We often think cheating is hush-hush, but plenty of people confide their infidelity in folks they trust. The reasons are numerous. If your friend cheated and told you about it, they might be sharing out of guilt, fear, worry, or even excitement.
But what are you supposed to do with that information? Step 1: Admit that you’re a little uncomfortable. First of all, forgive yourself for not having the right words. We don’t have frameworks for these kinds of conversations, so they can feel awkward, Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist, tells SELF. Cultural norms make infidelity seem like a shameful thing that only heartless people do, but that narrative doesn’t leave much room for compassion or empathy, does it? If you sat in stunned silence when your friend revealed their secret, it’s possible that you were dealing with a flood of emotions. It could be that you’re sorting through those aforementioned norms. Or it could be that this revelation triggers memories of personal experiences with infidelity, or maybe you’ve never liked how your friend’s partner talks down to them, so you secretly want to make a toast. Whatever your initial reaction, it’s helpful to remember that the reasons people seek relationships outside of their primary one are nuanced—so there isn’t a universally correct response. So try to take a second before reacting, Dr. Torrisi says. If your friend cheated on their partner and you’re not sure how to respond, you can pause and say, “Wow, okay, that’s huge news.” It’s also totally fine to admit that you feel uncomfortable by saying something like “Sorry if I'm acting awkward, I'm just surprised! Do you want to tell me more?” Naming the awkwardness (your friend probably feels it too) without being judgmental gives you a second to collect your thoughts before you say something you’ll regret. And if you’ve already yelled “WTF” in response, it’s fine to take a second and apologize for being judgy when you’re ready.
Step 2: Remind yourself that cheating is often complicated. To be clear: Most people don’t cheat to hurt their partner or with complete disregard for their partner’s feelings, Dr. Torrisi explains, adding that, in many cases, people who cheat have unmet needs they’re trying to fill. (But sometimes people are cheating in a completely unrepentant way, which is a whole other situation we’ll dive into in a bit.) Those needs might be sexual, but that’s not always the case (actually, some cheating is entirely emotional). In fact, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sex Research surveyed nearly 500 people who’d cheated and found that although about 43% of people said they cheated out of anger, 77% reported doing it because they felt a lack of love in their relationship, 70% said they cheated due to some type of neglect, and 57% attributed their cheating to low self-esteem. Even more complicated, the reasons people cheat often don’t exist in isolation. Someone might cheat both because they feel neglected in their relationship and because they’re angry about it. So if your knee-jerk reaction is to judge, Dr. Torrisi urges you not to. Don’t imply that your friend’s cheating is gross or wrong or that they’re a horrible person. Remember that you might not have an entirely clear (or accurate) picture of what’s going on in their relationship or what led them to make this choice. Even if you do have a fair bit of intel, it’s still best to reserve judgment, at least until you hear more.
Step 3: Ask your friends questions to understand what they need. Once you’ve had a second to regroup, tune into what your friend might need from you. If your friend is sharing this with you, they are likely looking for something—whether it be support, empathy, understanding, validation, or a sounding board. So instead of judging or trying to fix the situation, try active listening. As SELF previously reported, active listening is a practice whereby you make it completely clear that you’re tuned into the person you’re listening to (instead of preparing to lecture them). You can ask questions, like “Why do you think you’re doing that?” or “What does that mean for you?” You can also ask, “What do you need from me, as your friend, right now?”
Since your friend’s cheating isn’t actually about you, you’re allowed to relax into compassionate curiosity. Asking questions might help your friend think through why the affair happened, but it can give you a bit of perspective as well. Maybe knowing the circumstances will help you be more empathetic. For instance, hearing your friend say they love their partner and want to work things out might help you brainstorm solutions together. You might talk to your friend about considering an open relationship, brainstorm how they’ll tell their partner about what happened, or you might even suggest they find a therapist.
