This originally appeared in slightly different form at ShrinkTalk.net. Republished here with permission.
When you’re a practicing therapist, you often have clients who grapple with infidelity in their relationships. If the client is the person who cheated, your job is to help him/her to understand the reasons behind the transgression and, if appropriate, how not to go down that road again. If the client is the one who has been cheated on, the work is generally about deciding whether to stay in the relationship and, if so, how to move past the affair and make the partnership work.
However, what if the person who has uncovered the affair is neither person? Recently a client of mine posed this question:
I am a very good friend with a couple, each of whom I love dearly. One friend confided in me that she is cheating on her partner with another man. She says she feels terrible about it but does not want to stop the affair, that it brings her too much pleasure. She told me that she confided in me because of her guilt and ‘needed someone to talk to,’ but begged me not to tell her partner who is also my friend. I feel trapped. I don’t want to betray my friend’s trust but, at the same time, I do not want to see my friend played for a fool. He’d be furious if he somehow found out I knew and didn’t tell him. What do I do?
Let’s go through the two most obvious options, then I’ll present a third, perhaps more subtle choice for consideration.
Tell the Partner
Pros: You are no longer hiding a secret and your male friend has full disclosure so that he may decide if/how the relationship should continue.
Cons: Your female friend is angry with you for having betrayed her trust, and it could be argued that your disclosure was the end of their relationship (i.e., if you just kept your mouth shut, no one would have gotten hurt, at least right away).
Do Not Tell the Partner
Pros: You keep your female friend’s trust and you spare your male friend the potential agony of finding out about the affair (at least for now).
Cons: You are tacitly lying to your male friend. He may ultimately be angry at you for letting him continue in a relationship that he believed was monogamous. You are also enabling your female friend to cheat and are now holding an important, perhaps life altering, secret.
Neither of those sound particularly appealing. This is, in many ways, a no-win situation. However, all is not lost. My client has been subtly manipulated into becoming a helpless third party in the relationship. Above all else, she needs to remove herself from that position and regain control if she wishes to remain friends with that couple. This is one way to achieve that:
Give Your Friend a Time Frame
Tell your friend that she either needs to end the affair or confess to her partner—within a time frame that you establish. Tell her that if she fails to comply with this, you will tell him yourself. If she follows through, do nothing and allow the relationship to either progress or end based on her behavior. If she does not, tell the male partner along with full disclosure that you attempted to protect both of them as equally as possible.
Pros: You regain control of your personal situation, allowing your female partner to potentially save face while still holding her accountable for her actions. You also convey the message that you are not looking to simply snitch on her, but that you have a responsibility to your male friend. You demonstrate respect to her by allowing her to walk away from the affair (if she so chooses) and at least attempt to make her current relationship work. Finally, you free your male friend from a false belief about his relationship while not pushing your personal stance onto your female friend. It is now her choice.
Cons: Either or both parties could be angry at you. However, even if this does occur, you didn’t force your moral compass onto either party without a viable alternative. Given the circumstances, you respected each friend’s need to be protected but recognized that actions have consequences (including confiding in a friend who has more than one person’s interests at heart).
Every situation has its own nuances and therefore this advice may not fit every relationship, but far too many of us restrict ourselves to the obvious choices when presented with ethical dilemmas. Not all problems have perfect solutions, especially when it comes to infidelity, but the first two options don’t allow anyone to move forward in a psychologically healthy way. Furthermore, those choices will ultimately leave my client feeling resentful, guilty and/or helpless. This last option gives her control and, ideally, the respect of both parties for attempting to balance their needs accordingly.
Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist and the author of the book “Crazy: Notes on and off the Couch.” Visit him at his website, ShrinkTalk.Net. He lives and works in New York City.