Do we have an obligation to tell a friend their spouse or partner is cheating? Or does a good friend keep their mouth shut?
My best friend and I didn’t keep secrets. At least not from each other. But then came the night I was out with my mother shopping for a coat. I spotted my friend’s dad in a mall restaurant with a woman. A woman who was not my friend’s mother. A woman who was practically sitting in his lap. I might have been only 11 years old. But I knew cheating when I saw it.
My mother did, too, though she shushed me when I vocalized what we were both seeing. I shushed. Later that night, I asked my mom about it. She said that we really didn’t know what we’d seen. Maybe they were “good friends,” my mom said. Best not to say anything, she said.
Or is it? Lots of us extract promises from our friends to tell us if our partner is cheating. The implication is clear: If our man betrays us, we can count on our female friends to have our backs. But posing that question to friends recently — Would you tell a friend if her spouse was cheating on her? — revealed that it’s not always so clear.
There was plenty of mumbling about friends of friends for whom telling had turned out badly. The friendship had suffered, the woman's husband became violent. While most agreed in theory that we should tell, the consensus indicated it was smarter to just butt out.
Cheating is almost epidemic. Kinsey famously reported in 1948 that seven out of ten men and one in five women admitted having an affair. More recently, a study out of the University of Texas cited roughly half to three-quarters of marriages as having experienced infidelity.
People find out about a partner’s affair in all sorts of ways: a Visa statement with a suspicious charge, a stumbled upon text message or email, a nagging suspicion that a guilty spouse confirms. Or, sometimes, the news comes from someone who’s privy to more info than the cheated-upon wife and feels compels to share it.
But what if we’re the ones who know? Or suspect. Should we tell?
Absolutely, says Tracy Sutton Schorn, better known as “Chump Lady” to the cheated-on women who follow her blog. Silence, she says, is “gutlessness.”
Schorn, who was married for just six months when she learned of her husband’s affair calls herself “the cautionary tale.” She found out via her then-husband’s mistress and counts herself lucky that she found out at all.
Mark White isn’t so sure. The philosophy professor and chair of the department of philosophy at the College of Staten Island, cautions that “doing a good thing isn’t the same as doing the right thing.”
The good, he says, is defined in terms of consequences: What’s going to create the most good?
The right doesn’t necessarily consider consequences but is more about a person’s moral code. For example, the need to tell the truth, to be honest.
The answer is a bit clearer to Carlin Flora. The author of "Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are," says: “It’s hard to have that knowledge and not do something about it” — though she admits that “telling is really difficult.”
What might stop us from telling, she says, is the “shoot the messenger syndrome.” We fear being the bearer of bad news … and becoming the target of our friend’s anger.
Irene S. Levine, a psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y., and creator of TheFriendshipBlog.com, recommends gauging a friend’s openness to the information. “If she voices concerns about her marriage,” for example, “this might be the perfect opening for a conversation.”
But what about my mother’s caveat, that we didn’t really know anything more than what we saw? It is possible, says Levine, to misread a situation. Or a friend may already know and have given tacit permission. In other words, in some circumstances, Levine is all for shushing.
Nope, says Schorn, who holds fast to her conviction that it’s never right to stay silent. So what, she says, if there’s an “agreement”? Your friend can let you know that she knows … and that it’s all right with her. If you’re unsure of what you saw, don’t draw conclusions. “Just tell what you know … and do it compassionately,” says Schorn.
So sure is Schorn that telling is the right thing to do, she calls it “heroic.” By not telling, she says, “you’re subjecting an innocent person to harm,” referring to consequences her readers have suffered: sexually transmitted infections, paternity tests for children. And if you’re still unsure, she says, think of it this way: Silence is its own betrayal.