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Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Tell My Friend I Had a Fling With Her Ex?

posted by Joshua on September 18, 2016 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Tell My Friend I Had a Fling With Her Ex?

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After attending a house party that my friend S. hosted, I made a rather rash decision to text her the next day and hopefully strike up a fling. Surprisingly, she took the bait. Soon enough we picked up momentum and enjoyed a month long, unofficial relationship. I did take some things into consideration before I decided to text her. For instance, I made sure that she was not in a relationship; she said she was only casually seeing other people.

I called it a rash decision because we’d known each other for a year and I was aware that we were incompatible. It all ended rather smoothly. She then told me that before me, she dated our friend K. We’re all part of a small lesbian community, so there’s really no avoiding one another.

S. has now found herself in a serious relationship, and when she introduced her new girlfriend to us, K. was visibly upset. K. confided to me and our friends that S. had broken her heart; their relationship was serious. (I had the impression that it was as casual as mine and S.’s was.) Later, after doing the math, I realized that the beginning of our fling overlapped with her and K.’s relationship. It’s also highly possible that the last leg of our fling overlapped with the beginning of her relationship with the new girlfriend.

I’ve stopped beating myself up over unknowingly breaking my own rule: keeping my hands off women who are already taken. My problem is that I’ve always liked K., and when I told her that everything was going to be O.K., I felt somewhat hypocritical, as I had contributed to her heartbreak. I wondered if she knew. If she doesn’t, I want to be honest with her. I feel it’s necessary if we are to continue our friendship, but I’m afraid I’ll be breaking S.’s confidence. How much am I obliged to disclose to K.? How do I go about giving my side of the story without breaking S.’s confidence and making her look bad to everyone? Sabrina D.

My response: On your first question, about obligation, I’m not aware of any absolute rule book for obligations that everyone agrees to. If there was one, you’d look up your answer, but there isn’t, so you didn’t, nor can you. You sound like you don’t want to tell her out of obligation but to ease your conscience. Someone telling you that you were obliged would let you tell and risk hurting her without taking responsibility. Now if you tell, you take responsibility for something that helps you and may hurt her.

As usual, absent a rule book everyone agrees to, I suggest creating as many options as you can, considering the results to other people as best you can, and choosing among them using empathy and compassion.

You know the people involved and your relationships with them intimately, far more than we can glean from a short note, so you’re in the best place to create options and choose among them. Besides asking others to make important decisions for you doesn’t prepare you for future decisions. It’s like using crutches when you don’t need them—they just make you clumsy. You can’t avoid making mistakes in areas like this, but I wouldn’t worry about that because mistakes are how you learn.

In any case, I would start by talking to S., not that I see any obligation, depending on how much you agreed to hold in confidence.

Are you in high school? Didn’t you handle situations like this before? Not that you asked, but I recommend not keeping relationships as secret, since they create situations like this, or World War I, but you didn’t ask and you probably had reasons. If you had reasons, that underscores how much more qualified you are than anyone else to handle your situation.

The New York Times response:

You took steps to avoid exactly the sort of heartbreak for K. that S.’s behavior and shifting preferences finally led to. (It’s not clear that you should blame S., though. K. might have thought their relationship was more serious than S. did.) If K. learns what happened and thinks about it rationally, she’ll accept that you didn’t wrong her; any resentment will be focused on S. Of course, we’re in a domain where rational thought is not to be expected from anyone: K. might not believe you, and she might resent you even if she does. You beat yourself up, after all, even though you hadn’t knowingly done wrong. But I’m inclined to think, as you are, that you would be respecting your friendship with K. if you told her what you’ve told me about your fling and what you knew when you started it.

In telling K. the truth, you fear you’d be breaking S.’s confidence. From the way you recount the story, though, it’s not obvious that you would. We don’t have a general duty not to reveal our previous relationships. S. may not want you to tell K., but she has a moral call on your silence only if you agreed to keep things on the down low. And even then, if she misrepresented her situation when she extracted that promise, you’re not bound to keep it.

I’m assuming that you’ve considered what the other consequences of your revelation would be in your small circle of friends and lovers, and that none of those weigh in the balance against being honest with K. If that’s the case, speak now.

