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To tell or not to tell: What are the ethics of being a good friend?

March 28, 2011 | By | 14 Replies Continue Reading

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

I’ve been burdened with the knowledge that the husband of one of my closest friends was unfaithful to her. They have two very young children (one 3 years old and the other 6 months). I am certain that she is not aware of the incident. And I have known about it for several months, debating on what I should do about it.

 

I believe that the knowledge will severely damage their marriage and I don’t want to be the one to cause the damage and ruin the children’s family. I do understand that I am not the one that caused the problem, the cheater is; but I would be the one that told.

 

Whenever I consider just keeping this to myself I just feel terrible for my friend not knowing what a creep her husband is and what a bad friend the woman he cheated with is to her (this will also ruin her marriage, she also has two young children). And of course, I have no idea if the incident I know about is the only time he has done something like this to her.

 

I have considered talking to the husband about it and trying to convince him to tell her. But I’m not sure if he would and I feel like I would end up blackmailing him in a sense "if you don’t tell her I will"… And I feel like she would expect me to tell her if she could say so. I just don’t know what to do. Please help.

Signed,
Sad Friend

 

ANSWER

Dear Sad Friend,

Your question was so challenging that I’ve struggled with it for a couple of days. I can imagine how uncomfortable this situation has to be.

 

Initially, I thought you should tell your friend about her husband’s infidelity. Aren’t friends supposed to tell each other everything, certainly everything that’s important? I imagined you sitting with her at the playground or in her kitchen with her kids. I realized, if I were in your position, how uncomfortable I would feel withholding information like that from a close friend.

 

Then, I thought more logically about the consequences of telling her or not telling her—and came down squarely on the side of you not saying anything. As you point out, talking about this incident might further erode her marriage. There’s also the risk that she might get angry that you didn’t tell her sooner, feel exposed and embarrassed, or get upset that you overstepped your boundaries as a friend.

 

Other questions came to mind as well:

• How can you be certain this transgression occurred?

• If it did, might your friend already know or suspect her husband’s been unfaithful?

• Could there be something more complicated going on within their marriage than what she has shared with you? Might they have an understanding that she hasn’t told you about?

• Can you absolutely be certain that your friend would want to know this about her husband?

• Might her husband’s transgression be a one-time thing that is over? What sense would it make to give it currency months later? If it’s over for him, what is the sense of your raising the issue?

 

In general, when there are so many unanswered questions, the prudent approach is to say nothing. Don’t think of it as you protecting her husband; rather, think of it as protecting your friend. If her husband’s infidelity continues, she will likely find out about it some other way and may come to you for support.

 

There is no hard and fast rule that says a friend has to tell her friend everything. Your responsibility as a friend, which you have taken very seriously, is to act in in ways that you believe are your friend’s best interests.

I hope this is helpful.

Best,
Irene

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Comments (14)

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  1. Twentieth Century Fox says:

    I agree that the highest duty of a friend is to your friend’s best interests. But I can hardly visualize a situation where anyone would agree it is in her own best interest for her friends to withhold information relating to an unfaithful husband.

    The most poignant comments above underscore this point. The silence of friends is almost as devastating as the marital betrayal. The cautious “intervention,” with all its risks of being the bearer of bad tidings, is remembered with gratitude.

    The critical thing here is withholding information that bears on your friend’s most vital interests. Seldom is the information absolutely certain and current, so it should not be overstated. Even if you feel certain, it is clearly best to underplay certainty, and stress the need to consider her options, confirm it in her own way, or protect herself as she sees fit.

    Information comes in all types and quality, but even groundless rumour affects your friend’s best interests. Would you be silent about any other sort of rumour if you knew it to be false?

    Most people are better able to hear bad news if they perceive it is being delivered out of a desire to protect them from danger or avoid a pitfall. Be concerned about her reputation, her welfare, her right to know what is being said so she will not be blindsided, and can consider what her best response should be.

