It’s a nightmare scenario: Somehow, you’ve found out that your friend’s partner is up to no good. Whether you saw them out with someone else, heard about it from a friend of a friend, or maybe even got wind of it directly from the source, it’s a sticky and emotional situation. It’s a no-brainer to support a friend when they’re going through something difficult, like dealing with depression or getting over a breakup, or even something exciting, like getting engaged. Cheating, on the other hand, is a tough topic to bring up, especially if you’re the one clueing in your friend. It’s hard to know whether you should give them a heads up or not, since you might not know all the nitty-gritty details of their relationship. We asked a relationship expert how to handle this less-than-ideal situation.
1. Don’t panic. The first thing you should do is resist the urge to freak out, says Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, and author of Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want. “When you find out something like this, it creates a crisis. In a crisis, our knee-jerk reaction is to move fast and do something NOW!” she explains. But if you do something too hastily, like calling your friend and telling them everything ASAP, you might end up regretting it. “Therefore, the first thing to do in this situation is pause. Sit quietly. Breathe. Take your time. Slow yourself down so that you can mindfully and consciously choose your next move.”
2. Decide whether or not to tell. While there are some cases where telling your friend is the obvious choice, there are just as many where the line between okay and not okay are murkier. After all, what’s cheating in one relationship might not qualify as a betrayal in another. If you don’t know the details of your friend’s relationship with their partner, this is definitely something to consider. “Two things stand out as especially relevant,” says Dr. Solomon. “First, I would invite you to be guided by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would you want if you were the one in this spot?” Putting yourself in your friend’s shoes might help you make a decision. “Second, look ahead,” she suggests. “If you do not tell, what do you imagine it’ll be like to be with your friend knowing that you are holding this secret? If you do tell, what might the impact be on your friendship? Have you guys gotten through rough patches before? How have you made repairs with each other in the past?”
3. If you’re going to say something, be absolutely sure. It would be really unfortunate to bring something of this magnitude to your friend’s attention if it’s not completely true. “If you decide to tell, I would want you to make sure you were working off of reliable information,” says Dr. Solomon. “If you saw something with your own eyes, I would suggest that you report what you saw. Just the facts. No commentary, hypotheses, analysis, or inference. Let your friend follow up with their S.O. and find out what it might mean.”
4. Practice compassion. If you’ve decided to tell your friend what you know, “Make sure that you do what you need to do to put yourself in a calm, compassionate, empathic, and open-hearted place before you begin,” says Dr. Solomon. If it’s difficult for you to have the conversation, tell them it wasn’t easy for you to share this with them. “Let them know that you went back and forth about the pros and cons of speaking versus not speaking and that it is up to them whether they want to talk with you about it or not,” she adds.
How to Talk to Your Friend
If you do decide to tell your friend what you know, here’s Dr. Solomon’s list of things to avoid doing or saying during your chat:
1. Don’t tell them what to do next.
2. Don’t use the word “should.” Research indicates that most married people who find out their partner cheated do NOT end the marriage. You have no idea what they “should” do next. That’s totally up to them.
3. Don’t look for reasons why it happened, or worse, blame them for it.
4. Don’t judge their S.O. It’s not your place to make a judgment about what happened.
When all is said and done, remember that your friend is probably going to be hurting. “It might be really hard for your friend to be mad at their S.O., so they might opt to be mad at you instead,” Dr. Solomon warns. And if they wish you hadn’t told them? “Let them know that you imagined if the tables were turned, and you did for them what you imagined that you would if you were in their shoes,” she says.
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