Carolyn Hax Tackles An Ethics Classic

What do you do when you find out that the husband or boyfriend of one of your friends is cheating on her with another one of your friends?

This perennial advice column ethics teaser has been botched in more columns than I can count, so it was a pleasure to read the response to the dilemma by Carolyn Hax, the syndicated relationship advice columnist whose ethical instincts are invariably superb. Here was the substance of her answer:

“…to the husband or husband-poacher (whoever’s the closer friend), say something akin to: “I’ve heard this is happening, which means others have, too. That’s Issue 1. Issue 2: I want no part of this — I don’t even want to know what I already know. Issue 3: If Wife asks me something, I won’t lie. As someone who stands to lose friends in this mess, I hope you’ll clean it up.” Then butt out, knowing that if someone forces your hand, your next move has been declared in advance — and if your friend finds out that you knew, you can say: “I’m sorry. I did what I felt I could.”

This strikes me as both practical and wise, though it seems key to Hax’s answer that both women were described as “semi-good” friends. This allows her to avoid the tougher problem when the friend being cheated on is more than semi-good, but a close and trusted friend. In that situation, I think the balancing act tilts to loyalty, and requires the friend in the middle to spill the beans—AFTER warning the semi-good friend what is about to happen, and giving her a chance to act first.

When both the cheater and the victim are semi-good friends, the Golden Rule cramps up. You wouldn’t want a third party interfering with your private life, but you would want a friend to alert you to a cheating husband if your positions were reversed. Hax’s solution embodies discretion, caring, fairness, honesty and disclosure, a good set of ingredients in a no-win situation.


Source: Washington Post

Graphic: Embracing My Journey

12 thoughts on “Carolyn Hax Tackles An Ethics Classic

  1. Once upon a time, I learned that the live-in male mate in a relationship took off from a party with another woman while the other live-in (my close female friend) was out of town. I wrestled with this, but eventually told my friend about this cheating incident. Subsequent conversations with the “cheater” centered upon how, actually, it was a good thing I told my friend about it, because it led to honest dialogue about the relationship. I said simply, “My concern was with “Jane,” not with the progress of your relationship. I just didn’t want her hurt, lied to, or abused emotionally. I knew what happened, and was not about to be complicit in it. The progress of your “dialogue” isn’t really my concern: “Jane” is.”

    The ‘dialogue” this engendered didn’t have much of an impact (and that’s not my concern), because eventually the two married, and are now unhappily divorced after about 15 years. Nevertheless, I would do it again. Unfortunately, in so many of these situations, especially where both partners are considered “friends,” one ends up having to take sides. And most often, as NOT in the case described above, it happens after the fact of a divorce or separation, not in advance or in the middle of it. And has my husband and I have learned, very, very often it’s too difficult to take a side, and you lose your relationship with both…

  2. That is the most horrible piece of “ethical” advice I’ve ever heard. It fails under the most basic ethical analysis.

    First of all, you say that if the victim is your “close” friend, then it is your ethical duty to inform. But then you say, if the friend is only “semi-good” then it’s better to warn the cheater and butt out. So let’s get this straight then. The “ethical” course of action really depends on how well you like somebody, does it? That’s absurd. The entire idea that you could have a system of “ethical” principles based on how well you like a person is just laughable. That’s not ethics. That’s called evil. Treating people differently based on your own arbitrary preference is what Hitler did. Treating everyone equally and fairly is what Jesus did. Suppose you find a purse with money in it. If you only return it to the owner when the owner is your close friend, that’s not “ethical.” It’s only ethical when you return the purse regardless of who owns it. Likewise, for your advice to be ethical, it has to be applied to everybody in all similar situations. Congratulations on failing the simplest of ethical concepts.

    The correct answer is: Yes, you should find a way to inform your friend that they are being cheated on. Does it hurt to find out you’re being cheated on? Sure. You know what else hurts? Finding out you contracted an STD from a cheating husband. When you know your friend is being exposed to a personal health risk, it’s unethical not to tell them about it because you’re worried what your other friend will think. Your other friend shouldn’t have put you in that situation and shouldn’t have exposed another person to a health risk. Cheating is unethical and so is covering for cheaters. The loss of friendship is the price you pay for being ethical. Nobody said ethical behavior was a bed of roses.

    Ethics classic, eh? I think you need to revisit this classic.