    In short, I think the advice to stay out of a friend’s marriage is now outdated and cowardly.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I feel badly for every woman (or man) who’s been in this situ and while i can see how humiliating it is to find out friends knew but didn’t tell, all I can think is that at the moment of sharing this info, who knows what reaction ANYONE would have? Honestly, can we hand on heart say we wouldn’t wanna shoot the messenger? Inevitably keeping out of someone else’s marriage seems the most loving thing to do unless you have a most intensely close friendship which could withstand this. But I’m actually an advocate for not getting closer to your girlfriends than your husbands, because it kinda usurps them.

  3. Anonymous says:

    All good comments! But speaking as one who’s been through it, I have to say that a big part of the humiliation I experienced was the fact that some of my friends knew, or suspected, and said nothing – for years. I will never be the same around them. Two of my closest friends, bless their hearts, did a kind of ‘intervention’ with me to let me know of their concerns, based on my husband’s behavior. Didn’t accuse him of anything, just forced me to be objective and deal with the situation. Thank God for those two who loved me enough to risk our friendship. They have been such a wonderful comfort to me in my recovery – the two friends I can talk to about it. There is, in my opinion, something wrong with standing by and watching others get hurt. Find a way to do SOMETHING, out of a sense of humanity.

  4. DogLover says:

    When I was younger I believed you should always tell. I have changed my mind as I have grown older. If you are the bearer of bad news you will be held accountable. It doesn’t matter how innocent or how good your intentions. Your friend will probably tell you she is thankful but you will start being shunned. The reasons are twofold. First: She did not know about it and once told confronted her husband who lied and convinced her (she wanted to be convinced it wasn’t true) that you are mean spirited and trying to hurt them. He may even say you have tried to come on to him and he rebuffed you. A cornered cheater has no morals. Second: She already knows or suspects what is going on. She does not want to deal with it, wants to remain in denial and by telling her you know you are forcing her to face something she does not want to face. This could go many ways, I have found that the cheated will end up trying to “convince” you that you are wrong. If that does not work she will avoid you because you remind her of something she does not want to deal with/think about. It is a lose-lose to try and warn someone. It will also make it hard for the cheated friend to come to you for advise/support. So, my advise would be to keep quiet and be there with love and support if your friend comes to you. Don’t let on that you ever knew anything.

    • Anonymous says:

      This is great advice. I’ve been in a similar situation more or less where I was genuinely concerned about a friend’s marriage but she took it the wrong way. It ended up being ugly where she bad-mouthed me to mutual friends and friendships were broken. If I were in the same situation again, I would not get involved and keep quiet.

  5. Irene says:

    Sorry this happened to you~

    Thanks for sharing your comment to help others. I’ve missed you around here :-)

    Warm regards, Irene

     

  6. Starrlife says:

    I’ve been thru this and I found out after an anonymous someone wrote me a letter telling me. Stupid me, I didn’t believe it but I showed it to my husband. Shortly after. my suspicions raised I checked my husbands computer (not saying its right, just sayin’) and found a letter saying goodbye to the other woman and confronted him and he confessed.
    I appreciated the heads up, I personally would’ve preferred to be told by a friend but I suspect that the writer was not a friend of mine but a friend of the OW’s who was mad at my husband.
    My husband told me that me showing him the letter freaked him out so much that he immediately stopped seeing the OW and all of the evidence points to that as truth.
    I like what Laura says – I vote for having a tete a tete with the hubby, let him know that you suspect and tell him that you are considering whether or not to tell your friend. She deserves at least a discussion about cheating husbands, casually introduced – chances are she knows and is just dealing with it her own way. Tough subject- good luck.
    For me- I would be doubly humiliated (was) that other people knew something that I felt stupid for not knowing. Sigh.

  7. Laura says:

    Let me relate a personal story to illustrate what I’m talking about. My mother’s grandmother was married to a much older man in the early 20th century, a great musician and composer and respected colonel in the army where my parents are from. He gave up his military career when the Americans invaded in 1916 and took up tutoring the young ladies of the aristocratic families. It was always rumored that he was romancing them while my great-grandmother was tending to 14 children (5 from his first marriage and the rest from their union). My great-grandmother very intelligently would get a message from one of her friends that her husband was visiting with a young lady outside of their lessons. And what would my nana do? She would put on her mantilla and walk very nonchalantly in front of house, making no eye contact but assured that he saw her. It was her non-showy way of her saying “I know and don’t play games.” My great-grandfather would most hurriedly leave the young lady’s house and get back to his primary concerns. They never fought about this. Years later, my mother went through this with my father and she told me this story and her own.

