9 Principles for Responding to a Friend in an Affair

This time last year I wrote a blog post that quickly became one of my most searched-for articles online: Help! Should I Tell My Friend that Her Husband is Cheating on Her?  In that post I mused that I should probably write a post to guide us through the angst when we find out it is our friend who has cheated. It has taken me a year to want to sit down and write it. Finding Out That Our Friend Has Cheated

While statistics are all over the board about how many of us actually admit to having extra-marital affairs, it does seem that due to women having more economic and sexual freedom, our numbers are on the rise in the last two decades. It appears that now one in every 5 or 6 of us will end up doing what we all of us swore we never would.  That means if you have 5 friends-- chances are high that this issue will impact you.

This is such a difficult subject to cover adequately due to all the possible complicating issues that could be present.  For example, is she confiding in you or are you finding out another way? Does she seem intent on trying to pull it off or is she confessing that it happened and she's trying to end it?  Do you know her partner and/or her lover?  Is your significant other involved in any way (i.e. as a friend to her partner)? Is she confessing or is she asking you to be an alibi for her and to aid her in the relationship?  Have you been wounded by marital affairs in the past, making it harder for you to come to this one without your own scabs getting pulled off? Are you happy in your own relationship?

Different answers to any of these questions would prompt different insights into the best way for you to respond, but without knowing you or the situation, all I can give are some principles that will hopefully lay a foundation for any choice you end up making.  Having been on both sides of this issue, and journeying closely with several friends over the years who have confided in me the angst of juggling a second relationship, I offer my wisdom with hope and humility.

Nine Principles to Remember:

  1. This is her crisis, not yours.  Yes, it could impact your friendship, your picture of her, your belief in love, and possibly even your own marriage, but, and this is important to remember: getting hit by some of the debris of an accident isn't the same as being in the accident. Keep this about her as much as possible. See my blog post about helping a friend in crisis to better provide a visual of how to act when you're in the outer rings.
  2. Nurture yourself and your relationships. With that said, if you are in a romantic relationship, be mindful that it may be impacted.  It may be as a result of conversations that you have with your significant other about the subject of infidelity, the insecurities it brings up in you, or simply the questions it raises about whether you're happy or not.  Recognize that while your friend is responsible for her life, she is not responsible for yours. Life will throw you a variety of subjects to process, this is your time to do so on this one.  In some ways it's a gift. Be extra gentle on yourself (and your partner) as you work yourself back to a place of alignment and peace through journaling, counseling, meditation, and other self-nurture and self-growth actions.
  3. Don't make it personal.  It is not because she doesn't trust you that she didn't tell you sooner.  It is not because you were in a happy relationship that she felt tempted to go find that, too.  It is not because you weren't there for her... blah, blah, blah.  She made choices and you are not to blame.  Additionally, there are a thousand reasons women don't tell their friends, many of them very valid reasons, so don't get steamed up about when and how you found out.  Just breathe deeply and acknowledge that in the big scheme of everything she's sorting through and trying to juggle and process-- the last thing she wants is to lose a friend and the last thing she needs is to spend energy now processing yet another relationship in her life. The more you can keep reminding yourself to not take this personally, the happier you (and she) will be.
  4. Draw your boundaries. It's okay to say that you're not willing to lie for her, be an alibi for her with her husband, or to talk about it ad nauseam.  It's okay to tell her that due to your religious beliefs, moral code, or personal history, this is a subject that you are very against or incredibly uncomfortable with.  It's okay for you to state what you are able to do and what you cannot do right now; but do so in as sensitive a way as possible, with as much respect as you can, and with the intention that you still want to do what you can.  It doesn't need to be all or nothing.  Perhaps start with something like, "This is such a hard situation for me, though I recognize it's even harder for you.  I want to love you and support you through this in the ways I can, and be honest with you where I can't right now.  In what ways do you most need me right now?" And then, ask her to tell you what would be most meaningful.  From there, you can honestly say yes to what you can and no to what you can't.
  5. You are her friend, not her counselor.  She may be so relieved to finally have you know her secret that she's at great risk of confiding waaay too much to you.  This is her affair, not yours, you don't need to hear all the details. Tell her with all the love you can, "I want to try to navigate this in a way that protects our friendship and serves us both as best as possible... and, I think, that includes you making sure you have the expert support in your corner to process this with."  It's unfair to put you in a place of counselor. And she needs one.
  6. Acknowledge that she is still a good person.  I really do believe that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have at the time. She didn't wake up one day with the intention to hurt anyone or to not live up to her own values.  She made bad choices, but that doesn't make her a bad person.  Be very cautious to protect your thoughts about her, whispering a form of the prayer, "Help me see her the way God sees her." Or, "I see that part of her that is beautiful, good, and pure."
  7. Her feelings are real.  We might not like them, but they're real. Real in that regardless of how we feel about her inappropriate relationship, she is feeling intense feelings of love, hope, and feelings of being valued, admired, and needed.  In other moments she is, undoubtedly, feeling shame, denial, and guilt.  We all know those feelings.  We might hate what is causing her to feel that way or disagree that she should feel them, but far better for us to try to empathize.  We know what it feels like to be torn; we know what it feels like to want to be loved, we know what it feels like to think about breaking up with someone you care about.  We don't have to condone her behavior to say, "It makes complete sense to me that you'd be drawn to that," or "I can't imagine how sad you must feel as you grieve the end of that relationship."  Love doesn't have to agree in order to support.
  8. Be mindful of our judgment.  From the Christian scriptures comes a saying: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." It was what Jesus said to the crowd who wanted to stone a woman for committing adultery.  I invite you to be mindful of the fact that we are all in process and all struggle with actions that are hurtful to ourselves and others.  Yours may not seem as glaring, so be thankful for that!  Then with humility recognize that you, too, have made mistakes, and that you're still struggling with discontent, jealousy, complaining, greed, criticism, or gossip. We are all learning the lessons we need to learn.  She will learn hers.  And she'll surprisingly learn it better when compassion is shown (so she doesn't have to feel defensive) as love is what empowers us to grow.  Shame simply paralyzes people.  We want her to grow so we want to act in as many ways as possible that invite her to courage, compassion, and hope.
  9. Know that this too shall pass.  Yes it will!  I promise.  It may feel like more drama than you can handle right now (and that's okay, try to be present as you can and honest when you can't) but someday she is going to wow you with the rebuilding of her life.  She's going to be laughing again, present again, and hopefully more healthy and mature because of the life lessons she is learning now. And when you find yourself in a crisis, she'll be someone you know you can trust to not judge you, to support you, and to understand.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive list.  I could keep going for days.  And I'm very aware that you could get done reading the list and still not know the best way to respond.  I therefore write these words with a prayer that accompanies them that anyone who reads this looking sincerely for guidance will find it. May those who seek, find.  May those who are unsure, err on the side of love.  May you be given an extra dose of compassion, energy, strength, and love today... your friend needs it.

