It's the ultimate betrayal: Your friend's significant other has been unfaithful. And she's just confided in you. "You'll likely feel angry or hurt for your friend, but it's not the time to share your own feelings," says Karen Sherman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Long Island, NY. "Your job is to listen and validate her pain." Read on to find out which seemingly supportive comments can actually hurt your pal even more. Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty.
1. "Once a cheater, always a cheater."
Perhaps you feel your friend should never again trust the person who was unfaithful to her. "But this type of all-encompassing comment leaves no room for the possibility of the situation getting better," says Dr. Sherman. "You're squashing all hope, when, in fact, some relationships do heal and improve with work." Instead, focus on her present state of mind and acknowledge the intense pain she's experiencing by saying something like, "I can't even imagine how you must feel."
2. "Men cheat for a reason."
The reasons people cheat vary, ranging from immaturity to compulsive sexual behavior. Still, your job isn't to analyze your pal's partner or hint that your buddy's actions led to the infidelity. "The implication here is that your friend did something wrong or that her relationship was somehow lacking," says Helen Friedman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in St. Louis, MO. "Avoid finger-pointing and inadvertently 'blaming' her for his actions." A wiser idea: Recognize the complexity of what happened with "situations like this don't make sense.
3. "At least he didn't do what (some guy) did to (some other friend)."
You may think you'll cheer up your friend with someone else's horror story that seems worse than hers, but this discredits her own experience. "At this point, your friend doesn't care about anyone else," says Dr. Sherman. "This news is a total crisis and telling tales of other people's woes isn't helpful." Instead, acknowledge that her situation and reactions are unique, and comfort her with "I'm here to support you." Better yet, offer concrete ways of helping. For instance, if she has children, babysit her kids when she decides she needs a night to discuss the infidelity with her spouse.
4. "You should forgive him/forget him."
When a friend feels lost, being her guiding star can feel like the best course of action. You're not in her shoes and don't know how you'd behave in her circumstances, though. Plus, you're jumping ahead. "Neither comment recognizes that she needs time to feel her feelings and work through them," says Dr. Sherman. What's better? Saying something like, "I know you need a chance to sort out what's right for you," which shows your concern as well as your trust that she can decide for herself what to do going forward.
5. "Affairs are not about sex/affairs are all about sex."
Again, the reasons for affairs aren't so black and white. Besides, "you don't know whether the sex or the emotional betrayal is more distressing to your friend," says Dr. Sherman. What's more, comments about the physical aspect of affairs conjure up images your heartbroken friend would rather not picture. Bottom line: Steer clear of this kind of talk, and instead encourage your friend to share her emotions (with you or a professional counselor) so she can process them.
6. "Call a lawyer immediately."
Maybe you think your married friend needs legal advice right away in case they split up. Not only is that presumptuous but also premature. "After the crisis of an affair, many couples talk more openly and honestly if each is willing to work on the relationship," says Dr. Friedman. In some situations, the relationship can work out to be stronger; in others, it's better they part ways. So don't tell her what's in her best interest because you don't know; do show your unconditional support by sharing that you're there to listen.
7. "I suspected it."
Even if you did have an inkling, confessing this now accomplishes nothing positive. "It makes your friend feel stupid for not knowing," says Dr. Friedman. "And it makes you seem untrustworthy because you didn't tell her." Rather than sounding like a know-it-all, it's far better to say something that reflects your sincere concern for her such as, "I'm so sorry you're going through this." On the flipside, if she hasn't confided in you, but you suspect he's cheating, think long and hard about whether or not to clue her in. There may be fallout for informing her.
8. "The other woman is a (disparaging term)."
Now more than ever you may want to make your friend smile by saying that other gal is a total #$%*&. Focusing on the third party can backfire, though. "The issue at hand is her relationship with her partner, not the other woman," says Dr. Friedman. "These kinds of comments typically stir up more bad feelings." Boost her confidence directly by reaffirming what you love about her, whether it's her amazing sense of humor or her incredible compassion.
9. "All men cheat."
Actually, less than a quarter of men in relationships stray. Regardless, your goal may be to remind your friend infidelity has hurt countless other women. But this statement actually sours her on ever having a monogamous relationship. "It's a destructive thing to say in a situation which is already poisonous," says Dr. Friedman. Instead of introducing more negativity to fuel her hurt, reassure her you'll be by her side as long as it takes for her to heal.
10. "You should cheat on him to even the score."
"This is the absolute worst-of-the-worst advice," says Dr. Friedman. "It's an immature response to the situation. Two wrongs don't make a right." Telling her to teach him a lesson only sets the stage for more anger, betrayal and hurt. To really help your friend, encourage her to think about the kind of relationship she does want and to go for it. Remind her she's in charge of getting what's best for her. In time, she may wish to seek professional help to sort out her feelings so she can proceed in a wise way.