The Ethicist: Is It O.K. for My Wife’s Shrink to Ask Her to Contact Mine?

April 1, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Is It O.K. for My Wife’s Shrink to Ask Her to Contact Mine?

My wife and I receive counseling at the same mental health facility but from different therapists. Our issues (as individuals and/or as a couple) are probably not what anyone would consider major.

My wife tells me that her therapist suggested that she write a letter to my therapist outlining her (my wife’s) concerns about me. This would pertain to both her feelings about our marriage as well as about my mental state. I’m not sure what my wife might gain from this exercise — but if it helps her, I’m fine with it.

However, I wonder if my wife’s therapist has crossed a line here, as she knows and works with (or at least is in the same place as) my therapist. Are there any breaches of confidence here? Also, would my therapist be obligated to inform me of the contents of the letter? My wife has already agreed to share it with me in advance, so there would be no surprises, but I’m curious about how my therapist should handle it. Name Withheld

My response: First, Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.

I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an issue of ethics or obligation. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

Since you don’t know what will come of the cross-talk until it happens and some of you think it will help but you aren’t sure, I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

Let’s assume that your wife’s therapist didn’t know that she would discuss this with you and offer to show you the letter. What purpose was the letter to have served? If it had been a matter of “getting it off her chest” or clarifying her thoughts, writing a letter to her own therapist would surely have done the trick. The only point of sending the letter to yours would be to influence your therapist’s treatment of you without your knowing. That sounds unpleasantly manipulative. Was her therapist encouraging this sort of manipulation?

This brings us to your question about what your therapist should do if this happens. The answer might depend, in part, on whether your wife asked your therapist to keep private what she had written. But your therapist’s primary obligations are to you and to your welfare. What your therapist should do in those circumstances — disclosing only that your wife wrote; disclosing what your wife wrote; or neither — depends on what’s best for you. As a default, I’ll venture, the therapist should reveal the existence of this communication. A relation of trust with your therapist depends on believing that he or she will be honest with you about such matters. It might be all right to tell you that the letter had come and that, because your wife wrote in confidence, you needed to ask her what she said. But telling you nothing could reasonably be seen as a betrayal.

I’ll leave for the therapy profession the question of whether what your wife’s therapist did was consistent with professional norms. What puzzles me is your sense that the situation was made worse by the fact that your therapists work out of the same office. Why would it have been better if the therapists were strangers?

All these considerations are less than pressing, though, given that your wife has informed you about the letter and will share its contents with you. A plausibly generous hypothesis is that she has told her therapist something that might help your therapist guide you toward improving your relationship. You will now know what this is, as will your therapist. I hope it helps.


I have been divorced from my husband, the father of my children, for about 10 years. Our children are now adults. I have a close relationship with both, but one child is estranged from her father.

My question is what to do with the gifts that he sends her. She has made it clear to her father that she will not accept them, and when they have been sent to her directly, she has sent them back. The problem is that he enlists my other child to bring the gifts to her. She is further upset that he would put her sibling in this difficult situation.

To bring the gifts back to my ex-husband would likely incite his ire, which is something I don’t want directed at my child, or create other drama, which I would like to avoid. I have suggested that we donate these gifts to charity; she agreed this would be fine.

I know that another option would be for my other child to refuse to deliver the gifts, but I understand better than most how difficult my ex-husband can be. Also, I believe he would find another method to send them. Would donating these things be appropriate? Name Withheld

My response: “Would X be appropriate?” … Asking what’s appropriate makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

Since everyone has different values, asking what’s appropriate will just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

The New York Times response:

Your ex-husband doesn’t seem like much of a listener. So there probably isn’t much point in engaging with him on this issue; it won’t change anything. Luckily, a solution is at hand. Because these gifts are for your child, they belong to her. So if she says you can give them to charity, you can. And if she wants to tell him what’s happening, she can. Both of these things are up to her.


My job recently moved its headquarters to an open-plan workplace. I now sit about three feet away from a man, my peer, who is a well-respected veteran of my trade and a hard worker. I am about three decades his junior. Recently I caught him dozing off at his desk momentarily, then waking up, resuming work and then dozing off again. I’ve seen him nod off more than 20 times in an hour. I’ve read that nodding off throughout the day is a risk factor for stroke and other major cardiovascular events. I do not want to alert my bosses for fear they might retaliate against him in some way. I’m also afraid of hurting his feelings, embarrassing him or making him angry with me. Do I have a responsibility to tell him I’ve noticed this pattern and am worried about his health? If so, how do I approach the subject with sensitivity? Name Withheld

My response: “Do I have a responsibility to. . .” Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

You sound concerned that giving this adult advice he hasn’t asked for, possibly revealing that you spent hours watching him, counting his sleeping habits, suggesting you think he’s going to die.

Besides the problem you ascribe to him, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

Next, I suggest you develop the social and emotional skills of leadership to create a relationship with him and ability to communicate without sounding creepy or meddling, or to let adults live their lives. If he gets angry, it will likely be from how you communicate more than what, as you probably sense.

The New York Times response:

If you think either that your co-worker isn’t aware of what’s happening or that he doesn’t realize that it’s a sign of possible medical problems, it would be a very good idea to tell him. Telling him outside the office in a conversation with just the two of you will probably make things easier. I can see that he might be embarrassed — which will be easier to handle without company — but it doesn’t make much sense to be angry. You’re simply demonstrating a concern for his health. And even if he was angered, he’s got good reason not to alienate you, given that, as you acknowledge, you could have taken this up with his supervisor. What’s more, the open workplace means that others may also have noticed. If you fear that telling him what you’ve noticed might harm your relationship with him, I suppose you could just leave him an anonymous note. But I don’t recommend it: This would assuredly be more disturbing for him than hearing your concerns in a private conversation.

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