When is the morally right time to disclose an emotional affair?
December 11, 2020 1:54 AM   Subscribe

A friend needs some moral guidance about emotional affairs, and how a good person should handle them. When is the 'right' time to be honest, and when should you keep it to yourself for the sake of your partner's wellbeing?

A friend told me recently that he and his wife are going to divorce. He had been developing feelings for a coworker and told his wife in April about it, in the hope that they could work through it together somehow. After several months of back and forth and a couples counselling session that came too late in the piece, she has told him she wants a divorce.

One of the things that is tearing him up is that he prides himself on being a good person and wanted to do the right thing, but feels like he's made a mistake. I presume this is a dilemma that many people have faced before - is there a resource or a piece of writing or personal experience that has some sort of moral guidance on how one should act in this situation?

(I realise it's too late in this instance, but he is tying himself in knots about what the right thing would have been.)
posted by twirlypen to Human Relations (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Since it seems the wife has been quite clear about what she wants, we can conclude that she believes a divorce to be in the best interests of her own well being, so it was the morally appropriate thing to make sure she had all the information she needed to make that decision.

A wiser approach might have been to have more conversations about emotions and crushes and feelings for other people, before any such other people actually arrived, but the ship seems to have sailed on that one.
posted by quacks like a duck at 2:10 AM on December 11, 2020 [16 favorites]

Emotional affairs and feelings aren’t necessarily the same thing; it’s unclear whether the term emotional affair is yours (as in you are categorising it as such) or your friend’s. Either way, what follows is merely my opinion. If he says he carried on an emotional affair with his coworker, then he did the right thing to disclose it and let the chips fall where they may.

If, on the other hand, he simply had a crush or feelings as you put it, the other person didn’t know, didn’t reciprocate and as far as this other person were concerned they were merely friends, I don’t know that I would tell the wife. You simply wait for the crush to fade. People have one sided feelings all the time, she doesn’t need to know about it. You wait, it passes. He’s human, you notice other people, that’s just life. Now if he acted on it and it was reciprocated even if not physically, absolutely he needed to tell. I don’t know if this is helpful. This is hard stuff. I’m sorry they’re going through it.
posted by Jubey at 2:42 AM on December 11, 2020 [23 favorites]

Perhaps not the most important take away from your question is that there was only one counselling session, and it was ‘too late in the piece.’ I think this is because it came after the disclosure had been thrashed out by two emotionally disrupted people for some time. (A third if the emotional affair-ee was also involved.) Angry, upset, disrupted people are not wise, and they are susceptible to acting out their own developmental issues whilst trying to understand what is happening.

I think the good person in this situation could have taken the initiative of seeing a counsellor or therapist at the start of the emotional attachment to a person outside the marital agreement. A therapeutic ‘voice’ could have helped navigate the various factors that lead the person to put their intimate relationship at risk, and to talk it through. Eg talk through how to navigate a marital separation if the new attachment was to be a serious or sexual one, or how to inspect and consider the ways in which crushes and attachments are not necessarily situations in which one is powerless.

An injured partner hearing the news is a crushing time and often the first response is a flight response. One therapy session together, in my view, would be insufficient to address the complexity of the feelings of say, betrayal, loss of confidence, or to gently explore ways in which the partner could renew his partner’s sense of trust.

In this situation (I’ve been in it) I feel like the transgressor should offer the other partner a path towards understanding the disruption, even if it is to end the marriage, and for each to have their own therapeutic sessions independently going forward.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:50 AM on December 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I don't think there's enough information here to really make any moral statement about the situation — ideally, how to handle situations like this and expectations around crushes are things to talk about before getting married, but it sounds like that didn't happen in this case. I know people in committed monogamous relationships who happily talk about crushes they have with each other, and I also know people who wouldn't mention any crush/romantic feelings they have. Either way is reasonable, as long as both people are on the same page.

It doesn't seem like this is anyone's fault, really — your friend and his wife seem to have different expectations about how to handle crushes. Now that she realizes about this incompatibility, she wants to end the relationship, which seems reasonable. That doesn't mean your friend did anything wrong, just that there's an incompatibility. I think the thing to learn from this is to watch out for incompatibilities like this before getting married in the future, and to talk about this kind of thing with future partners in advance.
posted by wesleyac at 4:18 AM on December 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

As a direct answer to the question in the title, I'm going to say: "maybe never".

