Should You Tell Your Friend the Bad News?


Friendships are complicated things, loaded with fun and good times, but also with difficulties and pitfalls. Group dynamics among friends can become very complex, especially when things like gossip and secrets come into the equation. The most difficult situation of all is when you find out something about your best friend that she doesn’t know yet, and you have to make the decision whether or not to tell her. This is the sort of decision that can make or break a friendship, so you have to tread carefully.

Many years ago, my best friend (I’ll call her Jane) and I happened to be dating two guys who were also best friends. We used to have giggling fantasies of double weddings and other silly ideas, but then suddenly my boyfriend and I broke up. About a week later, I caught Jane’s boyfriend in a romantic situation with a girl that wasn’t Jane. My initial thought was to tell her, but then I hesitated. I wondered if she might possibly think that because my relationship failed, that I was trying to sabotage hers as well. I figured she probably knew me better than that, but I decided to wait a couple of days and think about it some more.

As it turned out, I never had to make a decision, because Jane caught him red-handed less than a day after I did, and that was the end of that. So I was off the hook for that particular situation, but it brought up a much deeper question for me: if I know about some horrible truth that would hurt my best friend, is it worse to tell her, or not to tell her? Moreover, if my best friend knew something awful about my situation, would I want her to tell me?

This of course is a very complex question, and the conclusion I came to is that friends, particularly best friends, should definitely discuss these issues of trust, and what they would or would not define as betrayal. For example, if I had told Jane that her boyfriend was cheating on her, I would have put myself in a position where I was in the middle of a complicated situation that didn’t really have anything to do with me, where I was instigating confrontations between two people that might not have happened otherwise. This could damage our friendship, as well as her relationship. On the other hand, if she found out on her own about the cheating and then learned that I had known about it for, say, several months and hadn’t told her, she might have serious reasons to feel betrayed. After all, I could have saved her several months of him making a fool of her in a relationship that was based on a lie. Choosing not to do anything about that would also be a difficult move.

I have polled some friends on their thoughts, and the results have been predictably mixed. Most people say that, yes, they would want to know if their boyfriend was cheating on them, but they also said that it would be very difficult to hear that news from a close friend, and they’d rather find out on their own. When I asked the specific question, “Would you want me to tell you if I caught your boyfriend cheating on you?” there was a perfect 50/50 split between yes and no responses.

So I’m curious to bring this question to the community at large — if you and I were close friends, would you want me to tell you if I caught your boyfriend doing romantic things with another woman? Would you want to know, even if I wasn’t sure and had only seen something mildly suspicious? Or would you want me to keep my mouth shut entirely, on the basis that it’s none of my business? Would the degree of closeness between us make a difference either way to you?

Obviously this is a very personal issue, and there are no right or wrong answers, but I think it’s important that friends discuss things like this in advance so that the general boundaries are clear. Me personally, you can be sure that if you caught my boyfriend cheating on me, I would want you to tell me immediately. Far from being angry with you, I would thank you, and buy the first round of drinks. After all, you have saved me weeks or maybe months that I would have wasted with a person who played games of deception and betrayal with my heart. I could then move on with my life and find someone worthy of being with me, all thanks to you.

I’m eager to hear any and all perspectives on this subject, and if anyone has any personal examples they feel comfortable sharing, perhaps we can all learn something and gain some new insight about the complexities of friendship and trust.

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