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My Friend Is Cheating on His Partner. What Do I Do?

Should you keep quiet and help your friend cover up an affair? Surprisingly, it's a lot more complicated than 'No!' and 'Go fuck yourself, Steve'

Think fast: Your friend, who is also a coworker, is having an affair with your company’s boss, and she wants you to cover for her. You refuse, but now the friend’s husband is harassing you about being a shitty friend — he has no idea what the falling-out is really about. What do you do?

It sounds like an easy “no” and “GTFO” scenario. But it opens up a can o’ worms: You’ve now become implicated in a moral quandary far beyond the whole cheating-is-bad thing.

This was the question in an enormous recent (and now removed) Reddit post — a rare example of when knowledge of a cheating scenario, and the correct course of action, is somewhat straightforward.

As most commenters point out, you should let the husband know what’s really going on. All the better if you can back it up with receipts, because now your own personal reputation and job safety are on the line:

And also be sure to take steps to protect yourself from being fired or retaliated against on the job for not participating in their little love triangle:

Even if you opted out of exposing the coworker’s affair to her husband or anyone, you’d still have every right to make sure you weren’t about to take the fall at work for something you have no part in:

Okay, so that one’s easy. But cheating scenarios are rarely that simple.

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First off, a lot of couples have “arrangements”; before you decide to meddle at all, make sure you have your facts straight. Despite the stereotype of the persecuted polyamorist, it’s not a couple’s duty to announce to the world their relationship is open, or just has different rules.

But what happens when the cheating is cut-and-dry? Most of the time, when you become aware your friend is cheating, the challenge is managing the fact that you know someone is cheating and deciding whether it’s your business to do anything about it.

In other words, your moral quandary extends far beyond whether to cover up an affair, whether you realize it or not.

Generally, whether or not you’d cover for your friend is going to come down to three things:

  1. Your friendship,
  2. The circumstances of the affair, and
  3. The personal stakes that come with you agreeing to participate, or even just have knowledge of it.

If you don’t know the friend’s partner that well, or you don’t like her, you can probably rationalize lying for a bud and easily wash your hands of any guilt, then leave it up to your friend to let the chips fall where they may. But if you’re friends with the partner too, it’s an entirely different scenario.

Responsible, decent people do their best to end one relationship before beginning another. Helping your friend get some no-strings poon on the side is in poor form. Don’t do it, unless your friend is in such a particularly victimized state that their cheating is a true escape route out of a bad situation, and not helping them is tantamount to signing their death certificate.

Otherwise, you’re not thinking clearly about how this is going to unfold for you, the cheater’s alibi.

For instance: Your friend whom you know has been unhappily married just texted you that he’s cheating on his wife, who’s also a friend of yours. She’s on to him, and he just needs you to pretend you were out with him last night in case she contacts you. But your wife is also friends with his wife, and they both find out, and are devastated.

Or this happens: You refuse to cover for him, but he won’t stop hounding you about how shitty you are for letting him get busted.

Or this: You do cover for him, and he is actually never grateful for it and ends up being a shitty friend. Maybe he’s pissed at you for not being a better moral compass?

Or maybe this: You didn’t agree to cover for your friend, but your wife finds out you knew your friend was cheating the whole time and is devastated. She can’t believe you would essentially condone cheating, not tell her, and moreover, not tell his wife, which to her proves your character is bullshit and you’re just as likely to cheat on her, too.

Or worst of all, this: You agree to cover for your friend. His wife finds out. Bonus: The person you covered for him to cheat with was, coincidentally, your wife.

All the above scenarios are drawn from various other similar Reddit posts and others that show up in forums all over the internet:

One of my favorite comments in all this, is someone on the above thread, who notes:

I agree that cheating stinks, but so do anonymous letters, eavesdropping, and gossiping about other people’s supposed love affairs. How about focussing on making yourself the best person you can be, and leaving others to manage their own business for better or for worse?

BTW, if you work at a bar, I’m sure there are lots of adulterers, fornicators, tax dodgers, illegal parkers and so forth patronizing your establishment. How far do your investigative and enforcement duties go? Do you just apply them to the juicy, gossip-worthy situations?

Herein lies the dilemma to me: Yes, it sucks to know about the affair. You want to help the victim see the light and stop being duped. And yet, where does the policing end?

Read enough of these posts about whether to cover for a cheater or what to do now that you know someone is a cheater, and the debates that ensue below them, and you realize there are a few strong pervasive positions out there:

Argument 1: What Other People Do Is None of Your Business

It’s not our business to become moral hall monitors about other people’s choices. People do bad things, but so does everyone, and we shouldn’t get in the habit of becoming self-appointed arbiters of morality. What’s more, we don’t really know other people’s agreements: Is the couple in the bar really cheating? Does the partner we think is being duped really not know? Would it matter if we told them? Would they believe us? The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” exists for a reason, and sometimes, when told the brutal truth about a partner, the victim partner will actually double down and get angry at the messenger for forcing them to accept a truth they might’ve happily gone on ignoring.

Argument 2: You Have a Moral Obligation to Expose a Cheater

On the flip side are the morality police, self-appointed beat cops of relationship indiscretion, who say they can’t live with knowing cheating is happening and do nothing. As self-described Good Samaritans of the Truth, they insist we must all report on each other no matter what. Whatever happens next is not our problem. We scootered into the scene, dropped some hot knowledge and get to ride off into the sunset, satisfied with our moral superiority.

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Argument 3: If You Don’t Tell Your Partner What You’re Doing, I Will

Third in line are the people who can’t ignore your cheating but won’t be delivering the news themselves. However, you will! They will blackmail you with the threat to do so unless you come clean on your own. It’s a split position between the first and the second, which manages to have it both ways: Total meddling with the pretense of zero meddling.

But if there’s a way through this thorny entanglement, I think it’s this:

Argument 4: I Can’t Be Your Friend Until You Resolve This Ethically

If a friend asks you to cover for their cheating, tell them you can’t be a party to this.

Tell them you wish they hadn’t told you what they’re doing, because it puts you in the terrible position of feeling responsible and complicit just because you know. You won’t help them cheat, nor will you rat them out for cheating. But you will help them figure out how to be honest and accountable about this so that they can live an honest life that doesn’t require sneaking around, whether that’s divorcing, confessing, repairing the relationship, becoming poly or simply being single. If that’s not the sort of help they want, or the work they’re willing to do, you’ll have to distance yourself from them until they get there.

If it’s not clear yet, none of these are really great positions to be in. What we do know is that cheating is lazy and bad, and yet it happens anyway. People are very self-righteous about cheating, almost as self-righteous as some people are about exposing cheaters one way or another. It’s important to realize we can’t buy our way out if we are aiding and abetting cheating, no matter how impartial we convince ourselves we are. We still need to take some kind of stand we can live with.

Of course, there’s a fifth option for the people who cheat. Keep your mouth shut, so none of this comes out in the first place. What people don’t know, they can’t judge you for.