Discovering your friend is being cheated on is a no-win situation: If you say anything to him or her, you risk losing the friendship. Your friend may not believe you, insisting you are mistaken or “just jealous.” Even if your friend does believe you, he or she may resent you for spoiling his/her happiness (or at least the illusion of happiness).
But not telling your friend can be just as damaging. Should the affair be exposed — and your friend find out you knew about it — he or she will feel betrayed. Sitting idly by while your friend gets played doesn’t exactly inspire trust. So what’s a true friend to do upon discovering an affair?
Know Thy Friend
When facing this dilemma, people often ask, “What would I want if the situation was reversed?” A better question is, “What would my friend want?” If your friend has a habit of looking the other way with infidelity, he or she may not really want to know. But if your friend values faithfulness and assumes he or she is in a monogamous relationship, it might be best to say something.
Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt
Before disclosing an affair, however, be sure you have an airtight case. If you didn’t personally witness the infidelity, be sure there’s substantial “evidence” to back up your claim. Remember that you are not a detective; don’t cross any legal or ethical barriers simply to prove an affair happened.
Second-hand gossip isn’t enough to risk ruining someone’s relationship and reputation. But you can address specific behaviors while letting your friend draw his or her own conclusions. For example, “Ryan told you he was going to a study group last night. But he was actually at my party until around 11 PM. He left with a girl I didn’t recognize.” Or, “I know that Rachel told you she was going on a girls’ trip this weekend, but she actually stayed in town. I’m not sure why she said that.” This way, you aren’t making a direct accusation, but you give your friend the opportunity to clarify the situation with his/her mate.
Confront the Guilty Party
If you are friends with both halves of the couple, consider addressing the issue first with the unfaithful party. Let him or her know you are aware of the affair and that your friend deserves to hear about from him or her directly. Tell the cheating party that you will wait a couple of days before saying anything to your friend. Note: If the person has a temper or a history of violence, don’t risk a confrontation.
Talking It Out
Let your friend know there’s something you’d like to discuss privately. Simply state what you know and withhold your personal opinions. Launching a full-blown character assault — how horrible the person is, how you never liked him/her, etc. — may prompt your friend to defend his or her significant other. Communicating calmly and fairly will reinforce that you take no pleasure in exposing the affair; it will also reduce the likelihood that your words will be dismissed. Close with something like, “I am so sorry to be the one sharing this information, but if I am ever in the same position, I would want to know. I hope I am correct in making that same assumption for you. If I am wrong, I hope you will forgive me for that mistake.”
Truth and Consequences
If you speak up, be prepared for the consequences. Sometimes, the price of your honesty is the loss of a friendship. Intellectually, we know we shouldn’t blame the messenger. But emotions often override this logic. Hopefully, your friend will recognize your concern and respect your honesty. After all, you may have just spared your friend years with a person unworthy of him or her. Even if your friend appreciates your candor, it may be a while before he or she is totally comfortable around you again. You have just exposed a very personal, embarrassing wound.
Once you’ve shared what you know, hold your peace. Let your friend scream, cry or rail against his/her boyfriend or girlfriend, if needed; simply listen and express sympathy. The temptation is to badmouth the guilty party, but by doing so, you put your friend through additional grief. And if he or she ever reconciles with that person — which is a distinct possibility — you will face one more hurdle in remaining friends.
When you learn that a friend is being cheated on, there is rarely a perfect solution. But if you address the situation diplomatically and respectfully, you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing you acted with good intentions and sincere regard for your friend’s well-being.