The Ethicist: Was I Wrong to Tell a Friend’s Partner About His Infidelity?

February 17, 2019 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 “Was I Wrong to Tell a Friend’s Partner About His Infidelity?”.

I am of advanced years but still exercise my profession. Not long ago, after I gave a seminar in my field, a young professional approached me with some questions that I happily answered. We kept in touch, and I became his mentor.

Over time, we became friends: the young man and his live-in partner would come to our house for dinner, and my wife and I would go to theirs.

The relationship between this man and his partner was often bumpy, in large part because of his drinking problem, which also affected him professionally. His partner accused him of infidelity, which he denied. Because of his behavior, his partner moved out for a time; I spent many hours with them on the phone, helping them to work this out, and they got back together.

Not long after, this young man confessed to me that, following their reconciliation, he engaged in sexual activity with several partners during a night of heavy drinking. I was very disturbed, and after several days of agonizing, and mindful that I could not take it back, I decided I needed to speak to his partner and relate what had happened. I did so and then alerted the young man to what I had done.

Since then, we have not spoken, nor have the partner and I spoken, despite my leaving voice mail messages for each. My wife blasted me for destroying the young man’s relationship and for not consulting her before calling his partner. Can you help sort this all out for me? Name Withheld

My response: I’m not sure what you mean by sorting it out for you. If you’re going to do something that involves others, involving them in the process generally helps. You acted unilaterally on something that affected him. I’m surprised that you’re surprised with the outcome.

If you’re asking the ethics of it, since the column is called “The Ethicist,” since everyone has different values, you’ll just get labels that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve such situations as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:In ordinary circumstances — and, alas, that is what these are — when someone tells you something with the implicit expectation that you won’t tell his partner, you shouldn’t contemplate breaking that confidence without first telling him. One reason is that the confidence-sharer has the right to try to dissuade you, especially when, as here, he knows more than you about the disclosure’s possible consequences. It would also have allowed him to pre-empt you by passing on the information himself and so manage the consequences as he thought best.

You also took this important decision without consulting your wife. (Is it because you suspected that she would talk you out of it?) But she, too, has relationships with these younger people, and she might have helped you think through your decision; she might also have been better placed than you to pass on the information if, in the end, you still decided it was right to do so.

On the other hand, I don’t entirely agree with your wife that it was you who destroyed the relationship between this young man and his partner. Your young friend did that when he got drunk and cheated. And given that you were friends with both of them, he left you in a quandary when he told you of his misbehavior. The reason his former partner hasn’t been in touch with you may be embarrassment; or it may be that the former partner considers you to be your mentee’s friend and has abandoned you along with him. There are many possibilities. So you can’t infer that his ex feels wronged.

A close and dear friend of many decades recently visited us. She lives in another state, and although we talk and correspond frequently, we had not seen each other in several years. At the start of her visit, my husband and I were alarmed by what appeared to be a marked decline in her cognitive abilities.

As a “hostess gift,” she brought me articles of obviously used clothing. She often seemed a bit confused, unable to respond appropriately to simple requests. For example, if I said, “Meet me out front of the restaurant,” I’d find her across the street; or if I said, “We’re leaving in 30 minutes, I’ll see you upstairs,” I’d find her out in the garden pruning the roses. She also demonstrated odd behaviors: constantly talking to herself, frequently repeating stories, striking up monologues with total strangers, commandeering someone else’s cart in a grocery store and unloading it at the checkout counter.

My friend lives alone, is virtually estranged from her only sibling and intentionally socially isolates herself. “I’m not a joiner,” she says. Subtle conversations about our need to take care of our physical, mental and social health — especially at our ages, as we both qualify as senior citizens — fell on deaf ears.

When I dropped her off at the airport for her flight home, I felt like someone who was allowing her best friend to drive off while under the influence of alcohol. She made it home safely, but I am at a complete loss as to what to do, if anything, to help her. Even though I have asked her, she has never given me any contacts for her few local friends or neighbors, nor her sibling (whom I have never met and who lives thousands of miles from her).

I feel a responsibility to my dear friend, but I have no legal right nor role in her life or well-being. Is it ethical to ignore my concerns? Is there a right way to handle this situation? Name Withheld

My response: Regarding “ethical” or “right,” 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.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:You say you had subtle conversations with your friend. I know it would have been difficult to do, but it might have been wiser to be less subtle. Telling her what you’ve noticed and why you’re worried about it might have helped her to grasp that she needed help — including help making plans to deal with her future. You could then have asked what she knew about local services that could assist her. She may soon need to find a place where she can be cared for when she’s not able to take care of herself.

But you might still be able to do something over the phone or by correspondence. Even if your friend is estranged from her sibling, this is a moment when family must be called upon, especially given her social isolation. And if pressing her for contacts remains unavailing? There are resources that she could be put in touch with: Look, for example, at, the website of the National Council for Aging Care. Although you can’t be expected to provide regular assistance yourself, the moral demands of friendship are a reasonable basis to try to connect her with the services she needs.

A relative of mine is considering a financial move I believe is a major mistake. His only financial asset is his home, and he plans to put it on the market with the intention of repurchasing it when, in his words, “real estate crashes next year” in Los Angeles. In the interim, he will rent a similar home for a cost comparable to his monthly mortgage payment.

I have three decades of experience in financial markets and real estate, and everything tells me my relative is making a huge mistake. The world’s most experienced investors all agree that it is impossible to time markets, be they financial, equity or real estate. Saddled with a high monthly rent, I fear my relative will burn through the proceeds on the sale of his home in a few years and be left with nothing. (There is a chance that I’m wrong and that real estate in Los Angeles will decline by 50 percent, as my relative believes. If I persuade him to keep his house and it plunges in value, I will have given him terrible advice. )

What is my ethical obligation here? My relative is thin-skinned, and I worry about damaging our relationship. But I believe that he will enter his retirement years with no safety net if he takes this path. Name Withheld

My response: You ask your ethical obligation. Since everyone has different values, you’ll 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.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:When you give advice based on specialized knowledge, things can always turn out in ways you didn’t expect. That doesn’t mean it was bad advice. If you tell a friend not to invest his retirement funds in lottery tickets, you’ve given excellent advice. Still, it’s a theoretical possibility that your friend will do far better by ignoring it.

There’s a straightforward thing to say in your situation, though: Your job isn’t to persuade your relative to do anything in particular. It’s to tell him what you would do in his situation, so he can take your expertise into account in making his decision. True, if he acts on your advice, and then decides later that he’d have done better if he ignored it, he may resent you. But you know that’s unlikely. What’s more likely, if you refrain from trying to deter him, is that he’ll proceed, suffer the consequences and resent you because you didn’t warn him. You think that the necessary conversations with your relative will be difficult because he is, as you say, thin-skinned. But laying the case out for him, perhaps by sending him links to some reputable online sources, would be the act of a loyal family member.

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