Just how honest should you be in a relationship?

A while ago, my friends and I got into a heated discussion about whether or not someone should confess to his/her SO that they had cheated on them. Does the SO have a right to know, or are they better off ignorant, particularly if the cheater has recognized their mistake and has vowed never to do it again?

Imagine this situation:

Jack and Jill have been dating for 4-5 years. Jack has to move to another city because of work. Jill decides to move to the same area (largely because of Jack, although there are other factors as well). They don’t live together - Jack moves in with Peter, who is a friend of both Jack and Jill, while Jill moves in with a girl friend.

In this new environment, Jack meets Mary and the two become friends. Mary is single and is obviously attracted to Jack, but knows Jack is dating Jill (the two have met at parties and stuff), so is careful not to do anything to compromise her friendship with him. Jack, meanwhile, is also attracted to Mary. All of this leads to one drunken night where Jack makes a pass at Mary and the two of them end up sleeping together.

Jack is now torn between Mary and Jill. Mary is unhappy with the situation but is willing to give Jack some time to figure things out. She assumes that things will come to some conclusion sooner rather than later - either Jack will break up with Jill or he will decide this is all a big mistake and pass it off as a drunken fluke. “Some time,” however, stretches into a period of several months, during which Jack and Mary continue to sleep with each other. Inevitably their mutual friends find out, including Peter. Peter is furious with Jack for cheating on Jill, but he is Jack’s best friend - plus he is also friends with Mary by this point - so he keeps his mouth shut.

Eventually, Jack decides that his thing with Mary is wrong and abruptly breaks it off. Mary is devastated, but decides there is nothing much she can do at this point, and the two continue on as “friends” as best they can. Things seem to be going fine, until another drunken night where Mary and Jack find themselves in bed together once again. Jack realizes that he is never going to stop being attracted to Mary, but feels like his relationship with Jill is the one he should be faithful to, and once again vows that this time will be the last. Mary now realizes that she can get Jack to sleep with her whenever she wants but in the long run Jack is going to stay with Jill, and that’s that. This time it’s she who decides that this is never going to happen again, and it doesn’t.

Jill, meanwhile, remains completely unaware of what has been going on with Jack and Mary, and as far as she knows there is absolutely nothing wrong in her relationship with Jack. She broaches the subject of moving in together to Jack, who agrees with the hope that this next step will help him pull his stuff together. Mary and Peter, upon hearing this news, both privately express their skepticism, but keep their opinions to themselves.

So here’s what we were arguing about: does Jill have a right to know that Jack cheated on her, particularly when they are about to take a major step in their relationship? Some of us argued that if Jack is sincere about learning from his mistakes, what Jill doesn’t know can’t hurt her, and that telling her the truth would achieve little else than inflicting pain she doesn’t deserve. Others said that their relationship is nothing more than a lie at this point, and that it’s unfair for her to be the only one unaware of this. There was also the opinion that she wouldn’t have to know if the thing between Jack and Mary had occured only once, since everyone makes mistakes, but the fact that it went on for months makes it something more significant than that.

What do you think?

Jack is a lying horndog, and cannot be trusted. Jill deserves to know.

If this were a story about a single incident that happened with someone who Jack would never see again and it happened very early in the relationship and it was years later, I could see a case for letting sleeping dogs lie.

In this case, Jack is a piece of shit. Jill should be informed so she can dump his sorry ass.

I would agree that if it had been a drunken one-night thing, Jill wouldn’t need to know and life could go on as planned. However, it being a months-long thing indicates either an emotional involvement with Mary, and/or a problem with commitment and fidelity for Jack that will eventually pop up again in the future. Jill should know about that before making a commitment with him.

I might have missed it, but it’s not clear to me whether Jack and Jill were dating exclusively when all this started. That would make some bit of different to me, I think.

The fact that Peter knows, and apparently has an opinion about it, is the biggest flag to me that Jack should tell all. There’s nothing worse than finding out about the situation one night when Peter as a few beers and makes a snarky comment about it.

It may very well be that Jack has seen the error of his ways, but he damn well knew the error of his ways before he slept with Mary.

