Marriage & Life Partners

Dangerous Knowledge:
A Friend’s Husband is Cheating

Dear Dr. Ford,

Recently, I found out that a friend’s husband is cheating. I don’t know many of the details, it might be just once or could be a longer-term thing, but I saw him with another woman, and they were definitely more than “friends.” What should I do? I feel terrible not telling her, but I am afraid of hurting her. I like her husband and have always thought he was a pretty good guy for her. This is bothering me so much, because I can make a case for telling, but also for not telling. How can I decide?



Dear Gina,

This is a very personal decision, and there are no universal guidelines for what to do. Though many religions strictly forbid infidelity, you must keep your friend’s needs as well as your own principles in mind. In my experience, this kind of knowledge is unwelcome and can be dangerous to everyone involved, including you.

Many years ago my mother, then in her 40s, took my sister and a small group of her friends to an afternoon children’s movie. It was a small birthday party—they were more modest in those days, and fathers rarely attended unless it was a weekend. This was a weekday in summer, and the theater was fairly empty.

About halfway through, she went up the aisle for more candy (and probably a cigarette break, if I had to guess.) Many years later, she told me that nestled way in the back, she saw two of her close friends, both neighbors, passionately kissing. They were both married, but not to each other. She spent the rest of the movie hovering in the lobby, afraid to go back to her seat lest her friends see her, and know that she knew.

My mother never said anything about this, though she wrestled with the problem for a while. The wife of the man in the movie theater was her closest friend of the group, and she was deeply uncomfortable having this forbidden knowledge and keeping it from her. Eventually, both couples divorced and remarried, all except the cuckolded wife, my mother’s close friend. Interestingly, the cheating spouses did not marry each other, but wound up with different partners. She never stopped wondering if she had done the right thing by staying silent.

I don’t know what her reasoning was, but I do know that being the bearer of bad news can be dangerous. So can refraining from spilling the beans. Once, I had a friend who told me that she had had an affair early in her marriage, now in the past, before she and I knew each other. Eventually she confessed to her husband and also told him that I knew about it. He was furious with her, of course, but also with me. He hated that I had this secret knowledge about his life and hadn’t told him. I think it added to his embarrassment and humiliation, and he felt betrayed by me as a friend that I kept it from him.

My reasoning in this case was that my loyalty was to the wife, who was my close friend, though the husband was also a friend, but “through” her. And since the affair was long over it was not relevant. And of course, it was not my business, and I wish I had never known in the first place. This couple stayed together and seemed to work things out. The wife was forgiven, in time, and so was I.

A few years after the movie theater incident, my parents also divorced, and my mother partly blamed the two cheating spouses for setting off a wave of broken marriages in her circle. I thought this was a bit unfair—it was the early 70s and the divorce rate was skyrocketing as middle-aged people caught some of the fever of the swinging 60s. But there is some evidence that the behavior of friends influences us—even our weight seems to be loosely tied to that of our cohorts.

My parents, like their friends, also remarried, and the marriages lasted, but all of the new spouses, my parents’ and their friends’, seemed to me to be less appropriate choices than their original partners. They all traded, but traded down. I don’t know if they were happier, though. Their lives were more stable, however, and I suspect that may have something to do with ageing.

The 40s are a notoriously stressful time of life in our culture. The pressures of children, careers, and finances cause strain, and coupled with the ubiquitous mid-life crisis that causes restlessness and urgency, especially in men, cracks appear everywhere. Yet couples that remain together, sometimes in spite of affairs and other kinds of acting out (addictions, unemployment, troubles with the children), often report they are glad they did stick it out.

In light of this, the decision to stay silent when you know a friend’s spouse is cheating is somewhat vindicated. But if she finds out you knew and didn’t tell her, your friend may be angry with you. It is stating the obvious to say that infidelity stirs up powerful and extremely painful emotions, many justified, but often irrational. If your friend does eventually learn of her spouse’s infidelity, but you have stayed silent, I suggest you continue to do so.

And yet, isn’t openness and honesty the bedrock of friendship (and marriage, too, of course)? Yes, but is it the most important thing? Not always. Sometimes the urge to confess a past affair is selfish. Often the person’s wish to unburden herself comes at great cost. While it may make you feel better, it can make your partner feel much worse, and can even cause a fatal rift in a marriage. One can say, well then the bond wasn’t strong enough to survive, but who knows?

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  • lordhack242 atgmail June 26, 2019 at 8:07 pm

    Let her see it for herself, get in touch for help

  • mickey monroe May 30, 2019 at 11:43 am

    I have thought about this question so very much. Thank you for going through all its manifestations. Ah, yes, I, too, have had the knowledge. Well, actually, my dear friend’s husband, who is an alcoholic, ‘hit’ on me while she was away. I was horrified. Later, she said some things that sounded like she knew he was like that when he drank. Thank you, God, he is alcohol free right now. He’s respectful and kind toward me. I appreciate that. I think of him first as my friend’s husband with all that implies. First and foremost, I am not interested in married men; second, or would this be first? I am not interested, I am horrified at the thought of cheating with a friend’s husband or significant other. I won’t ever, ever, tell her. That he was drinking, very drunk, at the time, is not an excuse. It was that his normal social context was diminished and I am glad I’ve matured enough to avoid this type of situation. And, having written all that, thank you again and again for exploring this issue. Yes, the knowledge is so dangerous; wouldn’t you want to know? Yes, but….. Many years ago in the months after I had split with a boyfriend, over and over women told me he had, well, it was long ago and I wondered then, why would you do that to me, your friend? Okay, not that close but still… Anyway, more thanks. Wow. What a profound subject.