Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

How responsible are we for our friends’ choices?

How responsible are we for our friends’ choices?

December 19, 2012

Q. One of my friends is in a concerning relationship. Her boyfriend has already cheated on her twice, and she’s still with him. I heard from a credible source that it happened again, and although I have nothing to do with the situation, I’m worried. I feel that I should tell her, but Christmas is a week away. Clearly, I don’t know what to do.

17-year-old male

Mary Jo’s response:

Life holds many difficult choices. You’re facing one of the most challenging. Where does friendship lead us? How responsible are we for our friends’ choices? And, most compelling of all – are we required to share what might be rumor with a friend in the hope that damage to that friend will be minimized?

Many young people care about their friends; you are a caring, devoted friend who hopes to make a difference. I honor your character. I applaud you for caring, and I acknowledge your ability to listen and attend to the needs of others.

I also would like to caution you. Drama is a very real part of socializing, particularly during adolescence. Walking through high school to adulthood surrounds a teen with drama. Gossip is common. The true challenge lies in sorting through what may be inflated information to find kernels of truth. Why spread gossip?

On the other hand, if your source is credible – if you genuinely believe that your friend is with an unfaithful partner – then your choices are more complicated. Ask yourself if you would want to know the situation if you were in this type of relationship. Would the pain of knowing be lessened if you were told the truth now? Inevitably truth does surface, especially in an environment where secrets are difficult to keep. Would it matter if a holiday were approaching?

I think you have three choices: Pretend you don’t know, and do nothing. Denial would mean that you would firmly shut down gossip. If your source returns with more detail, you would simply stop the discussion. Another choice would mean that you tell your friend directly. Find a time when you’re alone or with a mutual, trusted friend. Be certain your friend is prepared. Ask if she wants to hear a rumor you’ve been told. Gently share. Be careful to speak with your friend in a safe place – not at school where emotion can be judged by many, but in a safe place where caring adults are near and can be supportive. Finally, a third choice would involve asking for adult support. Parents or other trusted adults can act as a buffer, provide support and in general make this difficult conversation easier. An obvious choice would be your parents. I would also be happy to fill this role. I could meet with both of you and facilitate the discussion.

As you know, I am committed to training peer educators. I always say, “When an adult speaks, it’s a whisper; when a young person speaks to peers, it’s a shout.” Please note I am not a proponent of peer counseling. Adults need to assume counseling roles, not young people. The stress of dealing with another’s pain is a role best filled by professional counselors, not peers. I’m concerned about your stress as you debate this conundrum. Please also realize that you are not responsible for your friend’s choices. She is aware of his infidelity in the past and remains with him. Even if you share your fears, she may not believe you. Even if she believes you, she may not leave him.

I was very interested in the thoughts of teens on this tough topic, so I asked 22 peer educators and students to respond to your question. Their reactions are summarized below. Every single teen thought that your friend should know.

Please keep in touch, and let me know how I can help.

Peer educator response:

Yes, tell her. It’s better for her to find out now before it gets worse. If he cheated twice, he’ll do it again. People don’t change. She may be mad at you if you tell her, but that shouldn’t keep you from telling her. It’s better to hear the painful truth than to go on in blind ignorance.

Q. I read your column last week, and I really agreed with your comments about double standards. I just wanted to add that a lot of guys my age do get that things aren’t fair at times. We want to make a difference. You could use my name (since I’m one of your students), but maybe you should make this anonymous so my dad doesn’t tease me.

18-year-old male

Mary Jo’s response:

Thank you. Anonymous, as you requested. Young people like you are the reason I have so much faith in the future. Learning to respect one another is an important part of growing up.



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