If you’ve clicked on this article, you might have experienced the following: You’re at brunch, even virtually, with one of your friends—minding your business and chatting about Netflix—when said friend drops a bomb. “I’ve, uh, been cheating,” they say. A rush of emotions and memories—couples dates, good relationship advice you’ve given, or how your friend has never judged you—flash through your mind. You can almost see your pancakes shriveling as you search for a good response.
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 partners, 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 friend 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 where 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?”