Should he tell Jill? Maybe, maybe not, but if he moves in with Jill without telling her, he’s a bastard. Mary screwed someone’s SO of 5 years, so she doesn’t have anything to say about this from a moral standpoint. In fact, she’s every bit as much at fault as Jack.

I also have a hard time believing Jill is completely ignorant of this situation. The cheated upon SO rarely is.

I would say that any concerned parties should speak to Jack and recommend he do right by Jill and leave it at that; anything more will make the situation end even more badly that it is most certainly going to.

Telling Jill will only hurt her and make Jack feel better which he doesn’t deserve. The emotional fallout for Jill isn’t worth ‘the growing experience’.

If I was Jill, I’d want to know.

If I was Jill’s friend, and I knew, I’d tell her if Jack didn’t fess up.

If I was Jack’s friend I’d say nothing.

If I was Jack, I’d break up with her without telling her.

As far as I’m concerned the ‘right thing’ is relative.

I think that Jill deserves to make an informed decision about the future of her relationship and by not telling her, Jack is being dishonest. It doesn’t matter if it’s over or not. If he thinks that there is a possibility that Jill will freak out and break up with him should she find out, how is it right to deprive her of the ability to even make that choice? He gets to choose to be in the relationship with 100% of the facts, so he should provide her that same right.

Jack should’ve let Jill know a long time ago. I consider cheating and lying about it to be a fundamental moral wrong toward the person you’re with. If you’re going to sleep with someone else while you’re in an exclusive relationship, you have to tell your SO and give them a chance to either leave you for it or agree to be non-exclusive. Think about it–if she never knows what he’s been up to behind her back all these years, she has no idea what kind of person Jack really is.

FWIW, I’ve never bought into the whole “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” maxim. It’s simply not true. Jill’s been humiliated. Everyone knows her boyfriend’s been sleeping around on her…except her. I’d say that if he wants a chance with her, he needs to come clean. If I were her, I wouldn’t give him another chance in a million years (“once a cheater, always a cheater” is true a great deal of the time), but maybe she’s a more open-minded person than me. If he can’t come clean, he needs to break it off and let her go find someone who deserves her.

Information is power. Jill should have all the information she needs to decide whether or not she wants to stay with Jack.

As for Jack, if you love someone, you should want them to make an INFORMED decision to be with you. Who wants someone who’s only with them because they don’t know any better?

Jill needs to know that her partner has been sleeping with someone else, so she can take measures to protect her own health. What Jill doesn’t know CAN hurt her. She should get checked for STDs, and she should know that she could be putting herself at risk by continuing to have sex with a guy who’s been having sex with (at least) one other person. That’s the bottom line, emotions aside.

From an emotional perspective, one should try to know one’s partner as much as possible, but some people are inherently dishonest. I think having a months-long affair qualifies. A one-night stand, not so much, although from a health standpoint, even a one-night stand should be disclosed. Months-long affair involves a lot of lying and sneaking, and to me, that’s less forgivable than infidelity.

I disagree, however, that Mary is as much at fault as Jack. Mary had no ties to anyone, is a free agent and may date/sleep with whoever she chooses. Jack is the one more at fault, for violating his apparent committed relationship with Jill. Mary’s behavior might not be the classiest, but she didn’t cheat on anyone.

Well if Jack’s lying to Jill and pretending he was exclusive then I definitely think he’s violating Jill’s rights in the relationship. He should have been honest from the start. There’s nothing that horrible about meeting someone else if you tell the truth at the first chance and let the other person make their decision.

Especially in this case there is no “it would only hurt her to know.” It’s not too late for her to find someone who’s got a grip on himself and who’s got the integrity to face the consequences of his actions. It could help her very much to know. Maybe she’d like to have kids with an honest man. Maybe she’d like to sleep with 3 or 4 guys she’s turned down in the last few years because she thought it was worth it to deny herself and be devoted. Maybe she’d forgive him but be armed with a little more info about his personality so she could keep an eye on him in the future and protect herself. I can think of a lot of ways it might really help her to know and anyone on the outside saying that it would only hurt her is making a pretty narrow assumption about what’s best for her.

