Your friend tells you they have a secret they need to share: They’ve cheated on their spouse and need your advice on what to do.
Do you suggest they tell their partner? Or keep the affair a secret?
Do you share how you’d handle the situation? Or do you change the subject and hope they never bring it up again?
Recently, on our Facebook page, a Psych Central reader asked how friends can navigate such a thorny situation. To get the answer, we consulted two seasoned relationship experts. Here’s what they said.
Listen to your friend.
“First and foremost, it is important to hear your friend out,” said Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Arlington Heights, Ill. Make sure you’re really listening to your friend.
If your friend asks your thoughts on cheating, tell them the truth. “Friends are supposed to act as ethical lighthouses for each other, so it is OK to state your views about infidelity if asked, without sounding judgmental, and without condoning their actions,” Rastogi said.
Then refocus on your friend, she said. For instance, you might say: “This sounds like a complicated situation to be in. Personally, I am wary of affairs. How are you feeling about it?”
Don’t minimize the affair.
Let’s say your friend comes to you and reveals, “I think I’m having an inappropriate relationship at work.” You ask whether it’s sexual. It’s not. So you say, “Oh, no, then it’s fine.”
The problem? Emotional affairs can be just as devastating as physical affairs – if not more, said Anthony Chambers, Ph.D., ABPP-CFP, the director of the Couples Therapy Program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
In fact, some of the more challenging cases he’s worked with have been emotional affairs. It’s particularly difficult if the emotional affair happened at work, he said.
In other words, it’s key for friends not to minimize the effects of any affair.
Encourage your friend to think about his or her actions.
For instance, Rastogi suggested asking your friend these questions: “[H]ow you would feel if the shoe were on the other foot? What do you think this means for you, and for the other parties involved? What [do] you hope will come out of this?”
Also, encourage your friend to figure out what’s happening in his or her marriage, Chambers said. Why did he or she have an affair? “Often infidelity is a symptom of an underlying relationship problem.”
Be a friend to your friend’s marriage.
“Most people struggle with emotionally charged and sensitive issues, and their advice is often what they would do, not what is best for their friend,” Rastogi said. They also give advice from an individual perspective, and don’t consider the other spouse or kids, Chambers said.
That’s why he stressed the importance of “taking into account the best interest of the marriage.” This also means that when the affair comes out, the other spouse doesn’t see you as a threat to their relationship, he said. (If they do, this could “inadvertently jeopardize your friendship.”)
Encourage your friend to get professional help.
Probably the greatest advice you can give your friend is to seek therapy, according to both experts. “It is difficult and unlikely [for couples to get over infidelity] without professional help,” Chambers said.
Couples therapy is a safe space to reveal unfaithfulness. “Trust is so fundamental to any relationship. It’s never an easy process [to disclose an affair],” he said. However, if people want to work on their marriage, disclosing is important.
“One of the best ways to restore trust is when the injured partner can say, ‘at least my partner was forthcoming.’” It’s especially hard to restore trust if the spouse learned about the infidelity on their own, such as through a text, email or private investigator, Chambers said.
Knowing how to genuinely support a friend who’s cheated is tough. But you can help them by being a good listener, not minimizing the affair and encouraging them to seek therapy, whether it’s individual or couples counseling.