    • I think you need to use your head. The distinction with one’s close friend is loyalty and trust, not “liking them”. She would expect you to tell her, she trusts you not to sit idly by and let her get hurt. You are obligated to take her side.

      The situation Hax deals with has equal loyalties. Such situations are complex. Who appointed you fidelity police? Or to take sides? Adultery is usually a symptom of other problems, and they can be worked out sometimes, if everyone butts out. You’re throwing a bomb in people’s lives—they may be able to extract themselves with less damage. Her warning to the husband is perfect. He is on notice; the secret is out. You have said that you won’t protect the adultery. It compels action without interference, and keeps boundaries intact. Are you proposing that everyone report all infidelities regardless of the relationship with the participants? I guess so. Your friend is having an affair with the husband of a stranger—you say, look up the stranger, and tell her all about it. Really? OK, since loyalty or lack of it is irrelevant, why not report the adultery of a stranger with the husband of a stranger to the wife being cheated upon? You have no limits. You’re a adultery vigilante.

      Hax is right. You’re deluded.

  3. No, I’m not deluded. Your argument is disingenuous because the hypothetical didn’t involve strangers. If I know that my friend is having an affair with a married person, it isn’t my obligation to track down a stranger and fill them in on what their husband or wife has been doing. Of course that would be awkward. They have no idea who I am or whether I am a trustworthy source of information. They’d probably refuse to believe me over a person they married. It would be a futile course of action. But our hypothetical doesn’t deal with strangers. We’re talking about people we consider friends.

    And yes, if your “friend” is being exposed to danger without their knowledge, it is pretty much your ethical duty to inform them if the nature of your friendship is such that they can trust you. Fidelity police? Huh? I’m not advocating the arrest of anybody. I’m not even taking sides. And I’m not the person who caused the situation in the first place. Nor am I throwing a “bomb” into the situation. The bomb is already there. I’m merely informing my friend of the bomb so that they can protect themselves.

    The problem with your view, Jack, is that you see infidelity as something that only hurts you if you know about it. Wrong. You can still contract gonorrhea from a cheating husband even when you don’t know he’s cheating. And furthermore, the cheating can cause problems to the relationship even when one party is unaware. Adultery isn’t a symptom of other problems. It IS the problem, Jack. And how can you extract yourself from a situation you’re unaware of? You can’t.

    The only delusion here is that your advice is somehow “ethical.” Your blog is representative of everything wrong with society. “Who made you fidelity police?” That’s a retort I would expect from somebody trying to justify their cheating.

    • Wait—you apparently didn’t get it. I’m asking for your standards. I have mine; Hax has hers. Are you saying you are MORE likely to report a friend who is engaged in adultery than a stranger, or not? Your previous comment stated that relationship as and loyalties to the persons involved shouldn’t matter. That is absurd, and I don’t believe you believe it. Is your standards, “all adultery is wrong, and it is the duty of everyone to report to the victimized spouse?” Is it “all adultery is wrong, and it is the duty of everyone to report to the victimized spouse if you are friends with her only?”
      Is it “all adultery is wrong, and it is the duty of everyone to report to the victimized spouse if you are friends with the cheating party only?” Or only if you are friends with both? It seems passing odd that you think you have more of a duty to report a friend’s indiscretion than a stranger’s.

      “The problem with your view, Jack, is that you see infidelity as something that only hurts you if you know about it. Wrong. You can still contract gonorrhea from a cheating husband even when you don’t know he’s cheating. And furthermore, the cheating can cause problems to the relationship even when one party is unaware. Adultery isn’t a symptom of other problems. It IS the problem, Jack. And how can you extract yourself from a situation you’re unaware of? You can’t.” Don’t put words in my mouth. I didn’t say that or think that. All deceptions cause harm ,and adultery can cause more than most, but it is still in the realm of private life. You are adding a factor that doesn’t exist in the scenario. If you have reason to believe that the spouse, or the cheating spouse, is in danger of contracting a disease, you have a 100%, non-negotiable obligation to disclose. That wasn’t the issue.

