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Ask an Ethicist: Ethical communication in personal relationships

Is it ethical to withhold information from someone with whom you have a close, personal relationship? What if that information will upset your relationship partner? This week’s article considers ethical communication in personal relationships, and it offers insight into questions about when you should disclose to your partner, and when you might be able to keep sensitive news to yourself.

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Denise SolomonQuestion: When is it justifiable not to disclose information to another person with whom you have a special relationship because you know that the person will react negatively to the information but not be otherwise harmed by it? 

Let’s say that a husband who has had past relationships with other women before meeting his wife wants to maintain relationships with one or more of them but in a purely platonic way. But the husband is aware that the wife is a very jealous person who would be enraged by finding out that her husband has continued this kind of nonsexual relationship with a past lover. Is it justifiable to conceal the information about the continuing relationship for this reason, or is it better for the husband to disclose the information to his wife and try to reason with her that it poses no threat to their own relationship? Should the husband sacrifice the friendship with the past lover just to keep the wife happy. It seems that either the wife or the friend will end up being disappointed.

An ethicist responds: In my textbook, Interpersonal Communication: Putting Theory into Practice, my co-author Jennifer Theiss and I define ethical communication as using values as a moral guide when you interact with other people. We further suggest that “ethical communicators make their values and assumptions clear to others, and they demonstrate a respect for the values and assumptions that other people express.” This view of ethical communication gives us guidance as we figure out when it is or is not justifiable to withhold information from a relationship partner.

Regarding the general question, there are definitely times when we can withhold information that would only serve to upset a relationship partner or otherwise introduce undue negative consequences. The touchstone for this decision is whether withholding that information is in line with your values and the assumptions and values your relationship partner holds. Consider, for example, if someone told me that the outfit my sister wore to work looked silly. If I thought the person’s opinion might have negative consequences for my sister – perhaps hampering her effectiveness in the workplace – the value I place on helping my sister succeed and the fact that my sister assumes I will alert her to threats to her success or happiness place pressure on me to share this criticism with her. But, if the source of criticism is in no way positioned to affect my sister’s experiences at work, my sister’s attire is appropriate to her workplace, and the opinion is just an opinion, I have no ethical obligation to tell my sister that someone didn’t like her outfit. Lest you think withholding only applies to relatively trivial disclosures, this same line of thinking might point me toward withholding news about my friend’s affair from my spouse. My spouse does not assume that I will keep him informed on my friend’s actions, and telling him might damage his future relationship with my friend; therefore, as long as the affair isn’t with me, I don’t need to disclose this information.

For the specific case raised in the question, we can undertake the same kind of analysis. To the extent that husband values honesty in his relationship with his wife, seeing his old girlfriend secretly is an ethical violation. Likewise, it is reasonable to think that the wife also values honesty and assumes that her husband would tell her if he was spending time with an old girlfriend. Concealing information about seeing the friend is therefore not ethical communication. The characterization of the wife as “a very jealous person” does not change the calculus. In my research, I have found that people who have trouble coordinating daily routines with a romantic partner or who are uncertain about the status and future of their romantic relationship have more extreme jealousy responses to potential third party rivals. Thus, the answer here is to work toward a relationship with the spouse in which those friendships do not pose a threat. This doesn’t involve “reasoning with her,” but rather collaborating with her on day to day activities and reassuring her about the well-being and future of the marriage. When the relationship is less turbulent, the husband may find that the wife supports his friendships and isn’t threatened by them. If the threat is never mitigated, the husband must choose which relationship to privilege, he must do so openly, and he must be prepared to face the consequence of losing whichever relationship he doesn’t prioritize.

Denise Solomon is a Liberal Arts Research Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University (University Park). Her research focuses on communication experiences in personal relationships, such as support and conflict, that promote or erode well-being. In particular, her work examines how transitions in romantic relationships promote relationship qualities that polarize reactions to both ordinary and extraordinary experiences.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.