What Not to Say to a Friend Who’s Been Cheated On
Whatever you do, resist the urge to say what's really on your mind
A friend has revealed her husband/partner/boyfriend had an affair. She is some combination of disbelieving, furious, shattered. You, as her friend and confidante, feel compelled to help her in some way. But inconveniently, you find yourself at a loss for words — although infidelity is so common, you are shocked too — except for a handful of shopworn bromides. Perhaps not so coincidentally, your friend’s wailed laments, on tight rotation as you two dive into a second bottle of merlot, are starting to sound a tiny bit generic as well: “How could he…?” “…with such a total ho-bag?” and “I thought he loved me.” Etcetera. Since she’s gone all Patsy Kline on you (except for that ho-bag thing; where did that come from?) your also-predictable advice would be good enough, right?
I’m here to say no. I can’t claim to have written the book on infidelity but I have written a novel on the subject, published in blog format (right over here). As fodder, I read scores of novels about marriage, which is the same thing as saying I read scores of novels about infidelity. I simply can’t think of a story about a marriage that didn’t feature a betrayal of some sort, from flirty dalliance to full-on affair (feel ever so free to skip my novel — even my agent did! — but check out its bibliography here).
Other people’s marriages are so various, so unknowable. So are their affairs. But somehow the comfort and counsel offered to the cheated-on woman tends toward the boilerplate, with each utterance a Pinterest board waiting to happen. What follows is my list of what not to say to a cheated-on friend. Disagree with me? You’re a ho-bag! No sorry, that must be contagious. What I meant to say is I’d be grateful for any and all comments, below.
1. Once a cheater, always a cheater
There already are Pinterest boards devoted to this one. Here’s an analogy as a rebuttal: as an adolescent, I shoplifted Bub’s Daddy bubble gum, rootbeer Lip Smackers, and other 70s-era dime-store items. As an adult, have I pursued a life of petty crime, unable (or unwilling) to stop myself from pocketing point-of-sale merchandise at the CVS? No, I haven’t. In fiction, however, cheaters cheat chronically and ceaselessly — but is this mostly because this makes for a better narrative arc? Put another way, where would the novel go if, after the affair, the cheater stopped cheating and the reunited couple lived happily ever after? In real life, people change and marriages heal — it just doesn’t make for a very interesting story so it’s not one people tell. Bottom line: Maybe the cheater’s drug of choice — cheating — will be impossible to quit. And maybe it won’t. But it’s not your job to serve as judge and jury on this matter.
2. Leave him
This is the advice attached to “once a cheater” and it’s just as readily proffered and just as unhelpful. I get it: “should I stay or should I go now” is not a comfortable place to live. Any action, no matter how hastily considered, might seem preferable over the purgatory of indecision. But as above, this is better left unsaid, not because leaving is wrong but because rushing to decide is wrong.
3. You need to think about the children
No, she doesn’t. That will tip the scale toward staying and, you’ll recall, now is not the time to decide. Now is the time for her to think about herself.
4. Turnaround is fair play
Fantasizing about stepping out with another man makes for an excellent Gloria Gaynor song. Queue it up, shout it out: “… I’m saving all my lovin’ for someone who’s loving me!” But remember that while this “taste of his own medicine” advice sounds galvanizing and empowering it’s actually just more telling her what to do. Which you’re not supposed to be doing.
5. He’s a selfish asshole
He is. Or at the very least he acted like one. But let her say that — and no worries, she will.
6. It was just sex
This is not counsel as much as it is comfort — or it’s supposed to be, minimizing the cheater’s relationship, if, in fact, it was just about sex and not a love affair. First off: “just” sex? Can you name another human act that has the same power to start or end a relationship? An act that’s as intimate, as magically delicious for him, as torturous for your friend to imagine (and she is imagining it)? Secondly: the cheater is very likely already minimizing the shit out of his affair so consider that task handled.
(This post originally appeared on The Midway.)
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Number 1 is huge. No one ever really knows, but I like your example. Infidelity stinks for both parties. You immediately become a statistic: the one that stayed or the one that left the cheater. Friends mean well and are looking at consoling you, but in the end it’s your decision and his to make it work or not. A real friend respects that. You can’t undo what broke you and in the end time heals you regardless of which route that you end up on.
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