Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D.

Terri Orbuch Ph.D.


Dilemma: Do You Tell or Mind Your Own Business?

Someone is Cheating on Your Friend.

As the new comedy Dilemma hits movie theaters, I got to thinking about that age-old problem: what to do if you find out your friend's partner is cheating on him or her. In the movie, Vince Vaughn sees his best friend's wife passionately kissing another man. Should he tell his friend? Confront his friend's wife? Become an amateur sleuth to uncover the truth?

In real life, such a dilemma is anything but comic. It brings up ethical issues. It brings up privacy and boundary issues. And it can potentially jeopardize your friendship, challenge your loyalty, and destroy trust.

If you find yourself in such a dilemma, here are four issues to consider.

Issue #1: What constitutes cheating?
What did you really see? Flirting? A quick kiss? Or a passionate embrace? Were the two of them merely having lunch, or were they holding hands across the table and feeding each other spoonfuls of dessert? Perhaps you remember the scene in the movie Sleepless in Seattle when Meg Ryan's character sees Tom Hanks' character kissing and hugging a beautiful woman. Turns out it was his sister. But she jumped to conclusions and assumed they were lovers. Could you be making the same mistake?

Issue #2: What type of friendship do you have?
How close are you to your friend? Are you just racquetball buddies once a month, or do you routinely talk about your relationship and other personal details of your life? This matters because there's a lot at stake for both of you if you decide to tell your friend about the infidelity. What if you happen to work together or are involved in a lot of the same activities?
A really strong, close relationship might be able to sustain the resulting shame, anger, embarrassment, indignation, and grief - but a casual friendship probably won't. Try to weigh your action with its possible consequences for this level of friendship.

Issue #3: Can you confront the cheater?
It's always preferable for the one who has committed the infidelity to "come clean" with his or her partner than to have the incident reported secondhand by you, a friend. In fact, studies show that if the partner confesses, is contrite, and stresses that he or she has learned a lesson and is willing to take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again, healing can happen faster than if the betrayed partner finds out through the grapevine and then confronts the cheater. If you can, talk to your friend's partner and give him or her, say, a one-week deadline to tell your friend. After that, you'll be the bearer of bad news.

Issue #4: Are you prepared to lose the friendship?
Right now, you are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, if you simply let nature take its course and don't get involved, your friend may find out about the infidelity later - and ask you if you knew about it. You can't lie, and your friend is likely, then, to feel betrayed. On the other hand, the sad fact about infidelity is that it hurts so much that people will sometimes blame everyone but themselves and their partner. If you tell your friend, your friendship may be in the crosshairs. After considering the above three issues, you will need to decide how and when to risk your friendship - now or later. Remember, though, that friendships, when good, are very resilient.

A final bit of advice. Sometimes the easiest way to navigate an ethical dilemma like this is to simply ask yourself: What would I want my friend to do if he/she were in my position? Would you want your friend to mind his/her own business, or would you want to know? Would you want your friend to talk to your partner first, or to you first? Think it through and you'll know what to do. If you follow your heart and act out of friendship, you'll do the right thing.