  4. I have a standard and it was well defined. You added strangers to the mix, not me. I addressed the origional hypothetical about two friends. But here is the entirety of my standard which includes strangers: If you know somebody whose being cheated on, and they trust you (or in other words they will rationally listen to you), then it is always your duty to inform them of the cheating. Example: My friend Ned doesn’t know his wife is shacking up with my cousin. I must tell Ned. I can give Ned’s wife a chance to come clean first on her own, so as to butt out in a sense, but if she doesn’t– I have to let Ned know. Another example: My friend Bob is having an affair with a married woman I’ve never met. I don’t have an ethical obligation to investigate, find this man being wronged, and freak him out by showing up and telling him what I know. He doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. He has no good reason to believe me and I probably don’t have proof. There’s no practical way of helping him and it’s not my responsibility to do anything because I’m not the fidelity police, as you put it. One final example: I find out that the wife of one of my employees who has worked with me for several years and trusts me is sleeping with my best friend. I’m not exactly friends with my employee, but we’re on good terms and I see him every day. I should find a tactful way to let him know. I’m not saying you have to lob a bomb and do it in a way that will completely tear him apart so he goes home and shoots himself. Some people know how to be tactful, Jack. And as for my best friend, he ought to know better. He’s being a right bastard and I might still be friends with him afterward if he’s willing and stops with the douche-baggery, but mostly he doesn’t deserve any special consideration here. It seems passing odd you can’t or won’t understand anything I say.

    I didn’t put any words in your mouth. You said “Adultery… can be worked out sometimes, if everyone butts out.” Your words. But if butting out means that nobody informs a person that their spouse is cheating on them, then it won’t get worked. You can’t work out a problem you don’t know about. Did I really need to break that one down for you?

    Finally, (and this blows my mind) you tell me that I’m “adding a factor” when I say that the spouse is in danger of contracting a disease. No. I’m not. If your spouse is cheating, then you are necessarily in danger of contracting a disease. Necessarily. You have to assume it unless you’ve personally tested the cheater, the person they cheat with, and everyone else that person has slept with or will sleep with. And you can’t do that because there is just no determining who else a cheater might sleep with. You can’t predict the future, Jack. And that’s my whole problem with you. You see cheating as being harmless unless the person knows about it. You don’t recognize that all cheating entails a danger of contracting disease. Condoms can fail. And if you can’t trust a person not to cheat, why would you trust them to wear a condom anyway? Cheating is barely an ethical situation to you, and that’s why it’s a toss-up for you as to whether to inform their spouse about it. Because you don’t think it matters unless a disease is involved. Except that you never know what disease the other person has until you catch it.

    Ugh. It’s useless to argue with somebody like you. I have no use for you or your blog. You can’t argue a point to save your life. It’s one long train wreck.

    • No, YOU brought strangers into the discussion, by ridiculing the idea that one has different ethical obligations to individuals based on prior relationships and levels of trust. And you were wrong. Your argument keeps talking in general about a duty of third parties to expose the adultery of others, and refuses to define the conditions and limits.

      Are you arguing for a universal, mutually obligated, citizens are required to report any adultery standard or aren’t you? Because it sound like it, though you aren’t willing to acknowledge the obvious ethical and practical problems with that. Most couples deal with adultery because either one spouse finds out independently, or the guilty spouse confesses, and both of those are infinitely more promising for the relationship than if a third party sticks his or her nose in, as you are implying.

      And this—“If your spouse is cheating, then you are necessarily in danger of contracting a disease.”—is just silly. If you live with someone, you are in danger of contracting a disease. Contracting AIDS through heterosexual sex with a non-prostitute is about as rare as getting attacked by a shark on land, and that’s the main “deadly” disease involved. Your argument manages to be hysterical, impractical and ethically incoherent at the same time.

      • Jack, your ignorance is unbelievable. If your husband cheats, then what’s to say he’s not going to a prostitute? Over 40,000 new people in this country are diagnosed with HIV every year. And depending on what country you live in, your statement about AIDS couldn’t be less wrong. And why is it that only “deadly” diseases matter? Are you saying it’s not an ethical issue if it doesn’t involve a matter of life and death? No. Forget your rhetoric about “rare as getting attacked by a shark on land.” (Which is also completely false). 1 out of 5 adults in the US have an STD. Your odds are literally better playing russian roulette with a six chambered gun than having unprotected sex with a random person and hoping you don’t get an STD. How can you characterize the harm caused by a non-lethal STD acquired through a cheating spouse as de minimis? I think if an ethics expert is telling you that a little gonorrhea here and there is no big deal and not an ethical issue, that guy is far from expert.