There's an awful lot of pressure in the idea that one person is going to be everything for their partner, for the rest of their life. Sometimes, there might be a need that one partner has that the other can't meet, or won't meet. Is that the end of the relationship? Maybe, maybe not. Is that something that you have to Talk About - as a couple, or with a counsellor? Maybe, maybe not. The partner with the felt unmet need is going to have decide what they should do. Not all of their options include full disclosure of everything. We still get to have a private interior life, even (especially?) in the context of an intimate relationship.

Amongst all the other unrealistic expectations that one might have of them: your partner doesn't have to be your judge, or to absolve you of sin.
posted by rd45 at 4:19 AM on December 11, 2020 [21 favorites]

Best answer: I think your friend probably needs to go back to his wedding vows and any discussions he and his wife had rather than looking for some kind of alternate yardstick at this belated point.

My marriage vows were pretty traditional - love and cherish, foresaking all others, sickness and in health, long as we both shall live. I would characterize the joyful struggle of our marriage as being sorting out the priorities in that list, especially if you take “health” as a goal, not a fact.

For us, I would say that eventually the guiding principle of our relationship which we set together has been more on the word cherish, or honour in some vows, which my husband and I have interpreted over the years as “your whole self is welcome,” than on the foresaking. So for us, we haven’t just weathered emotional connections to others, in some cases we’ve nurtured them. That was not a simple or singular process.

But in order to do that, we’ve always had to turn towards each other. The hallmark of the affair part of an emotional affair is secrecy, and the core of it is prioritization. Having a crush at work while you come home to make dinner together and talk over your day with your wife (and listen to hers closely) is a very different path than staying late at work and zoning out for months while you secretly text someone all the time and claim it’s your boss.

If your friend really wants to interrogate his behaviour, he kind of has to do the work not of looking for an outside authority to decide if he’s a good person, but he needs to really sit with all his tiny choices. Was he investing more of his time, energy, and self in his marriage or in this other relationship, and for how long? Did he approach his wife tentatively and humbly or did he expect kind of respect for his honesty despite the impact of his prior choices because of this self-definition as A Good Person?

Being “a good person,” isn’t a state of being, it’s a series of choices in the face of imperfection. In your description it sounds like he leaned on honesty and she valued fidelity at the point you’re talking about. Those are both legitimate aspects of marriage.

But the amazing human adventure of marriage isn’t for most people that one day you adhere to one vow. It’s sharing a life, the choice to spend 1/3 of the savings account on something you know your spouse would think wasn’t worth it, prioritizing your desire to do a group gaming run over the lonely look on your spouse’s face when you get your headphones on, choosing to tell your crush-person you have a crush on them before you tell your husband about it. Acknowledging the sickness part of your imperfections before striving for healthier ways.

There are books about that — I tend to recommend Harrier Lerner’s The Dance of Intimacy first followed by The Dance of Connection, but probably Leo Buscaglia’s Loving Each Other had the biggest impact on me (but I haven’t read it in years and it may not have aged well.) But I suspect your friend has all the information he needs, it’s more that he can’t reconcile it.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:56 AM on December 11, 2020 [77 favorites]

One of the things that is tearing him up is that he prides himself on being a good person and wanted to do the right thing, but feels like he's made a mistake.

Wait, does he feel the mistake was having the emotional affair, or was the mistake telling his wife about it? He screwed up by having the emotional affair, and his big dilemma is that he wishes he hadn't told his wife? Perhaps he needs to challenge his view of himself as a good person, because he's acted very badly and now seems mostly sad that he had to suffer consequences of his betrayal. One's own view of oneself as a good person does not mitigate actual harm when one acts badly.

I realise it's too late in this instance, but he is tying himself in knots about what the right thing would have been.)

The right thing would have been to not get emotionally involved to that degree with someone other than his spouse. How is this not obvious to him? He did it, he finally decided to be honest with her about it (although I don't see anything here about him trying to make amends or rededicate himself to his marriage) and now he's sorry that he's experiencing consequences. And his takeaway is that he shouldn't have said anything so he could have his cake and eat it too? He's not having a moral quandary now - he's experiencing a narcissistic wound. His belief that he can do whatever he pleases and still order his life to his needs has been challenged. Maybe it's time for him to grow up a little.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 6:49 AM on December 11, 2020 [20 favorites]

There is no morally right time to tell someone about having done something immoral. The longer the person waits, the less likely it is to happen.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 6:51 AM on December 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

I realise it's too late in this instance, but he is tying himself in knots about what the right thing would have been.