There was actually a second question I wanted to post in the OP but forgot:

Assuming that Jill should be told, who should tell her?

Obviously in an ideal world it would be Jack, but let’s assume in this situation that Jack is never, in a million years, going to come clean to Jill about it. And while the mutual friends of Jack and Mary all know what’s been going on, none of them know Jill very well. The only friend Jack, Jill, and Mary share is Peter, Jack’s roommate, and while he is friends with all three his loyalties lie mostly with Jack.

This is obviously not a purely hypothetical situation (unfortunately) although the question of whether Jill will ever find out is kind of a moot one at this point, since no one is willing to tell her. Jack won’t, for obvious reasons. Peter won’t, because he feels he can’t betray his best friend, no matter how big a douchebag he’s been. Mary won’t, because she feels she has no right to further mess up Jill’s life. The other people involved are the friends of Mary and/or Jack, who barely know Jill, and while some of them feel that Jill has a right to know, they don’t think it’s their place to do anything about it. So while Jill may have every right to know, it doesn’t look like she ever will.

I think this has the makings for a Nora Ephram-directed romantic comedy staring Reese Whitherspoon and one of those Ashton Kutchner/Josh Hartnett clones that have been clogging up the hallways of William Morris for the last few years. You’ll need someone a little crazy and yet still slightly sympathetic to play Mary–like Cameron Diaz, only with lower salary requirements–and does Jim Belushi have like a nephew or something to play the free-swinging perpetual bachelor best friend to Jack who gives him an unending stream of inapropriate advice? You should also give it a creative title, like …Went Up The Hill, and make certain to keep the treatment to less than a page. Oh, and make sure it comes out happy in the end; we don’t want one of those stories like the first draft of Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts ends up dead in a Dumpster from a drug overdose. The rewrite cost on that sort of thing just eats away at the $5k they set aside for the screenwriting budget, and nobody is going to take a date to see something like that, unless it’s some kind of low-margin art picture or an Oscar contender.


I’ve had friends that cheated on their girlfriends and I knew about it and also was on a friendly level with their girlfriend. There is no way in hell I would tell them, its none of my business and its just best not to get involved in other people’s romances.

I think the entire situation you described is full of drama and pretty damned silly. If I were in a friendship with either of the principal actors and was armed with any of the knowledge of what happened, I’d work more or make myself scarce until it blew over, because it can’t end well.

Besides, we’re all adults here. We’re free to leave relationships at will, although that’s not accounting for feelings and such. If a friend of mine wanted to get something extra on the side, that’s fine by me. His business isn’t any of mine, regardless if he tells me.

Just. Be. Switzerland.

It’s never a good idea to narc out a friend or the SO of a friend. The one in the dark will most certainly be pissed when they find out they were the last to know, but I still consider someone else’s relationship woes to be their business and theirs alone.

No reason you can’t shun the cheater if you feel it’s deserved.

What was Jill doing all those nights Jack spent with Mary? If Jill smells a rat, she should confront Jack about it; if not, everyone else should mind their own business. Jill will NOT thank anyone who tells her about it. Jack will NOT forgive anyone who tells Jill.

How close a friend are they? Who are you closer to? All factors. When I was on the road with bands I’d tell the SOs of band mates to not ask me any questions about what happened on the road. I also told my band mates to never expect me to lie for them. That’s a little different because it was business as well as friendship.
It seems to me that someone who was Jill’s friend should have given Jack an ultimatum before now, like, when he was repeatedly cheating on her. Such as “You tell her or I will” but be prepared to possibly lose both friends over such honesty.

If my SO was cheating on me repeatedly and anyone I considered a good friend didn’t do something about it I’d question their friendship.

I do think Jack’s more the cad, but do you really think it’s not wrong to sleep with someone else’s SO just because you’re not attached to anyone?

OK, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that. I believe that sleeping with someone else’s SO is morally reprehensible, given that no prior understanding is in place. I’ll never, ever understand the mentality that justifies doing that. We’re not dogs; we know the difference.