Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can I Stay Friends With an Abusive Husband?

July 31, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Stay Friends With an Abusive Husband?


I have been good friends with a couple, “Jack” and “Jane,” for about eight years. They have been together for about 15 years. Although historically I have spent more time with Jack because we share more interests, I consider both of them to be among my closest friends. Indeed, because of many shared life experiences, I think my connection with Jane is deeper than my connection with Jack. I knew for some time that they did not have the ideal relationship, but recently I have discovered that things are much, much worse than I thought. I have learned, both from Jane and from another close friend of hers, that Jack is verbally abusive.

I have told Jane that she has my total support, but otherwise, I am at a loss for how to proceed in this situation. I don’t think Jack is a predator or an awful person; I think he is hurting in his own way because of things that have happened in the relationship and is just doing an awful job of dealing with it. I do, however, think that their relationship is so broken that the best outcome for both is to end it.

Is it ethical for me to continue to be friends with someone who is verbally abusive to his partner? Should I try to encourage Jack to seek therapy without divulging anything Jane has told me in confidence? (To Jane’s credit, for a long time she withheld information about the state of the relationship, in an effort to keep me out of it, until I told her that I should be the one to decide whether one of them is putting me in the middle, so that aspect of this situation is really not an issue for me.) Name Withheld

My response: You heard from one party but not the other and you describe “things that have happened in the relationship” that left the unheard-from party hurt. And you agreed to something in confidence before knowing what it was, it sounds like.

Regarding the last point, I’ll copy what I wrote last week, similar to what I’ve written several times in this column before:

I recommend next time someone asks to tell you something in confidence, that you not give  your word before knowing the information. I stopped making such blind promises and found that people appreciated telling me and letting me choose after. I now view as childlike someone saying, “If I tell you something will you promise not to tell anyone?” I respond, “If you want to tell me you can, but I can’t promise about something I don’t know. For all I know you’ll tell me you murdered someone and I won’t keep that secret.” Like I said, I have found that response builds relationships. I haven’t found blind promises to improve relationships.

As for the rest, your letter doesn’t share nearly enough information for a third party to answer your questions. You know one side of the story. The chances of you misinterpreting seem high. I would make learning more my priority, which probably means influencing Jane to endorse your talking to Jack. This is what happens when, like a grade-schooler, you blindly agree to hold unknown information in confidence.

The New York Times response:

I take it you have learned that Jack is doing something seriously wrong. You wouldn’t speak of “verbal abuse” unless it involved a lot more than nagging or occasionally raising his voice in anger. Verbal abuse is a species of domestic abuse: Think cruelty and control, not merely complaint and recrimination. As such, it can be immensely destructive. Yet you say that Jack isn’t an awful person. That marks an important distinction. Many people do terrible things in certain contexts while being perfectly decent the rest of the time. Still, Jack’s behavior being rooted in difficulties in the relationship, rather than in a generally bad character, doesn’t make what’s happening to Jane any less terrible.

Do you have standing to raise the issue with Jack? You do, in principle, simply because marriage is a social institution. Part of what this means is that friends and family should help sustain the marriage, at least as long as it’s worth saving. Helping Jack change his ways, if you can, is something you owe both to Jack and to Jane — and to yourself and your friendship. Your friendship is already threatened by what you know. That you’re asking me if you can continue to be his friend shows that.

There are two obvious reasons for keeping quiet. Perhaps she asked you not to tell him, obliging you to maintain that confidence. She might be concerned that Jack would view the revelation as a betrayal on her part and become more abusive, not less. So talk to Jane first. Explain to her that, knowing what her husband is doing, you don’t feel you can go on with your friendship with him unless you can help him stop, and so protect her.

The two of you can figure out whether there’s a way to do that. As I say, she may not want Jack to know what she told you. It’s also possible that simply knowing that friends will hear about it if he continues to abuse his wife will motivate Jack to take stock, perhaps seek the professional help he needs and try to change.

You should probably let Jane know that you think the relationship is broken beyond repair. She has, after all, taken you into her confidence. If she responds with horror at the thought of divorce, however, there’s little more you can do on that front. Having concerned friends like you may give her the wherewithal to try to end her exposure to abuse. But let her know that if nothing changes, you may have to get him out of your life. That will make seeing her more difficult, of course. Because your relationship with her is the deeper one, though, you may still hope to find a way to keep in touch with her. Not least because, if the abuse continues, she might value your help and support were she finally to decide that enough was enough.

