From The “Easy Ethics Questions That Some People Think Are Hard” File: “Should A Father Warn His Daughter’s Boyfriend That She’s A Sociopath?”

Of course not.

On the the sub-Reddit “AmITheAsshole” board,  a father consulted the group as to whether it would be  wrong for him to warn daughter’s fiancé-to-be  that she’s been diagnosed  as a clinical sociopath. She is  attracted to her boyfriend, he said, she has told him in the past that  she doesn’t feel love or empathy towards anyone, nor guilt or  grief.  Yup, that sounds like a sociopath, all right. A doctor diagnosed the daughter as suffering from antisocial personality disorder at age 18.

“She exhibited odd, disturbing behavior at a young age, and after a serious incident of abuse towards her younger sister, I realized she needed professional help,” Dad wrote. “Throughout her elementary years she struggled heavily, getting in lots of trouble in school for lying, cruelty, and all other types of misbehaviors. With an enormous amount of therapy and support, her bad behavior was minimized as she grew older.”

Her boyfriend has no idea, the father believes, what kind of person he will be marrying, and the father believes that he has a right to know, saying,  “I really like and respect this young man, and would feel awful keeping this ‘secret’ from him, and letting him walk into a marriage without this piece of knowledge.”

Yet since her diagnosis, the daughter seems to have her behavior under control. She has a good job, successfully navigated through college and has  many friends. She is also popular on the dating scene.

The Reddit participants seem to have been flummoxed by the father’s dilemma. I’m not. The ethical course is clear.

Shut the hell up. Telling the daughter’s boyfriend about her past and medical condition would be a flat-out betrayal of loyalty and trust. Such a revelation would be likely to scare the young man sick, and would probably destroy the relationship. One distinction between sociopaths and psychopaths is that the former can learn how others feel about right and wrong, and work to conform to social norms. They may not love, care, and feels the way most people do, but because they are smart, practical and often, like the daughter, charming, they can still be successful in their careers and personal relationships.

It sounds as if the daughter has been doing exactly that. Sociopaths have a right to be happy too, and many have long  and productive marital relationships. Think of Bill Clinton. Jack Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson. Nixon. FDR.  Sociopathy is a mental illness, so far incurable but manageable. Most Americans associate the condition with psychopaths, and serial killers. If sociopaths can “fake” their emotions sufficiently to have relatively healthy relationships, and many can, it would be unethical in multiple ways for the father to sabotage his daughter’s romance by warning her beau:

  • It violates a confidence. This is a medical diagnosis that the father learned as a custodian for his child. It is her secret to keep, if that’s her choice.
  • It is betrayal. The daughter, the father says, has always been candid and open with him about her condition. That is because she trusts him. For him to tell anyone else is a betrayal of the trust.
  • This is not like warning someone that a daughter is a vampire or a cannibal. She isn’t dangerous. The father doesn’t know how the couple relates to each other; every relationship is different. Maybe he’s a sociopath too. Interjecting his fears into their relationship is unfair and irresponsible.
  • Would he have wanted a third party, parent or not, to intervene in his relationship with the daughter’s mother, negatively characterizing his worse character traits? No, of course not. This would be a Golden Rule breach.
  • It is also a Kantian non-no, unless he is proposing a universal standard that all parents have an ethical duty to make sure a child’s potential life partner knows the worst about them, because he or she has “right to know.”
  • The betrayal can’t be justified on utilitarian grounds, either, because the harm done by the revelation is near certain, but the benefits are entirely speculative.

The father can discuss with his daughter what she plans on telling her presumed husband-to-be about her condition, and give his advice. In the end, however, it’s her choice, and her life.


Pointer: Fred


16 thoughts on “From The “Easy Ethics Questions That Some People Think Are Hard” File: “Should A Father Warn His Daughter’s Boyfriend That She’s A Sociopath?”

  1. Your last paragraph is the complete solution.

    Why tell him?

    Any discussion should be with her.

    He’s HER father.