        And for the last time, my standards are clear. Unbelievably clear. I’ve spelled it out for you over and over. Yes, you always have an ethical duty to inform someone of a potential danger to them, with this possible exception: it would be hard to find them or they are unlikely to believe you and very likely might be hostile toward you. That’s not incoherent or inconsistent. And it’s not some hysterical, impractical system either. It just recognizes that in life, sometimes you have to make a judgment call. It’s actually not a very harsh or onerous rule of ethics at all. I’m drawing a line and saying that when you know your friend’s spouse is cheating, it is definitely unethical not to inform. No question. If you want to address every possible scenario, my general rule is: You should minimize danger for others where you can, but not when it’s impractical. Your view that I am a “busy body” ferretting out cheaters derives from the fact that you think that cheating isn’t a “big deal,” is more about “other things” going on in the marriage, and the only harm that can result is to your spouse’s feelings. Your view that STD’s are not prevalent and the only one you have to worry about is AIDS… is purely horseshit.

        • The point is that you are advocating nothing less than a de facto police state, apparently because someone cheated on you, or gave you herpes, or broke up your family, or some other personal catastrophe that warped your perspective into that of a Mad Avenger. We have mutual obligations to protect others from serious harm—as I said, if I have information that anyone’s husband in HIV positive and sleeping around, I report it, just like I report someone infected with cholera or TB. You want to just assume the risk of deadly harm from conduct only, and make us all monitors of each others’ relationships. That’s foolish and irresponsible utilitarianism, sacrificing the bonds of trust and the margins or privacy that make community possible for a hysterical crusade against adultery. Read the posts hear before you accuse me of being tolerant of cheating and infidelity—I’m not in the least, and its a matter of record. But adultery should be illegal if its as deadly as you seem to think it is.

          Ethics cannot discard practicalities and realism. Your “standard” is that every person is responsible for preventing marital or, presumably, non-married infidelity and undisclosed promiscuous no matter who the participants are. That’s a leap down the slippery slope. That’s how the Puritans got to banning dancing, holding hands and flirting. Adultery sometimes passes disease–I’d say far more harm is caused by its destroying families and hurting kids. That doesn’t mean that the rational, responsible societal conduct is to encourage everyone to be spies and adultery police.

          And yes, my position on the danger of STDs and AIDS would be different of I lived in Kenya or the Congo. I don’t. My perspective and my standards are based on the United States, and that is also obvious to 99% of the readers here.

          • Nope. Wrong. I’ve never been cheated on. Never had an STD. My biological parents stayed together, never divorced, and never had relations with other people. My life has been far from catastrophic. My personal convictions arise out of a strong sense of right and wrong, not emotional events that occur to me. That’s why I’m ethical, and you’re not.

            Using your logic, should I assume that you constantly cheat on your wife and have a collection of STD’s that would scare Hugh Hefner? No, I won’t assume that. That would be wrong. I’ll just assume your argument is the result of a lower intellect.

            So the Puritans banned dancing because I started telling my friends when their spouses were cheating on them??? Not likely. But just keep telling yourself wild stories like that. It amuses me.

  5. Omg I hardly feel qualified to comment but I have to. Les9 your rational is flawed. And your comments (and examples) and attacks on Jack are so personal with name calling. Why?
    Like Jack i assume you must have felt wronged somewhere by a lover partner husband boyfriend & are doing some kind of work hopefully a healing process in writing retaliatory missives. Just because you write that you have never been touched by infidelity/betrayal in childhood or adulthood does nomandan we’re sold.
    In your last few posts you have started to unravel becoming more defensive and more black and white and attacking Jack. In reading these posts for the first time weeks after you posted they reflect a defensive and probably very hurt person. I expect a nasty comment but still wish for you to have a great support system & cope with hurt and betrayal as we all do at some point. If the worst part of your life is not having Jack bow down & acquiesce to your definitions & perspectives of cheating & what to do – then you have a charmed life! please enjoy it! Was amused by Hugh reference & absolute declarative you’re ethical & jack & rest of world is NOT. Sorry I do not mean to mock or jab nor do I want to read any post where you are on the defensive.
    The intent of this post is I feel you are a very hurt woman over an issue with infidelity. Your claim of no cheating pain is betraying you – oozing out in every defensive word. The other intent is that I don’t want for you to hurt. I hope you can find a better way to express and vent and heal. I truly do. While I agree with Jack I can identify with your pain. I bet Jack can too.

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