When you think about having to distance yourself from a friend, it’s usually over something they’ve done to you. But for Charlotte*, 26, it was about how her friends treated other people. It all happened on a night out a few years back, when two of Charlotte’s friends, one of whom had a girlfriend, slept together. "They begged us not to tell his girlfriend, who was also our friend," she tells Refinery29. "In the end I had to distance myself from all of them because I couldn’t handle the guilt."
Infidelity can have a lasting impact on people’s mental and emotional health. Not only can it lead to future trust issues and relationship problems, it can also obliterate a person’s self-esteem. Betrayal trauma – the trauma that stems from having your trust broken by a loved one, intimate partner or trusted institution – is a reality and can be twice as bad if you’ve been betrayed not only by your partner but by your friends, too.
If you were in Charlotte’s shoes, what would you do? It’s easy to say you’d tell your friend’s partner everything, until you’re in a situation where they’re begging you to keep their life-ruining secret. "It’s a huge burden," says Charlotte. "It makes me feel as though I’m lying to a friend, which goes against every core value I have when it comes to friendships."
Elise*, 23, understands where Charlotte is coming from. One of her friends is consistently dishonest with her new partner and all Elise can do is watch. "It’s awful," she says. "It makes me guilty because my moral compass wants the person to find out but that would be detrimental to my friendship, so you’re sort of stuck."
Betraying your morals can weigh heavy on your conscience, impacting your mental health in the process. People who think they have acted immorally – by not exposing their friend's infidelity, say – have been found to experience guilt and shame, which have in turn been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans and, more generally, depression. But it might be just as (if not more) painful to lose one of your best friends. So what are you supposed to do?
Australian philosophy professors Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett believe that abandoning your morals for the sake of a friend is an inherent quality of friendship. "They argue that, actually, friendship contains within it the danger of corruption of your own morality because they think that friendship involves you deferring to your friend’s [decision] in a wide variety of circumstances, regardless of what's motivating them," explains Daniel Koltonski, a philosopher exploring ethics, accounts of friendship and personal relationships. Put simply, this means that doing the wrong thing, if it is what your friend is asking of you, is a necessary part of being their friend. This may well include keeping a secret for them.
For Koltonski, it’s less clear cut. He believes that, as a condition of friendship, you need to give your friends agency to make their own decisions (and, crucially, mistakes). Importantly, this rule only stands if, firstly, they have more to lose than you do by telling the secret. Essentially, if the moral decision is about their life and doesn’t really affect yours, you should prioritise their decision. Secondly, you need to believe that your friend would do the same for you, otherwise there’s an imbalance. Finally, you have to believe that they’re genuinely trying to do the right thing. If all of those conditions are met, he says, then deferring to your friend's judgement, even if that means lying or being complicit, is the morally 'right' thing to do. "Even if you have moral qualms, it's their life, it's their relationship and they have more at stake so you should do what they want as opposed to what you feel would be the right thing."
Koltonski says you have to understand what’s motivating your friend. "Are they trying to do something morally okay and we just disagree about that?" he says. "Or is it that they don't really give a shit about morality? If you defer to what they want in that situation, you can't tell yourself that you're doing anything morally okay." Ask yourself: does your friend think they can avoid hurting people, do they want to come clean themselves in their own time or do they want to carry on cheating and getting away with it?
It’s also important to realise that, as Koltonski puts it, "having rigid morals isn’t really compatible with the messiness of life". If you put your morals above all else, he says, it might be difficult to keep any friendship because people act immorally all the time. So if your friend is really important to you, it might feel worth it to compromise occasionally on your personal morals. "Sometimes, you should compromise your own moral principles for the sake of these valuable relationships," he says. "But it’s how far that goes that becomes a really tricky question." For Koltonski, it’s a matter of asking yourself how important it is to live according to your morals and how important it is to keep certain relationships – and when you are willing to compromise one for the sake of the other. This, he says, is entirely individual.
At the end of the day, these questions only really matter if you want to keep your friend around. You have to wonder whether a true friend would put you in such an agonising position in the first place and, of course, whether you want to be friends with someone who cheats on their partner. "That’s supposed to be the person you respect the most and have the most loyalty to," says Elise. "So if you can break their trust like that, I feel like it kind of shows what kind of person you are." Charlotte agrees. As someone who has been cheated on in the past, she knows just how damaging it can be. "Seeing my friend cheat makes me feel like I don’t know them and it makes me question if I can actually trust them," she says. In the end, Charlotte distanced herself from her friend. Elise is still in the friendship but sees her friend differently.
It’s easy for conversations about morality, love and friendship to become abstract and complicated but what really matters is how you feel. As long as you live your life right by your own standards, you can rest easy knowing you’re honouring yourself and your peace. If that means losing a friend, then so be it. Perhaps they were never really a friend in the first place.
*Name changed to protect anonymity