Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Betraying a Confidence

There is little doubt about right and wrong in this letter. Writing to New York Times columnist Kwame Anthony Appiah, a man wants to know if it was wrong to tell a friend’s girlfriend that the friend cheated on her.

You have to wonder why anyone would arrogate to himself the right to betray a confidence, but the letter writer, an older man, the younger man's mentor seems to think that he did little wrong. Now he is upset that neither member of the young couple is talking to him and that he wife thinks that he's an ass.

So, the issue is: how do these things happen? You were wondering about sexual harassment. Did it ever cross anyone’s mind that bad behavior goes far beyond the more dramatic instances? At a time when serious researchers are claiming that it is bad to keep secrets, how about considering what happens when a man fails to keep a secret? 

Here is the letter:

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?

Not much to sort out here, bunky. You are an ass. You have no sense of propriety. You betray a confidence and violate the trust of a mentee… and you are wondering what you did wrong. By your own admission you are older. Thus, you ought to know better. You don’t. We don't feel sorry for you. We believe that your weak character merits the mess you produced. Worse yet, having seen the calamity you incited, you do not even feel any shame for your own bad behavior. Isn't that the worst part of the letter?

What does Appiah have to say?

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.

Fair enough, and sensible too. After all, Appiah is trying to get through to the dolt… so naturally he needs to use a little nuance.

But then, Appiah becomes slightly judgmental. The fault, he says, lies with the man who betrayed his commitment to his girlfriend. True enough, but not entirely germane to the question at hand.

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.

Actually, I don’t think it was a quandary. It was simple. When someone takes you into his confidence you have no right to share the information with someone who is obviously going to be hurt by the disclosure. And you have no business using the information as a weapon against a new friend, sabotaging his relationship for no reason beyond your own need to feel morally superior. The inability to keep a secret is a major character flaw. It is even worse when you are the person's mentor. Let’s not even try to excuse it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Appiah that the moment the younger confessed his infidelity, he put a tremendous strain on the friendship between all four of them, IMO precisely because the confession involved the well-being of another member of the group. This friendship will never be the same. The young woman needs to know urgently that she has to get herself tested for STD. That would be my main reason for spilling the beans. I am not sure how I would actually do that, nor if I would inform her directly, but I am in no doubt that she needs to be informed.
It might be different if this was a situation of mentorship only, but that is not the case here.

Ares Olympus said...

I don't know what circumstances might compel me to break a confidence. I'd see my "loyalty" should be to helping a friend trust himself and "go and sin no more" while a there's still a risk a bad conscience unrelieved can encourage a person to "turn bad" and follow with even more destructive choices when he's under stress.

I wonder what a pastor or priest would do in such a situation, whether confession or counseling context? I assume their obligations are similar to therapists, so only threat of likely future violence or criminal activity would compel action.

I suppose a fair rule of thumb would be to ask yourself "What's the worst consequences if I keep quiet?" And then imagine that happened, and how your conscience would feel, how responsible you would feel for not acting. And then you can confront the person and ask them directly, if those consequences are possible, and if the other is not able to promise those consequences won't happen, you should make a step to break the relationship, to show how serious it is to you.

jabrwok said...

Just out of curiosity, is there any evidence that the betrayed party was a "girlfriend"? The writer keeps referring to a "partner", which I always take as a euphemism for "gay lover".

JPL17 said...

Remarkable how Anonymous completely misses the point.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

You may be right... but among politically correct types, it is becoming customary to call girlfriends partners too.