Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Must a Mental Illness Be Revealed on a First Date?

April 17, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Must a Mental Illness Be Revealed on a First Date?


I have struggled with mental illness, off and on, for most of my life. It can be debilitating and has resulted in numerous hospitalizations. I also have extensive scarring on my arms from self-harm episodes. But I have a successful career and fully support myself; most people who know me have no idea that I am mentally ill. After ending a decade-long relationship, I am now thinking of dating again. My question is: At what point do I disclose my mental illness, its history and its effects? At what point do I “explain” my scars? Do I have an obligation to reveal this information on the first or second date, before any attachment forms, so that any potential partner can “opt out”? Name Withheld

My response: You’re asking the question like there are right and wrong answers. There is no book or bearded man in the sky with absolute answers.

I suggest you instead consider the different ways you could act and the consequences of each on other people—that is, to think creatively and decide based on empathy and compassion. Instead of judging among a fixed set of actions, it leads you to develop skills to create more options. The more skilled you are at expressing yourself, considering their perspective, and handling the results, the more options you’ll have.

The New York Times response:

Some of what honesty requires reflects social conventions. And on dates, convention holds, you’re not obliged to lead with your weaknesses. The best way for someone to see that you’re doing O.K. is not to assert it but to show it.

Don’t keep quiet about the issue for too long, though. When you grow close to another person, the unspoken covenant is that you’re not holding back a big, relationship-relevant secret. Unless you’ve said so, the assumption is that you’re not the princess of Ruritania, or living under witness protection, or struggling with a serious illness. Intimacy and candor have to be calibrated to some degree. One risk is that someone pulls away at once because he can’t deal with your history of mental illness, but another is that he pulls away later because you haven’t been honest.

I am one of a handful of instructors in a small undergraduate program. It is typical for me to teach the same student in two or even three of their major courses. Sometimes I find myself correcting the same mistakes I repeatedly corrected when that student took my previous courses. I realize that some students progress more than others, but faced with the prospect of producing a graduate who has not mastered the basic vocabulary or format of our discipline, I am inclined to grade him or her more harshly than those I am teaching for the first time. My husband says this wouldn’t be fair, because some of the students who are new to me may have repeatedly gotten similar comments from other professors but are not being penalized for ignoring them. Is it ethical for me to factor in my past experience with students when determining their grades? Name Withheld

My response: This is an issue between you and the students, who are living, breathing people, and maybe the school administrators, not between you and an absolute measure of ethics. Instead of considering this as an abstract question of ethics, why not talk to the students about it? You could put your recommendations in the syllabus and then talk to them in class or office hours. You could listen to them and learn how your decisions affect them. They might have ideas for you.

The New York Times response:

Your question brings out something important about grading. It’s a signaling system, communicating an assessment of people against a standard, but it has more than one audience, and the standard for different audiences may be different. One audience is the student herself. Another consists of those who decide whether to employ her or give her a scholarship.

For the student, it’s crucial to learn both how she did in comparison to her peers and how she did in relation to your sense of her potential. The proverbial A for effort means someone worked hard. But sometimes talented students get effortless A’s. You have the opportunity to communicate messages of both kinds: “You did well,” but also “I believe you could have done better.”

Most other audiences, though, will have just the grade. You won’t write — and they won’t read — a nuanced evaluation of each student. For these audiences, the letter grade should reflect the value of the work done, compared with that of the class or some other familiar standard. That is what most people want to know when they look at a G.P.A. That’s what most teachers base grades on. If that’s what everybody else is doing, it’s not fair to do something else.

Still, the right standard for an advanced writing course will be higher than for an introductory one, whoever taught it. You can legitimately take that into account in grading. Some students, accord­ingly, will be penalized for having had bad teachers earlier, but that’s not a problem you can solve. The grade’s function for its third-party audiences is to measure the work the student has produced, not to measure how hard she worked or the obstacles she overcame.

My father and mother married in the late 1930s. Both are deceased. A few years before my mother’s death, I asked her if my father was bisexual. Her answer was yes: She recalled that “he had no male friends that were married,” and though she had no proof, her female intuition inclined her to the “yes” side.

After this revealing conversation, I talked with my younger brother; my brother was adamant that Dad was gay and could not have been bisexual.

After my parents divorced, my father remarried, and the new marriage resulted in a daughter, my half sister. My half sister and I are very close, and she worships our father. I am torn between telling her what has been revealed to me and keeping silent, to spare her the hurt such a discussion might bring.

My brother and my son are gay. They have not hidden their sexual orientation, and they are universally loved and respected. My half sister’s adult children are leading a heterosexual lifestyle. Their offspring, if any, may have a propensity for being gay. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: Learn how to communicate what you want to communicate so the other person, your half-sister in this case, will appreciate you for it or learn to handle your frustration at not sharing something you want to. I predict you’ll consider that learning either set of skills improved your life.

The New York Times response:

I’ve never felt that there was much to be said for spending a lot of time thinking about the sex lives of your parents. For that matter, it may be time to retire talk of hetero- or homosexual “lifestyles.” (Speaking for myself, my style of life is far from fixed by my sexuality.) Of course, sexuality has implications for social identity as well as for sexual behavior. Your mother’s argument — he had lots of unmarried male friends — suggests one aspect of sexuality that is not directly about sex: Gay men are likely to have more gay friends than straight men do. In your father’s day, many men who had a preference for sex with other men never­theless married women, had children and never acted on their homosexual desires. It’s possible that your father was gay or bisexual. It’s also possible that your mother was mistaken. I’m not sure that you have any reliable information to give your half sister.

Your final sentence suggests that you think that the likelihood that your half sister’s descendants will be gay is higher if the ancestor they share with you was gay. That may be true. Genes are widely thought to play some role in shaping sexual orientation. But the chances that they will be gay remain pretty low. Indeed, your gay brother and son are more likely to have received genes that shaped their orientations from your mother than your father. At least some of the genes now thought to be linked to male sexual orientation are on the X chromosome, and boys get their X chromosome from their mother. Your half sister won’t share that X chromosome with you and your brother. In any case, a theory about propensity isn’t much of a reason for telling your half sister your speculations. All parents should be mindful of the possibility that their children may be gay.

Still, I can’t see that anyone is harmed by your bringing the subject up if you want to. And if you end up arguing about the facts here, so be it. Families don’t have to agree about everything — fortunately.

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