Step 4: Recognize that you might not like your friend’s responses. Here’s the thing: Um, there is a chance that your friend might have answers that you’re not super comfortable with. Maybe you’re expecting them to show remorse, and they’re pretty celebratory. Perhaps they’re too busy justifying their behavior to realize how they’re putting their partner’s health at risk, or maybe you really dislike their partner, and you hoped cheating was the catalyst for the breakup you’ve always wanted (but your friend is pretty committed to working it out). If hearing your friend’s responses changes how you feel about them or makes you question your friend or even your entire friendship, it’s okay. And if we’re keeping it honest, not all friendships warrant your undying love and acceptance. You might have a lot of compassion for your childhood best friend who is crying on your shoulder after cheating even if you disagree with their choice, but the frenemy in your yoga class, who always points out that your leggings are frayed and leaves any emotional texts from you on read more often than not? Well, it’s okay if you’re not willing to stick by them during this vulnerable moment. Often, cheating is scary, stressful, and isolating. So it’s natural that your friend might seek comfort from you, AASECT-certified sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., author of When You’re the One Who Cheats, tells SELF. While it’s lovely that your friend trusts you enough to share this information, there are lots of other reasons you might not feel equipped to handle this news. Maybe you’ve been cheated on, and hearing your friend’s story triggers you. Perhaps you’re close to your friend’s partner, and you don’t want to participate in any deception. Or maybe you love your friend, but you don’t have the energy for this drama. No matter what is causing your discomfort, don’t forget to take care of your own needs too.
Step 5: Set boundaries especially if your friend wants you to keep this a secret. A friend who comes to you about cheating might want support, but they’ll likely want something else too: for you to keep their secret. That’s a big ask, and you’re well within your right to set boundaries around this conversation, Dr. Nelson says, and one of those boundaries can be: “I will not keep this secret for you.” If you can’t bear the thought of spending time with your friend’s partner while knowing about the infidelity, Dr. Torrisi has two suggestions. You can tell your friend that you’re going to back away from the friendship for a while, or you can explain that if they don’t tell their partner about the cheating after a certain amount of time, you’ll tell.
You don’t have to say this in a mean or judgmental way. Instead, you might say something like “I can’t keep this secret.” Then you can offer to help your friend think through ways to tell their partner, including plans for staying safe in case they react badly.
Step 6: If you’re going to be there for your friend, reserve judgment. Deciding whether or not you’re willing to keep this secret is profoundly personal and depends on many things—there isn’t a “right” way for you to show up. But if you feel comfortable being the person who helps a friend work through cheating, try to keep judgment out of it as much as possible. And if you don’t think you have the time and space to support them, remember that it’s okay to communicate that clearly (and with compassion).
Even if cheating isn’t the choice you’d make, try to remember the moments when you’ve benefited from a nonjudgmental ear. Ultimately, this isn't about you—it’s about your friend—and everyone deserves support through difficult moments.
What Is Emotional Cheating (and Does It Count)?
So, what exactly is emotional cheating?
As the name implies, emotional cheating often involves nonsexual intimacy with someone who isn’t your partner. If you’ve gotten relatively close with a coworker and you find yourself secretly texting them while thinking, I hope this person doesn’t tell my partner, there’s a chance you’ve ventured from platonic friendship into emotional cheating, Dr. Allan explains.
That might make it sound like you’re not allowed to share secrets or emotional intimacy with your friends because it’s automatically emotional cheating, but that’s of course not the case. Having a network of emotional support is healthy, and a significant other probably shouldn’t be your sole source of emotional well-being, TBH. Emotional cheating isn’t really about the action—sharing emotional closeness with people besides your partner, which is often a great thing—and instead about your emotions surrounding it, like hoping your partner doesn’t find out.
This nuance is why the term emotional cheating might not be the clearest or most neutral way to describe the phenomena in your actual relationship. If, for instance, you think of emotional intimacy as a form of infidelity and your partner thinks cheating is only physical, a phrase that includes cheating might not help you convey how you’re feeling or help them understand exactly how and why they hurt you. That’s not to say you can’t still call it emotional cheating if that’s the language that feels true to you, but it’s important to keep in mind how differently people can interpret the word cheating.
“The term that I use in my work is attachment injury,” Dr. Allan explains, adding that this term involves situations where one partner violates the expectations of the other. Instead of getting hung up on which types of behaviors constitute cheating, the term reframes the conversation to deal with how one partner’s actions impact another. “[When dealing with an attachment injury] there's a sense that the relationship has been violated in some way, and there is hurt,” Dr. Allan adds.