I work in human resources and was just notified that in two days, an employee who has been a good friend of mine will be laid off. My boss informed me because I need to have her Cobra forms ready and asked for confidentiality. I feel awful knowing that a friend is going to be hit out of the blue with news that will be financially devastating. True, her termination will be so soon that she can’t really act on the information — say, by lining up a new job. And I can’t tell in advance everyone who has been or will be slated for a layoff. My sense of professional­ism makes me lean toward saying nothing, but when I put myself in her shoes, I would rather hear bad news from a friend than from a neutral source. And I think she will be angry when she realizes that I knew and said nothing. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … again with the juvenile questions. In general, I recommend considering what resources you have, create options, think about your relevant values, and choose among your options based on your values. Then you can solve such issues yourself and not ask others what you should do. Or if you want others’ help, you can ask them to help create options or other resources, not to solve your problems for you.

In any case, if you want to maintain your relationships with both parties, I would see this as a usual CYA issue at work. I would ask your boss to email you saying clearly either that you can or can’t, under some strict penalty, discuss the issue with the friend. Then you can either safely tell your friend or show her the email’s strict penalty if she learns that you know but didn’t tell her. Unless there are circumstances you haven’t mentioned, I don’t see how your boss loses anything by sending you the email either way.

The New York Times response:

You need to uphold your professional obligation to keep this information confidential. There might be an exception if your friend were being treated unjustly, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Imagine what the professional world would be like if people couldn’t rely on confidences like these. You are concerned by what will happen when your friend finds out. But what would happen if your colleagues found out that you had leaked this information?

Your friend may not appreciate all this, but if she does resent it when she finds out, it won’t be because what you did was wrong. Still, you can say that you’re sorry you weren’t able to tell her and that you hope that you can go on being friends. That makes clear what it would be unkind to say directly: Her resentment is understandable even though it’s not morally justified. It also lets her know that you thought about the question before deciding not to breach your professional duty. You weren’t being coldhearted.

My stepson is married with two young children. In the last few years, he has become addicted to opiates and lost his job. We have tried to help with an intervention and rehab, but he chose not to take it seriously, and relations have become strained. He and his family receive help from his mother to keep their home. His father and I pay only for certain expenses for the children that can be paid directly by us and cannot be cashed in by their parents.

Through all of this, our daughter-in-law has not told her parents about the situation. She says it won’t do any good. My guess is that she feels that they will judge her for making poor life decisions, complicating relations between them and her husband.

My husband and I waffle on whether we should tell them ourselves. We barely know them, and I have no sense of how they will react. We all have the shared concern for the grandchildren’s well-being, and I feel they have a right to know that it is in jeopardy. However, I can also see the argument that it is not our story to tell. Beyond that, I am also trying to decide if the fallout from making this kind of revelation without permission would be worth it. Name Withheld

My response: Your talk about an abstract “right to know” sounds like a high-minded justification for you to act without accepting responsibility: “Don’t blame me for the results of my action. I was just acting on their ‘right to know.'” Even if they had a right to know, whatever that means, that doesn’t oblige you to tell.

As far as I can tell, you didn’t ask any questions or for any advice. Possibly an editor at the New York Times edited out something important. Maybe, since you didn’t take the time to figure out what to do on your own, you didn’t take the time even to formulate a question. I’ll take your letter as written and conclude you just wanted to share your situation anonymously with the world. Thank you for sharing.

The New York Times response:

Because you’re not close to your in-laws, they’re not entitled to expect you to tell them things your stepson and his wife don’t want them to hear. If he is a drug abuser and she is enabling him, though, neither may be a very good judge of the situation. Let your concern for your grandchildren be your guide. Suppose, after further discussion with your daughter-in-law, you decide that your stepson’s best chances for dealing with his addiction depend on concerted action by the in-laws as well as by you and your husband. Then you might want to go ahead and inform the in-laws, for the sake of your stepson and of his wife and children. When people’s judgment is addled by addiction, their right to control information can be trumped by their best interests.

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