Help! Should I Tell My Friend that Her Husband is Cheating on Her?

I'm adding to my Friendship Break-up Series with a real life example sent to me by a reader of this blog.  I don't know her or the situation so this is by no means advice to her specifically, as much as it is an opportunity to talk about a taboo subject that affects our friendships even though it's primarily about our marriages-- that subject is of adultery. Help! Should I Tell My Friend that Her Husband is Cheating on Her?

While we don't have to deal directly with our friends cheating on us, we'd probably be aghast to see the numbers of how many friendships have ended over the subject as it's played out in our romantic relationships. It's appropriate that in talking about friendship break-ups-- we get right down to the nitty, gritty, and painfully real truth that has ended many a happy friendship.

This post is about when you have knowledge about your friend's significant other cheating on her.  I think it's also worth my time to do a separate post about what to do when you find out it's your friend who is doing the cheating.  Way too many friendships end over both scenarios.

You might expect a friendship advocate to champion "Always tell your girlfriend the truth! Our loyalty is to each other!" And while I agree with that second sentence-- I don't think the first sentence always leads to that result.

How we tell that truth is often what matters most.

Principles To Consider Before Confessing News that Could Ruin Her Life

Every friendship is different, every marriage is different, and every affair is different. There is no one answer to the question that will fit everyone, all the time. Some of us will have added complications if we also feel loyal to the person we know is cheating, if we all hang out together regularly as couples or families, if we know she's had painful history with this subject, if she thinks her relationship is perfectly fine, if she's pregnant or has young kids, or any other number of variations to why this is a very difficult question and answer.

Here are some things to consider before you tell her what you know about her husband or boyfriend that could devastate her.