  2. The history of cruelty (to animals?) and habitual lying makes me think that she may well be a psychopath rather than a sociopath. At any rate, these terms are pretty much used interchangeably. Btw, I don’t think LBJ was a sociopath: Probably a narcissist who grossly overestimated what he could accomplish in building his Great Society and foolishly relied on Westmoreland for managing the war in Vietnam.

    • My favorite distinction between a psych and a socio: the psychopath can’t tell ten difference between right and wrong. The sociopath knows the difference, but doesn’t care.

    • The nature vs nurture distinction hasn’t really been proven: Neither psychopath nor sociopath are terms used in the latest DSM diagnostic manual. I suggest that you take a look at *Without Conscience* by Dr. Robert D. Hare, PhD to better understand the key symptoms of psychopathy.

  3. People are all different. Psychologists describe different behaviours defining some as rooted in ‘personality disorders’. This seems to me frequently to display a quite mind boggling arrogance and I don’t like it. Clearly there are diseases and disorders that affect the brain which might very reasonably be classified as ‘mental illness’. But we should surely resist those who seek immediately to classify what they see as antisocial behaviours as resulting from an illness or disorder.

    Close to the end of her life, my mother’s psychologist ‘explained’ to me how my poor mother had been struggling all her life with ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. I gathered that was supposed to be a generous attempt to ‘excuse and explain’. I know the psychologist meant well but it didn’t help me at all. I prefer to think I knew my mother as she was, warts and all, rather than that she had always been sick. It wasn’t all bad by any means.

    If I was the ‘dad’ I’d want my daughter to be happy and to marry a guy who would love and support her ‘warts and all’. That means I’d want as best I could to make sure they took time to get to know each other. I very much doubt that I would put any weight on a psychologist’s assessment of a ‘personality disorder’ or her potty training.

  4. The conversation with the daughter is either you tell him or I will. This is not just a simple problem this will effect the young mans side of the family and any children they may have. It will effect how she relates to his side of the family and how she raises their children. The young man absolutely needs to know this information before they make the trip down the aisle. This is not something that should be kept a secret. This is a serious mental health issue. The betrayal that will come when he over time does discover she is a sociopath will cause significant harm to the relationship. Honesty is the best policy. He can only love her warts and all when he knows the truth. She needs to be open and honest with this young man if she is not then she doesn’t trust him enough to marry him and is using manipulation to start off her marriage. She has an obligation to practice the golden rule. In the end it is the young mans life and his choice as well. He however is making a choice about his life without having some necessary information. The statement she deserves to be happy is true yet the statement is also true that young man deserves to be happy.

  5. Sorry, Jack, but I think you’re wrong here. As someone who was in a serious relationship with a sociopath, I would move heaven and Earth to warn this poor, poor guy of what’s in store for him. If he feels any amount of love for this creature, he will be in a world of hurt when he discovers her inability to love. Her inability to empathize will cause no end of communication difficulties. He will feel like he is shouting into a void, and will never feel heard or understood. The best they will ever have is an uneasy truce, and at worst he will come to absolutely loathe her. She will ruin this poor guy. Maybe it shouldn’t be the father, but if I were the father, I would say “you tell him, or I will”. The LEAST this poor, poor hapless fool deserves is the ability to make an informed decision about the thing he is marrying and swearing his eternal devotion to.

    • Divorce is not a ready cure for what awaits him, either. Him, and most CERTAINLY their children, will incur great, lasting psychological harm. This woman haunts my dreams to this day.

      • But as I’m sure you know, this is a spectrum. My father’s best friend, whom I think I’ve mentioned here before, was a textbook sociopath, but he was a devoted father and husband —to BOTH families he secretly maintained for 50 years, one in the US, one in Australia.

        • Yes, it is a spectrum. I think whether or not it is ethical to tell the man depends on where she falls on this spectrum. If the father feels that she is going to abuse this guy emotionally, then he should tell the man. If she seems to be able to have a relationship without abuse, then no. The fact that the father seems to want to tell the man leads me to believe she has improved that much.

