If you clicked this article you might have experienced the following: you are at brunch, even virtually, with one of your friends, minding your business and chatting Netflix, when that friend drops a bomb . “I, uh, cheated,” they say. A wave of emotions and memories – dating, great relationship advice you gave, or how your friend never judged you – crosses your mind. You can almost see your pancakes shrivel up when you search for a good answer.
We often think of cheating as silence, but many people confide their infidelity to people they trust. There are many reasons. If your friend cheated and told you about it, they may be sharing their guilt, fear, worry, or even excitement. But what are you supposed to do with this information?
Step 1: Admit you’re a little uncomfortable.
First, forgive yourself for not having the right words. We don’t have a framework for these kinds of conversations, so they can feel awkward, says Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist, SELF. Cultural norms make infidelity seem like a shameful thing that only heartless people do, but this narrative doesn’t leave much room for compassion or empathy, does it?
If you sat in stunned silence when your friend revealed their secret, you may have been dealing with a flood of emotions. You may sort the above standards. Or it could be that this revelation triggers memories of personal experiences of infidelity, or maybe you never liked the way your friend’s partner talks to them, so you secretly want to give a toast. Whatever your initial reaction, it’s helpful to remember that the reasons people seek relationships outside of their primary relationship are nuanced – so there is no universally correct answer.
So try to take a second before you react, says Dr Torrisi. If your friend cheated on their partner and you don’t know how to respond, you can pause and say, “Wow, okay, that’s huge news.” It’s also great to admit that you feel uncomfortable saying something like, “Sorry if I’m awkward, I’m just surprised! Do you want to tell me more?” Name the embarrassment (your friend probably feels it too) nonjudgmentally gives you a second to collect your thoughts before saying something you’ll regret. And if you’ve ever yelled “WTF” in response, you can take a second and apologize for having use good judgment when you’re ready.
Step 2: Remember that cheating is often complicated.
To be clear: most people don’t cheat to hurt their partner or with complete disregard for their partner’s feelings, says Dr Torrisi, adding that in many cases people who cheat have unmet needs that they try to fill. (But sometimes people cheat in totally unrepentant ways, which is a whole different situation we’ll dive into in a moment.) These needs can be sexual, but that’s not always the case (in fact, some cheating is entirely emotional). In fact, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sex Research surveyed nearly 500 people who had cheated and found that while about 43% of people said they cheated out of anger, 77% said they had it. done because they felt a lack of love in their relationship, 70% reported cheating due to some type of neglect, and 57% attributed their cheating to low self-esteem.
More complicated still, the reasons why people cheat often do not exist in isolation. Someone can cheat both because they feel neglected in their relationship and because they are upset about it. So if your gut reaction is to judge, Dr. Torrisi urges you not to. Do not imply that your friend’s cheating is rude or wrong or that he is a horrible person. Keep in mind that you may not have an entirely clear (or precise) picture of what is going on in their relationship or what prompted them to make that choice. Even if you have quite a bit of information, it’s always best to reserve your judgment, at least until you hear more.
Step 3: Ask your friend questions to figure out what they need.
Once you’ve had a second to regroup, find what your friend might need from you. If your friend shares this with you, they’re probably looking for something – whether it’s support, empathy, understanding, validation, or a sounding board. So instead of judging or trying to fix the situation, try active listening. As SELF has stated previously, active listening is a practice where you make it clear that you are listening to the person you are listening to (rather than preparing to teach them a class). You can ask questions such as “Why do you think you are doing this?” or “What does this mean to you?” You can also ask, “What do you want from me, as a friend, now?”
Since your friend’s cheating isn’t actually about you, you are allowed to relax in compassionate curiosity. Asking questions can help your friend think about the reason for the affair, but it can also give you a bit of perspective. Maybe knowing the circumstances will help you be more sensitive. For example, hearing your friend say they love their partner and want to work things out can help you find solutions together. You could talk to your friend about forming an open relationship, think about how they will tell their partner about what happened, or you could even suggest that they find a therapist.
Step 4: Recognize that you might not like responses of your friend.
Here’s the thing: uh, your friend may have answers that you’re not very comfortable with. Maybe you’d expect them to show remorse, and they’re pretty festive. Maybe they’re too busy justifying their behavior to realize how much they are putting their partner’s health at risk, or maybe you really don’t like their partner, and you were hoping that they were cheating. was the catalyst for the breakup you’ve always wanted (but your friend is pretty committed to making it happen).
If hearing your friend’s responses changes how you feel about them or causes you to question your friend or even your whole friendship, you’re fine. And if we stay honest, not all friendships are worth your undying love and acceptance. You might have a lot of compassion for your childhood best friend who cries over your shoulder after cheating even though you don’t agree with his choice, but the enemy in your yoga class, who always points out that your leggings are frayed and leave emotional texts read to you more often than not? Well, it’s okay if you’re unwilling to stay by their side during this vulnerable time.
Often times, cheating is scary, stressful and isolating. So it’s only natural for your friend to seek comfort from you, explains AASECT Certified Sex and Relationship Therapist Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., author of When You are the One Who Cheats to SELF. While it’s nice that your friend trusts you enough to share this information, there are plenty of other reasons why you might not feel equipped to handle this news. Maybe you have been cheated and hearing your friend’s story turns you on. You might be close to your friend’s partner and you don’t want to participate in any cheating. Or maybe you love your friend, but you don’t have the energy for this drama. Whatever the cause of your discomfort, remember to take care of your own needs as well.
Step 5: Set some boundaries, especially if your friend wants you to keep this a secret.
A friend who tells you about cheating might want support, but they probably want something else too: that you keep their secret. This is a big request, and you are totally within your rights to set limits around this conversation, says Dr. Nelson, and one of those limits can be, “I won’t keep this a secret to you. ”
If you can’t stand the thought of spending time with your friend’s partner while still being aware of the cheating, Dr. Torrisi has two suggestions. You can tell your friend that you are going to withdraw from the friendship for a while, or you can explain that if he doesn’t tell his partner about cheating after a while, you will say so.
You don’t have to say this in a mean or critical manner. Instead, you could say something like “I can’t keep this a secret.” Then you can offer to help your friend think of ways to tell their partner, including plans to stay safe in case they react badly.
Step 6: If you are going to be there for your friend, reserve your judgment.
Deciding whether or not you are ready to keep this a secret is deeply personal and depends on a lot of things – there is no “right” way for you to present yourself. But if you feel comfortable being the person who helps a friend fight cheating, try not to be judgmental as much as possible. And if you think you don’t have the time and space to support them, remember that it’s okay to communicate this clearly (and with compassion).
Even if cheating is not the choice you would make, try to remember the times when you benefited from a non-judgmental ear. At the end of the day, it’s not about you – it’s your friend – and everyone deserves to be supported through tough times.