    My father was a doctor and he had a woman patient that was infatuated with him (fainting spells, you name it – just to get his attention). She would invite him over with her mother and sister to disguise it. And what did my mama do? She would ask about her in front of both of them which would mortify the woman and my father. That cut that crap ipsofacto. She found another doctor. No scenes, no screaming on my mother’s part but my father knew that she knew that there was some flirting going on. Her respectful way of handling it clearly said: “Don’t disrespect me. And I ‘m not a fool.”

    The gist of these two experiences is: don’t make a scene but you can be heard. It gives the person a chance to make amends and shows their character. If they proceed beyond this, then they’re really not sincere people who are making a mistake; they want to go down that path. They are making the choice to break their marriage vows. You can’t stop them.

    So the gist of this is: you can make known to the philanderer that you know about his infidelity discretely. Let him confront you about it; you have the right to express your anxiety about your friend’s health and his betrayal of her trust and faith in him. If he feels guilty and admits to it and what amends he’s made, then you can feel a little more relieved. The other side of the coin: do you know how your friend is? Would she be the type of person that she would want to know or would rather not know? That is what rides a lot on this.

    The other issue is that if you were not an eye witness to this, it’s even more difficult to be sure that it’s not just flirting or emotional adultery. Don’t put this anxiety on yourself if you are not 100% absolutely sure that he committed adultery and continues to do so. You shouldn’t put this on yourself because, at the end of the day, you are not responsible for his fidelity nor your friend’s marriage. Everyone must work to protect their relationship before they start worrying about other people’s relationships. You cannot be held accountable for your friend blindly trusting him, his infidelity or that other supposed friend’s betrayal. You are already a good friend for worrying about this.

  8. Laura says:

    I really enjoy your blog!

  9. Sad Friend says:

    But what if I’m not sure if it’s chronic or not? I know with certainty of one instance. It’s boldness makes me think that there must be more to it… I am worried for her health among other things. ???? Aggg! I just don’t know what to do!

  10. Irene says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for always posting such helpful and reasoned opinions!

    Best, Irene

     

  11. Anonymous says:

    Don’t get involved unless you are 100% sure something is going on/went on – and is it still going on? If it was a one off thing, then I’d be inclined to just stay out of it – people make mistakes, and it’s never a good idea to presume what is going on in someone else’s marriage.

    But if the infidelity is still going on, then perhaps I would be at least tempted to tell the cheating husband that you know, as the commenter said above, that might be enough. But you do have to ask yourself whether you are prepared to potentially stuff up someone else’s life. By telling her you are bound to cause a lot of upset. It may turn out to be the best thing that ever happens to this woman, or one of the worst.

    You just can’t know. And there are young children involved. So it’s a gamble – with other peoples happiness. You simply have to ask yourself, are you willing to take the risk?

    If it were me, I’d leave them to their fractured marriage and just be there for your friend if and when she needs you.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I have some experience with this situation. A close friend’s husband confided in my husband, about his attraction to another woman. The other lady was a high school girlfriend, that he had begin to grow closer to through Facebook.
    So I felt very conflicted, I would want the heads up, if my husband was starting to develop real feelings for any other woman. And my friend was going out of her way, to invite the lady to family events because her husband was really building up the friendships between their children as an excuse to be around this woman.
    But in the end, I said nothing. I did try to drop some hints, but just felt my hands were tied. Finally I came to the conclusion, that if her husband was speaking so freely with my husband, he was probably telling others, even her. You never know what happens in other people’s marriages.

  13. Laura says:

    I agree with Irene’s advice that the friend should not tell of the infidelity. However, morally speaking, the philanderer husband should be on some notice. He should know that her friend knows. Sometimes that’s enough for it to stop.

    If it’s chronic, in this day and age of AIDS, I think she would be morally obliged to tell her friend lest she catch something from “Mr. Happy Pants”.

    But this is just my take on it.

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