’t be authentic,” Samantha says.
John agrees that it is “better to know and be in a level playing field”.
Green suggests that if you know the person well – and know they’d want to know – tell them. “It’ll probably blow their world apart initially”, she warns, so you need to be around to support them.”
If you’re not sure they’d want to know, tell them you have a friend who’s being cheated on and you’re not sure whether or not to tell. Say you read somewhere that not everyone wants to know, share with them whether or not you would if you were in the same situation and ask them ask if they would. At least that way you’ll get a better idea of their perspective.”
Dr Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist and author of the bestselling After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful (1997/2012) and How Can I Forgive You: The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To (2005), says many people “can’t imagine what benefits lie behind not telling a friend their spouse or partner is having an affair”, but in After the Affair, she highlights a couple of good reasons for keeping your mouth firmly shut.
“You believe the revelation will crush your friend’s spirit irremediably,” she writes, but if you tell them, “they may lose not just confidence in themselves as partners, but their will to live. Some people are too fragile or vulnerable to make constructive use of this information”.
The second reason you ought not tell is, ‘Sometimes the truth causes more harm than good and leads hurt parties to become so paralysed, so poisoned, they can’t go on to fight for a marriage which, in their heart, they’d like to save”.
I decided not to tell my friend when I discovered his wife was having an affair. I didn’t know first-hand, for sure. I couldn’t be certain how he’d react. I was afraid it would ruin an old, precious friendship and carve a distance between us at a time he may need close friends.
In the end, he did find out and I was there to support him through the fallout.