This is the stuff that Philosophers, Theologians, Ethicists, Doctors, and Lawyers have argued about since time immemorial. The post I am writing now is written after many conversations with family and friends over decades. I can pretty well guarantee that some of my readers will take issue with what I write. Some may radically disagree. If so, I hope that you will e-mail me, or post a comment below.
Let me begin by explaining what I am not talking about. I am not talking about being sworn under oath in a court of law, to tell the truth, tell the whole truth, and tell nothing but the truth. I am not talking about doctor-patient privileged information. I am not speaking about confessions made to your pastor or priest.
I am talking about the stuff you know about because you either did it yourself, or it happened to you; or someone very near to you (whether by proximity or relationship), confessed it, did it, or might have done it; or because the rumor fairy dropped by to chat.
Occasionally bad things are told for the wrong reason or to the wrong person. For example, you are plagued by some wrong you committed years in the past, and the urge to confess is overwhelming so that you can feel better about it. You go and confess to the person you hurt, who had not known anything about it at all; thereby causing hurt, grief and a sense of betrayal to rain down on the innocent person. This is not nice. Please take several weeks and read lots of books by Miss Manners.
I know of just such a situation. I talked it over at some length while traveling with my father, who happened to be a lawyer. It concerned a husband and wife of forty-plus years of married life. They had always been faithful to one another. Except once. One weekend, early in their married life, the husband was sexually unfaithful to his wife. He never saw the other person again. Never spoke to her. Never wrote her. One weekend in forty plus years. But it bothered him. He sought to be free of the guilt that gnawed at him. Instead of going to his pastor or priest, he went to his wife and confessed. It ended their marriage. She was devastated and responded by telling her husband that their whole marriage had been a lie.
In my opinion, my father’s response was wise. My dad said that what had been the lie was the weekend, not the marriage. The marriage was the truth; the weekend was the lie. In my dad’s view, and I concur, the man committed another offense by confessing something that could only do one thing: cause his wife, an innocent party, grief and hurt. He did it because the guilt was bothering him. He soothed himself by burdening someone else. Not nice. Please take several weeks and read lots of books by Miss Manners.
During that same conversation, my father told me a real story regarding marriage, infidelity, and two brothers. One of the brothers was married to a woman who had mental health issues. She went to some kind of psychiatrist, or therapist, to get help. The person she turned to for help, seduced her. The husband found out and wanted to divorce her. The husband’s brother argued with him, telling him that he had no right to divorce his wife. She was the one who needed help, she was the one afflicted with mental health issues; she had tried to do the right thing by getting help. The person who offered the help betrayed her by using her for his own pleasure. The wife was a weak link who tried to do the right thing and was taken advantage of. The therapist or doctor seduced her. My father believed that the brother’s argument was correct: this did not constitute grounds for divorce. Apparently, the conversation between the brothers regarding divorce was effective. The divorce was averted, and the couple went on to have many more years together as husband and wife.
Some truths are withheld for a good reason. Not everyone needs to be told everything. I believe that withholding information is different from telling a lie, except in the case of the courtroom witness stand, which I specifically said I was not talking about. For example, by the time my divorce came about, my mother was in her late eighties, and her memory was very confused. I never told her about my impending divorce. Why? Because telling her would only have caused her grief and sadness. She loved her son-in-law. Unfortunately, by that time in her life, I would have had to tell her the hurtful news repeatedly for her to keep it straight in her muddled head. So not only would it have caused her grief, it would have caused her grief over and over again. I did tell my dear aunt, her younger sister, and I did tell a dear friend of my mom’s. They both asked me the same question: “Have you told your mother?” They were both relieved when I told them that I had not told her and had no intention of doing so.
Issues like withholding information, telling the truth or a lie, need to be carefully weighed. Part of growing in maturity is remembering that we have brains and we need to use them.
Let me be very clear. We must not shield someone who is dangerous to others. Misplaced pity or naive good wishes might allow evil to happen. The problem of good and evil is a serious issue. Many basically good people have done bad things in their lives, and even very evil people may have occasionally done something decent or good. Sorting it out ourselves and teaching our children how to navigate all of that is not a one-time lesson. When we come into possession of potentially explosive information that could harm others, we need to tell it. You see a knife or gun in your friend’s backpack at school you need to tell it to prevent harm to others or your friend.
However, if you learn something about your friend that poses no danger to others but could be very embarrassing if told, you may need to carefully keep that to yourself. I am talking about the intimate details that one learns in close relationships. Some things are not the business of anyone else. If you have been trusted with private information, you need to guard it carefully.
Personally, I think that before marriage, it is wise to confess all to one’s future spouse: youthful indiscretions; past relationships, etc. Watching old TV murder mysteries when I was a kid, I used to reflect how many of the blackmail schemes and subsequent murders could have easily been avoided if spouses had been up-front with each other from the get-go. Blackmail fails when there isn’t anything to hide. Truth telling is important. Particularly in marriage.
Learning to be people of character can be an uphill job. It helps to use our brains before we use our mouths. We need to determine whether what we are telling is important to tell, ours to tell, selfish to tell, helpful to tell. Trying to think about other people, instead of ourselves, may be a good place to start.
Very true and also sometimes very hard to discern!
This strikes me as a wise perspective. In your first example, learning to live with one’s own self-inflicted wound seems like the cost of the act, and in this particular case I can see how consideration for the spouse’s wellbeing might make silence the best course. I wonder about two things, though:
First, would the wife (counterfactually) actually prefer not to know? I know this is a small impossibility, since even considering the question might undermine trust in the marriage. But several years later, I wonder what she thinks about the situation. It’s hard to weigh another person’s desires, even I imagine after being married for forty years. I personally think that if I believe something falsely about the world would want to know it. (That being said, in the same situation I’m not sure I would go straight to divorce, either.)
Second, in your example the infidelity was never found out… but the possibility of revelation hangs over every day of their marriage nonetheless. I suspect that most infidelities, whether regretted or not, come to light sooner or later. I again would guess that, given the (impossible) choice of finding out at 40 yrs from her husband or at 45 yrs from a random letter arriving in the mail, she might prefer the former.
Your second example seems very clearly that the guy was in the wrong. And your third example strikes me as entirely compassionate and loving. I have no further questions.
Love your blog! ~HGR
HGR — Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and high praise! Like many issues of character and choices in life, the possibilities are many, and we may second-guess our decisions. However, if we work to keep strong communication open in our marriage, and honor our spouse, then even if a one-time secret indiscretion from the past is discovered, we ought to be able to confess, apologize, and talk about it without divorce being the outcome.
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