Friends Who Knew: Should You Help Cover Up An Affair?

Infidelity & Your Friends: Should You Tattle?

Betrayal. Seeing red. Unforgivable. Unbelievable. These are words people often use to describe when they find out friends knew their spouse was having an affair. But there's often another element of upset that hurts as much as the affair it self — the cover-up. The cover-up occurs when friends know about an affair and fib for their friend as they lie and sneak around. 

When I was in my early twenties, I was out with friends and saw my cousin's husband out in a group. I noticed his reflection in the mirror over the bar and knew that something was going on. Ned usually seemed annoyed or bored at family gatherings, but tonight he looked happy; charming even. I turned and saw him sitting at a table of people... but all of his attention was going to the blonde to his right. They weren't kissing or even touching but I knew instantly that what I was seeing spelled trouble for my cousin and her family.

The next day I confided in my father about the incident and asked what I should do. "Don't say anything," was his response. I was relieved and confused at the same time. "But Dad, I think Ned may be having an affair." Dad's response was that he might indeed be having an affair — but marriage was complicated and since I wasn't sure of what I had seen, I should just keep it to myself. That was almost 30 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Was Ned having an affair? Yes; and it ended my cousin's marriage. He married the woman I saw him with at the table that night, and is still married to her today. While I never said anything to my cousin about what I saw, I still wonder if I made the right choice.

The pain of finding out your spouse has had an affair is inconceivable. Research shows that fidelity is still one of the most sacred aspects of marriage. But according to a Rutger's University study, most people who have affairs report being happy in their marriage. Does this translate to being more open with their friends about their affairs? If so, how does that transparency affect their spouse when they find out friends knew?

I was interested in finding out what people thought: could you be friends with someone who knew about your spouse's infidelity, or worse, helped to cover it up? So I asked around. I asked single people and married people. I asked people who were married for a few months and people who had been married for decades. I asked people who had affairs and people whose spouses were unfaithful. While some of the people I interviewed said an affair wouldn't necessarily end their marriage (more so in the couples who had been married a long time) I could not find one person who would be comfortable being friends with someone who had known about an affair.

One person explained, "I have a different level of responsibility to try to work things out with my husband, but I don't have a responsibility to work something out with a friend. If one of my friends knew my husband was having an affair and didn't tell me, I'd be fine never talking to that person again.”

I have a client, Sue, who had an affair after 15 years of marriage. Sue isn't proud of the affair but in a weird way it did improve their relationship. "Things had been so bad between the two of us for so long, I just wanted to feel something again. I was really naïve when someone started to pursue me. It felt like I had been walking in the desert for a long time and someone was offering me a glass of water. I wish I had thought of the long-term consequences to my marriage. It took us a long time to rebuild, but we did it. While I'm really proud of the marriage we have now, I wish we could have gotten there a different way."

However, there is one casualty of this affair that won't get fixed: Sue's friendship with her college roommate Mary Ann. "Once my husband found out that Mary Ann knew, and even covered for me, he just couldn't tolerate me being friends with her. He felt like she had given me permission to have the affair instead of telling me to work it out with him. I can't even bring up her name without him fuming." 

People often have affairs because they imagine that the liason will give them something that they are not receving in their marriage. This can be the case but people often minimize the effect it will also have on their spouse and family. For example, as one of my interviewees explains: "I was shocked at Mary’s reaction to my affair. We hadn't been intimate for years and had all but said the marriage was over. When I told her about Nancy and that I was leaving, she just fell apart. I remember looking at her and having the realization that she loved me. I hadn't felt that in so long I kind of forgot that we had loved each other. If I had realized there was still hope for our marriage, I never would have started the affair."

Being attracted to someone else can be a good thing... when you use that as motivation to improve your marriage. It can reconnect you to something you and your partner no longer share. If you find yourself the confidant, you will most likely assume your friend feels that he or she doesn't have the energy or resources to fix their marriage — so what is the harm in having a little fun? While it will take a lot to fix the marriage, the reality is the energy they will expend dealing with the fallout of an affair is far bigger than they can even imagine. It will affect everyone in the family, and will always be a part of the fabric of the relationship. Granted, some marriages are over long before affairs begin, but why not just end the marriage first?

What is a friend to do when they find out about a dalliance or infidelity? There is no clear cut answer, though most agree that they don't even want to get involved in the first place. Everyone must decide for themselves, and much of your decision will depend on your own set of values.

One thing I would recommend; think through the consequences of covering for your friend — or asking a friend to cover up for you. It is a slippery slope from finding out about the affair to being part of the cover-up. Decide what works for you, and let your friends know your limits as you work to ameliorate the situation. Do your best to help your friend keep some degree of clarity in this process. If you find yourself living vicariously through your friend's affair, look at your own marriage or relationship and do something about it before it becomes its own casualty of an affair.

Kanya is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a Private Practice in Paoli, Pennsylvania. She is a highly sought after Relationship Expert and author whose work has been syndicated by the Huffington Post and Fox News Magazine. Kanya specializes in coaching single women who are ready to create meaningful relationships and helping couples deepen their levels of intimacy and closeness. Find out more about Kanya and download her new e-book for women.