          Now, there was a time a ‘friend’ of mine set me up on a date with a woman. Things went well for a week until she flipped out. She sent me long manifestos and threatening messages on my answering machine. When I tried to talk to this woman she would launch into tirades. She called my boss and left messages on his voicemail, etc. I called the ‘friend’ to try to figure out what was going on. Oh, ‘she is bipolar’, I was told. I later found out she did this same thing to her ex-husband, her previous boyfriends, and at every place of employment. I know numerous people who are bipolar who do not exhibit this type of behavior. Not every bipolar person is like this, but I have met several who do exhibit this same sort of behavior. I almost lost my career because of this. Why didn’t my ‘friend’ tell me? Well, she seemed like she was doing so much better the last 6 months with therapy and new medication, I was told.

          So, doing better doesn’t always mean better. The father may know something we don’t (or maybe he doesn’t). I think that makes this situation a difficult one to judge

          • If the father is putting this out for advice, it behooves him to let us know EVERYTHING he knows short of revealing the identities of those involved., and we should assume that he has if we are to make any intelligent assessment of the situation. What he’s told us is that she was a rotten kid but has gotten better since. If she was still abusive, a con artist, or a criminal, then yes, I would say that the father should inform the boyfriend about behaviors that are still ongoing. He need not even bring up the “sociopath” diagnosis in that case, just that she has a pattern of dangerous behavior the boyfriend should watch out for.

            If I was the BOYFRIEND, and a date’s parent told me their daughter was a sociopath, if my knee-jerk reaction WASN’T “Well that explains a few things”; if I had seen no troubling behavior from her that would explain the father’s claim, then I would be suspicious of the father. Why would he undermine his own daughter like that, especially since she seems to have a handle on things? And since people on the anti-social personality disorder spectrum often come from messed-up backgrounds, what does her being a sociopath say about her parents?

            And if the daughter really has turned her life around, and is being a generally good person without the normal social emotions that help us all get along, that actually makes me respect her more, since a person like that would be a living embodiment of “doing the right thing even though it’s really hard”. If I was her father, I’d encourage her to be as upfront with her man as she is with me (the fact that she was honest with at least her father about her issues is another big plus for her), but I would not want to sabotage her efforts to be a decent human being and reap the requisite rewards.

          • And about your friend, I would say 6 months “improvement” is different from a bad kid that grew up to be a decent adult. The father didn’t have any recent, adult behavior to indicate that she was dangerous or unstable. In the actual Reddit post, the worst he could come up with is that she fakes emotions she knows she should feel but just doesn’t, which isn’t really much of a red flag IMHO, given how people would react if she just did “what came naturally”.

    • I would also have to disagree here. Should my brother in law’s parent have informed my sister that he was paying child support for three more minor children, in addition to, the one she knew about? (They didn’t, and it ended in disaster).

      Would I have made a different choice of spouse if I knew one day my toddler would come to me and ask “What does murder/strangle mean?”…. “… It means your mother is very upset.”

      If I knew that she wouldn’t talk to me for a week if I dared to tell her these comments to our children are inappropriate?

      That I told her I would increase life insurance on them as she asked, but on the condition we not be beneficiaries, because days before she was praising the wet weather meant burying them would be easier?

      I still worry about those children, but at least now they spend half the time exposed to her than when we were married.

  6. I agree with your conclusion, as long as there is no certainty that the relationship is doomed.

    If the father had near certainty (say 85% or greater) that the poor guy is in for a world of trouble, because of the diagnosis, I would have to say he is ethically bound (by the golden rule) to inform.
    The question I have is “What would it do to your bullet point list if that were the case?”
    If that list is labeled “Reasons”, and a shift of 10-15% certainty changes the recommendation, then what happens to the “Reasons” that no longer fit the recommendation?
    Throw them out?

    Call the list “Concerns”, rather than “Reasons”?

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