I was at a movie theater last weekend when I saw an elderly man with a walker approaching the ticket taker. As he got closer, he sat down wearily on a bench. He looked exhausted. A few minutes later, a younger woman (maybe in her 50s) came by and yelled at him to “Get up already.” As she got closer to me, I heard her tell him, “This is why you shouldn’t come out.”

You can never know what goes on in a relationship. And I didn’t even know what the nature of this relationship was: Caregiver? Wife? Friend? I went into the theater and took my seat. A few minutes later, the same couple walked in. There were limited seats, but seats for those with disabilities were available. Instead, the woman went to the very back row — up maybe 10 or 12 steps. He followed, trying to manage hauling his walker and himself up each step. He made it up only one step, and she sighed heavily and grabbed his walker, put it aside and helped him, complaining the whole time.

Should I have given up my seat? Should I have said something to the woman? My dad has health problems, and I couldn’t imagine anyone treating him that way. I still wonder if I should have done something. Victoria

My response: Usually I write my response before looking at the New York Times’, but this time the term “abuse” caught my eye. I confess that I read their response and can’t add much to it, though I wouldn’t have called an act “a fine thing” since I try to avoid labeling things as good or bad and “fine” seems a synonym for good, but I won’t split hairs.

The New York Times response:

Elder abuse is deplorably common. According to the National Council on Aging, one in 10 Americans over age 60 has experienced elder abuse — some forms involving physical or emotional abuse, some involving confinement, financial exploitation, neglect or deprivation. In most cases, the abuser is a family member. The world would be safer for vulnerable people of all ages if more of us were willing to become active bystanders, to intervene when we see wrong being done, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. So it would have been a fine thing to have asked the man if he wanted to sit in one of the available disabled seats at the bottom. If the younger woman had told you it wasn’t your business, you’d have the assurance of knowing that the prevention of bullying and abuse is everybody’s business.

I agree that you can’t know the nature of a relationship from a brief glimpse, but in cases like these, making charitable assumptions may not be the best approach. Letting her know how she comes across might help her check herself. And if she were to reveal something really troubling? I’d try at that point to talk to the man himself and ask him his name. You might also ask him if there’s anything you can do for him. The website of the National Adult Protective Services Association shows you, state by state, how to seek help for an abused older person.

A few months ago, my 21-year-old daughter announced that she had just completed a genetics test through a popular genetic-testing company, 23andMe. She shared the results with her younger sister and my husband and me, declaring that she had not a trace of Irish in her despite being told by her father of his background.

The truth is that my husband and I struggled to have kids and opted to go to a sperm bank to address the issue of his low sperm count. The procedure involved combining a donor’s sperm with my husband’s and then artificially inseminating me. Both my daughters were conceived this way from the same donor. I suspect there is a good chance that their father is not their biological father, and he would like to share this with both of them. He and our daughters are close, but I worry that bringing up this topic might affect their relationship. How could it not? I am not comfortable sharing this background with them. Am I obligated to discuss this? Name Withheld

My response: First, everyone’s curiosity is already piqued and you can’t change the past. If he’s not their biological father, one, you wouldn’t know until this testing and two, they wouldn’t exist if not for this procedure.

Second, your situation seems to fall under my posts How to choose and How to decide among close options. I recommend starting there.

The New York Times response:

Until your daughter’s test results, you could reasonably have thought that the sperm that worked was your husband’s. Indeed, until he, too, takes a test, you can’t be positive it wasn’t. After all, his own biological ancestry may not be what he has supposed. So I’d get him to do a test and run it against your daughter’s to make sure.

But once you’re sure what the truth is, I don’t see why you shouldn’t tell your daughters how they were conceived. Curiosity about your biological ancestry is pretty common (though, if you don’t know who the donor is or if you promised him anonymity, your daughters won’t have a right to learn more about him). There’s a small chance that the information will come in handy medically at some point, but the main reason for telling them is simply that it’s an important truth about their lives.

While the information will change an aspect of how they understand their relationship with their father, it’s hard to see why it should damage that relationship. He’s been with them all their lives. He wants them to know; it’s a safe bet that they would want to know. After you’ve confirmed the truth, share it with your kids and deal with it as a family. You will surely have issues to discuss. First, because — reasonable or not — the stories we tell ourselves about how we came to be matter to us; second, because people don’t like discovering that things they think are important have been kept from them.

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