The right thing is the thing he did; doing the right thing doesn't always result in a happy ending for everyone and whoever taught him that taught him wrong. Most of the time, doing the right thing means doing the thing you least want to do, the one that will make you Most unhappy.

If what your friend had was a crush, and he opted to snuff it out on his own before anything sneaky took place, he would not have been (in my eyes) morally wrong. We have the right to private thoughts and feelings. But that doesn't make it a mistake to have told his wife; it was still the most honest course.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:06 AM on December 11, 2020 [16 favorites]

There are very few things that I think should be withheld from partners for their own sakes, and outside of abusive relationships, developing friendships with other people is not something that should ever be withheld. I wonder if the withholding actually turned it into a bigger deal than it was? Or, if that never really happened and Wife is leaving because Husband made a new friend and told her about it, then divorce is for the best because that is bizarre behavior. (If the problem was that this friendship negatively affected his behavior towards his wife, that makes it a whole 'nother story.)
posted by metasarah at 7:22 AM on December 11, 2020

Not sure that this will give you friend the resolution he's looking for, but Mira Kirshenbaum wrote a book called When Good People Have Affairs, which is a pretty detailed examination about why people stray. Suffice to say that it's received with controversy because sometimes she does advocate not disclosing. At any rate, might be a framework for your friend to do some self-examination.
posted by Sublimity at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

He is trying to be a good person after having the emotional affair? Why not before it? Now he is wondering if he was being a good person by telling his soon to be ex-wife about an emotional affair? Meh. The decision to be a good person or not happened at the time of the emotional affair which he failed. After that, he is throwing himself on the mercy of the court so to speak.He is the legend of George Washington. I cannot tell a lie, it is I father that chopped down that cherry tree. That does not absolve you of responsibility of having chopped down the tree.
posted by AugustWest at 7:57 AM on December 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

I am really ambivalent about the usefulness of the concept of the "emotional affair" in the first place, and your question doesn't give any of the details that I find distinguish it from a useful concept that doesn't place excessive emphasis on a narrow definition of sex, and a idea that springs from the unhealthy concept that people cannot have friends of the opposite gender and/or married people should need no emotional connection outside their marriage.

Regardless, it sounds like there was a rupture in this relationship and it turned out to be permanent. Whether or not there is a "might have been" that would have led to a different outcome, what happened is what happened. Your friend would almost certainly benefit from some structured processing with a therapist to sort out his feelings and his ethics and get himself centered so that he can feel confident about his relationship decisionmaking in the future.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:29 AM on December 11, 2020 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Many of us (particularly Catholics though I cannot speak well for the way other faiths or un-faiths may handle this issue) were raised on the concept that if we confess with appropriate penitence then all will be forgiven. When I use the words confess, confession, etc. in this comment, I'm meaning in the general sense not the religious sacrament sense.

One of the challenges about confession is that it often passes the pain from the liar/truth withholder to the innocent recipient of the painful truth, who then becomes very entitled to show their pain which doing so can often make the liar/withholder feel more pain. A pain vortex- I felt guilty, I told wife thinking that would make me feel better, she did not forgive me and shows her resentment, so now I feel worse than I did before, so now I act out or act impatiently or attempt to police my wife's expression of pain, which makes her more angry and resentful at me, and I think back to when she didn't know and we all felt better and conclude telling was a mistake.

One needs to become aware of the fallacy that confession = forgiveness = all is well. The value of confession is in restoring honesty (in the liar partner) and agency (in the innocent partner). This is an improvement and sometimes the only improvement you can get. But in terms of the lowercase-k karma, the sanctity of self-respect, of all involved, it is really important. Doing a hard thing that causes you to suffer but gives your spouse agency to decide whether they want to continue the relationship, does in some way heal the damage that you have caused. Even if it is not the kind of healing you want, you don't get to make the decision of what kind of healing happens.

Sometimes people who have had affairs want the dynamic of the marriage to recenter away from the pain of the innocent spouse onto the pain that resulted to the affair-having spouse as a result of their honesty. Or they want a parade and a cookie for honesty, or believe that honesty automatically earns forgiveness. These are cultural and sometimes spiritual fallacies we are raised with. Denying the innocent spouse their anger, their right not to forgive, their need for space, their lack of trust, etc. - all of that is, just like the affair, taking agency and independent personhood away from the innocent spouse. A good person centers their focus on restoring agency, independence, personhood, etc. to the innocent spouse; good people can make mistakes and atone for them by handling the outcome respectfully even if it is not the outcome they hoped for.