Sometimes attachment injuries are accidental, but that doesn’t mean they don’t damage relationships. Ultimately, whether you call it emotional cheating or an attachment injury, every partner in your relationship should define what crosses this boundary for them and agree on the terms, so you can (hopefully) avoid attachment injuries like these.
Here’s how to know if you are emotionally cheating.
If you feel like your partner is having an emotional affair, it’s often best to discuss your concerns with them directly. (More on that in a bit.) But if you think you might be having one, ask yourself: How transparent am I with my partner about this other relationship?
It bears repeating: It’s healthy to have emotional support from people outside of your partner, but secrecy has implications for your romantic partnership. If you find yourself sneaking to get support and intimacy outside of your relationship, then you might not feel the need to exercise that muscle with your partner, Dr. Allan says. “And it could impact not only emotional intimacy but physical intimacy as well.”
Additionally, you might ask yourself whether there’s any underlying attraction in your friendship that’s sparking questions about emotional cheating. Though physical attraction to people besides your partner is natural, it might be a sign that your friendship is less platonic than you think.
Why does someone start emotional cheating?
“There is no one reason,” Dr. Allan says. In fact, there are many factors and situations that might cause someone to seek emotional support outside of their relationship, and in many cases, it’s reasonable to do so. Generally, one partner might experience some difficulty trying to express their emotional needs within their relationship, or they might be with someone unable (or unwilling) to meet their expectations in this realm, Dr. Allan explains. This doesn’t mean that the other partner is necessarily at fault or caused the transgression—in a healthy partnership, there are lots of ways that a partner might try to get certain emotional needs met within the relationship before venturing outside of it in a way that feels like emotional cheating.
Yes, you can try to address emotional cheating and move forward.
First, if you’re the one who did the emotional cheating, you might be wondering if you should even tell your partner. This can be especially true if you’ve sworn to yourself that you’ll stop the emotional affair or have actually already put an end to it. You might be anxious about your partner’s reaction or even convinced they wouldn’t want to know. While it’s up to you to decide whether or not to disclose that information, Dr. Allan says that revealing it can help you “ensure the foundation in your relationship is one of trust and honesty.”
Once it’s out in the open, no matter who had an emotional affair, the first step is to decide whether you both want to stay in the relationship. If your partner cheated, you might ask yourself questions about whether you’re willing to do the work required to forgive your partner. If you cheated, you might explore why you went outside of the relationship to meet your needs. Ultimately, no matter who had the indiscretion, both people need to determine if this is the relationship they want to be in, Dr. Allan explains.
Provided you’ve both decided to try and work things out, the best way to begin the healing process is to communicate about what happened, Dr. Allan explains. Unsurprisingly, this can get really, really tricky. The person who did the emotional cheating might want to assuage their guilt by sharing every single detail, while their partner might find the particulars far too painful. On the flip side, one partner might ask for all of the specifics about emotional cheating, only to realize it makes forgiveness that much harder. There’s no universal answer for how to handle this—it’s up to you and your partner to figure out what feels right. But if you’re committed to figuring it out together, that’s a great foundation for healing.
“I'm a firm believer in anything's possible, and it’s possible to get past this,” Dr. Allan says. The first step to actively repairing the damage is for the person who cheated to acknowledge how their actions have caused harm, Dr. Allan explains. “You have to be open,” he says. “You have to be ready to say, ‘My actions and my behavior really did impact the other person.’” Effective apologies involve way more than just saying I'm sorry, but acknowledging fault is a great start. (We have more good advice on the matter.).
Simply acknowledging that you agree on this painful reality can be helpful. When examining the habits of couples that stayed together after infidelity, SELF-found that many couples had to rebuild trust. “Betrayal is the most damaging part of an affair,” David Klow, L.M.F.T., owner of Skylight Counseling Center, previously told SELF. “The person who was cheated on usually struggles to know what is real anymore. Their ability [to] discern what is real gets damaged.”
To that end, both parties need to speak candidly, even if that involves asking and answering difficult questions about details and any factors that led to the attachment injury. To keep the conversation from turning into a shouting match, consider doing your very best, even though it can be hard, to take deep breaths so that you’re able to listen without rushing toward defensiveness. When speaking, you might also use “I” statements (instead of accusations) to discuss how you’ve felt. What you discover about one another in the process might be hard to hear, but a healthier, more honest relationship can come to the fore.