  1. First, Know that Your Burden Isn't The Priority. Yes, it feels like the worst secret ever.  And you're sick to your stomach with what you know. Unfortunately, that is not our biggest concern here. What you are feeling is nothing compared to what she will feel. Your feelings are big and scary, but if you're thinking of confessing the truth so that you feel better-- that is the worst reason to do so. Even if it is causing fights in your own marriage or keeping you up at night-- that is not her fault. Vomiting the truth so that she hurts and you feel better is not friendship. Maturity means we learn to find our peace in the midst of painful situations. So if you do tell her, don't breathe a word about how it's impacting you, what you would do in this situation, or how mad at him you are.  As much pain as you are in-- don't make this about you. This is her nightmare.
  2. Women Know When They're Ready to Know, Usually. I've talked to many women after they have found out that he was cheating on them and almost all of them had warning signs and red flags when they look back. We might act like we don't know, for a while, because we're not ready to face the truth, or because we're not ready to have it called into question. So think long and hard about whether you think your friend doesn't already know.  In the coaching world we say,"Don't have their ah-ha for them." It's usually more life changing for her to come to her own truth, than for us for force feed it to her. So if you do tell her, I'd start with the least amount of information you need to give.  Being loyal to her doesn't mean telling her everything you know, it means telling her enough so that she can try it on and make her best decisions. It's usually best to tell her what you know with a little bit of doubt... allowing her to save face if she chooses denial a little longer. Don't force some long conversation or some intervention now, just move on.  You can know she'll undoubtedly keep thinking about it.
  3. You Need to Know that Most Women Stay. I think it's worth reminding you that most women stay in marriages even after an affair.  And unless you've been there-- you can't judge it. Sometimes there are higher values at stake, other needs being met, and alternative priorities that she chooses.  That is not a choice of weakness; to stay is hard and it takes tremendous strength.  But you need to know this because it's not a given that she's going to thank you for the information and leave him tomorrow. Supporting her means supporting her relationships, choices, decisions, and timing. Supporting her means accepting her no matter whether you approve. So if you do tell her, then be sure you tell her that it's okay if she stays, wants to try to work it out, and that you can still understand what she loves about him. You should feel no invested stake in what choice she makes (even if it affects your ability to go out on double-dates or something-- that is not the highest priority right now!), when she makes it, or how-- that you will fully support her and journey with her any direction. And you'll support her if she changes her mind down the road, too.  Life is a journey, let her take hers.
  4. Women Don't Want to Have to Defend Their Family. Even when we know our mom is impossible-- we don't want someone else to say it.  Even when we know our children are trouble-makers-- we don't want everyone else to think less of them.  Even when our spouse makes us madder than mad-- we don't want our friends to not admire him.  In fact it's common that most women will blame the "other woman" more than they will their own spouse-- its how we react to people we love. Like a mama bear with her cubs, chances are high that she will defend him-- it's partly how she defends herself.  So if you do tell her, be very, very careful to still speak highly of him, to only share the bare minimum, and never speak poorly of him or their marriage.  Even if she reacts with anger toward him-- tell her you understand the feelings, but don't agree with her or express your own opinion. What he did was a hurtful thing, but he is not a bad man.  Even if she leaves him eventually, she will heal better if people around her aren't devaluing him or feeding her anger.
  5. The Messenger Can Become the Threat. If she's defending him (or herself since we all want to believe that we chose the perfect person, are worthy of their love, and have a great marriage!), that risks you being seen as the threat.  At her very healthiest she would be able to separate you from the message, but when we're scared, we don't always react rationally.  She may accuse you of lying, see it as evidence that you've never really supported her relationship with him, or simply be so ashamed she can't face you anymore for what you come to represent to her.  If it comes out later she may not want to face you and feel the embarrassment of an "I told you so," and if she decides to stay, she may feel like she can never talk about it with you. So if you do tell her, know this distance is normal and a likely consequence of telling the truth. The best way to minimize this is by never placing yourself against him; rather just keep expressing how much you love her and will stick by her no matter what. Express deep regret for having to tell her, but simply tell her you would regret it more if she someday found out you knew and didn't tell her.
  6. Be Ready and Willing to Handle The Grief.  If you're not close enough to her to be someone who is ready to go through the grief cycle with her, you may not be close enough to her to tell her this news. She will likely need to grieve whether it ends her relationship or not; there is still some loss. The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, and depression-- all of which she may take out on you. All of which are healthy and normal stages. Pray for the courage and tenacity to not take things personally.  So if you tell her,  you need to be committed to showing up in all those stages, reminding her how much you love her and support her. That might mean doing all the initiating for a while.  That might mean being her place to vent or her person to ignore.  No matter what she does-- you just keep saying to her, "You have a right to be mad. I would be to.  That's okay.  But I'm going to still be here no matter what.  You can yell at me, but I still love you."  It means being ready to clean up the vomit that was spewed. Because that's real loyalty.

You've been put in a tough place knowing this information.  But you can handle this choice.

Loyalty may mean protecting her from this news for now if you feel that's the best option.   Loyalty can also mean helping her face her feelings, no matter how reactionary they are.

Either way, you can love her and help her see her best self so that when she goes through phases when she can't see it herself-- she can see herself through your eyes.