This comment comes from a related experience I don't want to elaborate on, and susequent therapy. MarriageBuilders is a great website recommended by my marriage counselor and deals extensively with navigating the post-affair disclosure period.
posted by MustangMamaVE at 8:30 AM on December 11, 2020 [29 favorites]

Sounds like he's asking how do you break someone's trust and then control their undesirable response. When he started developing feelings for his coworker, he could have sought counseling.

People sometimes cheat, stop cheating, and never tell their partner. They think no harm no foul. Some people tell and the relationship weathers it and sometimes not; there is no magic right way. It's manipulative to think that someone can break trust and then get to manage the fallout, especially in a way that is favorable to them.

Oftentimes, the person being cheated has been wondering what's wrong - why the distance, coldness, hurtful behavior, feeling that something is wrong, etc. They're being subjected to a form of gaslighting. One can lie and not tell or tell and deal with the consequences.
posted by shoesietart at 8:56 AM on December 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

Nah, you don't get "good person" points for fucking up and then "winning" the disclosure.

He made a mistake by having the emotional affair, the disclosure isn't morally equivalent to the mistake. The fuckuppery already happened before the disclosure, and you do not get to then point to "well at least I didn't tell you in public/at your dad's funeral/while you were studying for the bar!" to invent moral high ground so the other person can only be 79% angry. This dude's sitting there thinking "if only I'd gamed the system exactly right I wouldn't be getting a divorce" and that is super gross.

He should sit in the fullness of having made a regrettable mistake that he needs to learn from (not how to better game the system, but how to actually not fuck up that way again), instead of inventing credit so he doesn't have to regret it. He should maybe also grapple with the fact that "good person" don't mean shit, go sit with all the "good person" racists and spouse-beaters and other people who don't want to live in a state of personal responsibility for their actions.

He did a bad thing, and what actual good people do when they do bad things is feel the discomfort and true regret of having caused harm (not the regret of getting caught) and the sting of someone liking them less for it for absolute inarguably good reasons that cannot be negated away.

The short answer is if you fuck up, the right time to disclose it is immediately. Every second that passes, it gets morally (and in almost every situation practically) worse. It is never going to get better. Bonus: if you live that way, the knowledge that you must disclose rather than pretending you can game your way out of it later will keep you out of all kinds of trouble, because you know it's not going to be worth it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:26 AM on December 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

he prides himself on being a good person and wanted to do the right thing, but feels like he's made a mistake.

I could be totally off here, but this sounds like if he wants to be good person, then he shouldn’t have had the affair. So he knows that he’s a “bad” person for having the affair and it sounds like he thought he did the “good-person” thing by telling his wife, but he didn’t get the outcome he expected (forgiveness and a commitment to work on the marriage?). So now he’s asking, when would it have been the right time to disclose the affair, or would it have been the right thing to not tell? Is he thinking, if he hadn’t told his wife, they’d be still married and working on the marriage?

I think more than anything he has to face his regrets and actions, rather than pondering in the abstract, what would have been the right thing to do re: telling. I feel like he’s doubting himself now for telling? E.g. “Well I cheated, but at least I told her, so I’m still a good person, right? But she didn’t react the way that I thought she would [and thus confirming that I’m still a good person] so therefore, did I do the right thing by telling? I still want to be a good person” (Sorry if that comes off harsh, I can be blunt at times)

You can see why he needs to get away from this line of thinking (again, I may be completely off).

Either way, I think he needs to go back to first principles in a way: is thinking about himself/his actions as good or bad useful, and really interrogate his motivations for his affair, what he hoped would happen when he told his wife, and how he feels about the divorce now. Yes, having an affair was wrong, but there was a reason he did it. He needs to look into why, own his choices and accept why he made them.

Here's some reading from Cheryl Strayed: 1, 2. You don’t have to read the letter writers’ questions, but she talks about her experience of cheating and being cheated on and what happened afterwards.
posted by foxjacket at 11:07 AM on December 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

MustangMama's comment above times 100 especially this: One needs to become aware of the fallacy that confession = forgiveness = all is well.

There's not enough information in this post to really know if the guy's disclosure of his "emotional affair", whatever that was, is what caused the divorce.

But sure, it could have been. I mean -- as a long-married person, I assume that crushes, maybe even flirtations, are inevitable, and part of a long monogamous life together. They happen, they pass, they pose no threat to our family. We don't discuss them because we're not people who enjoy hearing about our spouse's attractions to other people, and we don't attach importance to them.

But if my spouse were to come home and burden ME with a telling of his extramarital attentions, then I would assume that he was doing so BECAUSE he wanted to provoke a reaction. I would assume it was serious attempt on his part either to hurt me or to let me know he had a foot out the door. And I would be looking for a way to protect myself by every possible avenue.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:13 PM on December 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

The right thing would have been not to have the emotional affair in the first place. Full stop.

There's no guarantee nor obligation on the part of the betrayed partner to consider any time right to be told, no sure time that will repair things; a betrayal is a betrayal. Just by having the affair - even BEFORE he'd told her - he'd already potentially damaged the relationship beyond repair.
posted by stormyteal at 1:29 PM on December 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think it's difficult to moralize but my personal morals say a good person would disclose way before it enters "emotional affair" territory, either to their spouse or to a therapist for help figuring out what to do. Often it isn't interest in another person that causes a relationship failure so much as the betrayal of doing something for a long time behind your partner's back. An affair going on for several months then disclosed is NOT the same as "I have these feelings and they are hard to manage, and I will tell my wife immediately so I have extra accountability to not act on them, and perhaps can also heal whatever is wrong in my marriage that caused me to seek comfort outside of it."

So for me, the good thing is to intervene way early on something like that. Disclose asap, so everyone knows the truth and can act accordingly. Do we go on more dates, have a threesome, become ethical non-monogamists, or let each other go.
posted by crunchy potato at 1:36 PM on December 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Being a "good" person doesn't mean one is free from flaws or mistakes or romantic feelings toward others, and obviously what "good" means differs between cultures, but I agree with everyone that is saying the "right" thing to do here (and I mean doing "right" by the person who would have been damaged by the emotional affair the most: the wife in this case) would have been for your friend to have discussed the feelings/person from the get go with his wife with the intent of working through it together rather than letting it develop into a full blown emotional affair that he hid from her (which from the post is hard to tell if that happened...developing feelings without pursuit, deceit, and, arguably, reciprocation is not an emotional affair).

Being "good" then, IMO, is developing the ability to consider critically how one's actions will affect others first and foremost, particularly those we vowed to cherish most. If he didn't do this, IDK, in this instance your friend did not do the ethically "good" thing toward his wife and through the lens of marriage and was not a good person contextually.
posted by Young Kullervo at 2:52 PM on December 11, 2020

I am just going to mention that it's entirely possible that his wife is just the sort of person who would automatically leave in this sort of situation rather than try to save the marriage. Other women might have reacted differently, is all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:28 PM on December 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

A friend told me recently that he and his wife are going to divorce. He had been developing feelings for a coworker and told his wife in April about it, in the hope that they could work through it together somehow.

what an amazing, amazing thing. he wanted "them" to work through his crush. "together." what, she was meant to help him feel less for another woman and more for her again? try harder to be lovable and interesting? try to compete with this other woman for his affections? how was that meant to not be degrading for her?

"I'm in love with another woman. how are we, together, as a group project, going to solve this?" imagine!

the right thing to do would have been to have a basic adult understanding of what things are personal, what things are shared, what things were his own responsibility to deal with, and what things were shared couple responsibilities. you do not "work through" your husband's crush on another woman in collaboration with him. what kind of emotional sadist could think that a reasonable thing to ask?

were I his wife and full of self-control, my first response would be not to file for divorce, but to gaze back into his brimming eyes and ask "Why are you telling me this?" Why was he telling her this?
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:06 AM on December 12, 2020 [16 favorites]

that is: you can't make someone love you. you can drive them away, once you've got them, but you can't court them so hard they change their mind. he was asking her to do this impossible thing to him. to propose that she help him work through his feelings was to request that she change his mind for him; that she help him out by making him want to give her his undivided romantic attention again. well, she can't do that, and it sounds like she was smart enough to know it.

if secretly he blamed her for driving him away into this co-worker's emotional arms by being cold and distant and just wanted to be wooed back, he picked the worst way imaginable to express that and guaranteed that it would never happen.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:18 AM on December 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. To answer a few questions that came up:

- I kept it light on details partly because I don't know all of them, and partly because I don't think it's really possible to encompass the entirety of the situation in a question like this. One comment either way can sway the impression of the situation entirely, when the reality is far more complex and nuanced.

- The term 'emotional affair' was mine. He had a colleague who he worked well with, then got along well with, then particularly enjoyed spending time with, then started to feel attraction towards, etc. I don't think there are sharp lines between each stage, and I'm not sure of the specifics of how he felt at what stage etc. I used 'emotional affair' to denote that it was a close connection with another person that his wife didn't know about, and that it wasn't physical. The other person was aware of this and reciprocated his feelings (I'm not sure of the timing of that w.r.t. his confession to his wife).

Thanks for the thoughtful responses.
posted by twirlypen at 1:40 AM on December 12, 2020

With your clarification, I will offer a note about something that happened to me many years ago. My then-partner came to me to talk over an unexpected emotional connection that had been forming between him and someone else. I wasn’t upset about that. People have crushes, people have emotional needs that cannot and I would argue should not be met by only one person forever.

However. During the course of that conversation two things became clear that did really hurt me, and made it very difficult for me to consider repairing the relationship. First: he had discussed this situation with the other person before talking to me. Second: they had been discussing difficulties in our relationship. (This is generally okay with me; I want my partner to have support outside the relationship as needed.)

Both of these things made the whole thing feel less like “I have this crush, I want to talk through it with you because we are part of a partnership and I am on Team Us” and more “I have checked out of Team Us and am consciously putting this new relationship ahead of ours.”

I wished that he had taken some steps to de-escalate the intensity of the other emotional connection; less time together, not using that specific friendship as a place to find support for our relationship troubles. If that hadn’t helped to manage his feelings well enough that he could deal with them without it becoming a problem for our relationship, I wished he would have talked to me rather than the other person about it. I wished that he had treated me as an equal partner in our shared life who deserved to know if a crush had gotten serious enough that it was threatening to turn from feelings into actions in a way that was really different from other crushes or close friendships.

So, before feelings turned into conversations and actions would have been the time to have that conversation, in my relationship. That may or may not be true for your friend’s wife. I agree with other commenters that “when should I have done it to minimize blowback” probably isn’t the right question. “How could I have de-escalated the budding crush so that there wasn’t anything to confess” is closer. Or “how could I have approached a discussion about open relationships”, but the answer to that is probably not “when I have an active crush on someone and also that person is a coworker” no matter what.
posted by Stacey at 5:20 AM on December 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

It sounds like he acted without being clear about why. Why did he tell his wife? Why did he let the attachment go on as long as it did, or form it in the first place? What was he trying to accomplish with any of it? When I hear stories like this, I often think the person was looking for a way out but didn't know it yet. That is unfair to one's partner, to do something without thought to the possible outcomes, or to think you can control those outcomes. It's also particularly unpleasant to be with someone who is not quite ready to break up but is maybe getting there, and may be trying to get you to break up, even without realizing it.

I think perhaps he is not asking quite the right question and that it is not so much about whether he should have told her or not, but more about being clear in his own mind on why he was doing it and--- as several people have suggested above-- taking more responsibility, rather than just telling her to see what would happen. Next time, he might think more about what outcome he is hoping for or expecting. It may be that the outcome this time was what needed to happen, but it was more messy and hurtful than it needed to be.
posted by BibiRose at 7:56 AM on December 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I will also observe that having the self image of "a good person" sets you up to be a much, much shittier person than a self image of "a flawed person who tries to do the right thing".
posted by restless_nomad at 8:22 AM on December 12, 2020 [12 favorites]

If one is in a relationship with another, and one feels that there is some knowledge that would be relevant to the other as far as affecting whether or not they would want to CHOOSE to continue to be in a relationship with one given that knowledge, the right thing to do is to reveal that information.

The wrong thing to do is to hide the information so as to trick the other into continuing the relationship under false pretenses.

That this is the right thing to do in no way means that one will be granted whatever outcome one wants in exchange.

he is tying himself in knots about what the right thing would have been

If one values letting one's partner make their own decision, there is one course of action consistent with those values.
If one values manipulating others to be in a relationship with one and controlling their actions, while always feeling that one would never be truly loved if the truth was revealed, there is a different course of action that is consistent with those values.

Basically the "right thing" depends on what one values in life. If your friend values deceiving others and living a life of hiding things from their partner, then indeed they should have made a different choice.

(edit: in case it's not obvious, this is intended as a thinking exercise, I am in no way actually advocating lying and deceiving as the proper way to conduct relationships.)
posted by yohko at 2:31 PM on December 12, 2020

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