Ethical Responsibility?

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing polyamory vs. infidelity. The latter she called non-consensual non-monagamy. I had never heard it put quite that way before, but that’s exactly what it is. One person in a couple decides to be non-monogamous. Doesn’t tell the other.

People are so quick to judge someone who chooses a consensually non-monagamous lifestyle, but the operative word there is *consensual.* Everybody knows. Everyone is respected. Everybody is okay and secure and cared for. Everybody is safe in the honesty. In the know.

Non-consensual non-monagamy is another matter. Infidelity. Cheating. Lying. Deception. When this colleague said the words “non-consensual non-monagamy,” something clicked in my brain. 

The word “non-consensual” says it all, really. It speaks to the inherent violation, conjuring up images of non-consensual sex; i.e. rape.

Infidelity is a rape of the heart.

It is a rape of trust.

It is a rape of the life built together. Of family. Of emotional bonds. Of marital vows.

So…here comes the controversial ethical dilemma:

If you know a person is cheating on their spouse and getting away with it, do you have an ethical responsibility to tell the spouse? Or do you keep quiet, allowing them to continue a life of deception, becoming a part of that deception yourself?

What if there are children involved?

What if you were the other wo/man?

What if the cheater is your best friend? What if the deceived is your best friend?

If it was your marriage/relationship, would you want to know your spouse was lying to you? Cheating on you? Or would you want to be kept in the dark? “What I don’t know won’t hurt me.”

What if this cheater was destroying other lives/marriages all while keeping his/her own spouse in the dark?

Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to inform the spouse of the deception?

This colleague gave me this analogy:

Scenario: Someone you know has a contagious, incurable STD. You know that they are chatting up someone new, but they haven’t come clean about having this STD.

Do you have an ethical responsibility to tell this new person about said STD? Why or Why Not? What if the STD is AIDs?

As in all ethical questions, the answers are not clear or easy. There are pros and cons to each decision. Ultimately, whose responsibility is it? If the deceiver doesn’t come clean, should everyone else just avert their eyes? Is truth or discretion more important?

In a society rampant with infidelity (ladies, as an experiment, put up a “missed connections” ad on Craigslist and see just how many married men reply), when does our silence become part of the overall problem?

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.


I don’t have answers to these questions, but I would love to participate in a discussion on the topic. Please comment your thoughts/opinions below. Let’s talk.

-_Q  **More Relationship Articles** -_Q

~ by omgrey on March 11, 2011.

34 Responses to “Ethical Responsibility?”

  1. This is a very tricky question. I think a lot of consideration has to go into the relationships involved. It is easy to say, cheating is wrong – ergo – telling is right. It may be cold to say it, but if your best friend is cheating, and you hardly know the spouse, then most people would keep quiet. If the afore mentioned spouse was cheating, telling your best friend would be expected. But if you are friends with both – now you are in a conundrum.

    I think the ethical issue is not who do you tell and when, but how you deal with the situation as a whole. If your best friend were cheating and you simply ignored it, or even aided in the cover-up, then you would be – ethically – supporting the cheating. But if in the above case you told the spouse, you would be – ethically – unfaithful to your friendship.

    I think the only answer comes from the relationship and standing your ethical ground. In the above example both cases are wrong, but there is a third response – confront your friend. The old saying “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” can also be said “friends don’t let friends cheat.” Ethically we owe a debt to our friend to save him/her from their own infidelity.

    Taking a strong stand could cause a break in the friendship, but taking a drunk’s car keys can start a fist fight. Infidelity hurts everyone, even the cheater. A real friend will not condone the cheating and pressure their friend to stop and/or come clean. They can not – ethically – stand by and do nothing.

    The adage “Guilt by association” is apropos here. If you are friends with a cheater, and look the other way, you are an accomplice to the cheating. Maybe it’s time to find better friends.

  2. Forgive the brief reply. I’m tapping this out on my iPhone from somewhere in the middle of TX on my way to ConJour in Houston.

    You bring up some great points here about condoning infidelity & possibly the need to find better friends.

    Agreed. Cheating hurts everyone, even the cheater. Even the children. For if children are involved, even when kept in the dark, they inherently know as they live in a broken home.

    Others have said that the one being deceived probably already knows. Or, just simply, that it’s not our business.

    Victims of infidelity say that they wish someone would’ve told them before they wasted years of their lives with a cheater, in essence living a lie themselves.

    Yet, in the case of the STD, I told my colleague I would feel quite grateful if I was told a potential lover had an STD & was hiding it. First, because of my bodily safety, & second because of my heart. This person obviously has no integrity…similar to a cheater.

    My colleague said that ultimately we are responsible for our own body, own own decisions. That it is up to us to have safe sex despite who are partner is or what they’ve told us.

    But is this the same thing as cheating? Where we implicitly trust our spouse or our best friend/lover. What if their cheating brings home an STD?

    Then who is responsible?

  3. Someone who has an STD and hides that from a lover is, in my opinion, worse than a cheater. Though infidelity can be emotionally devastating, with STDs we are talking about inflicting physical harm on another person. That would ethically require intervention. In the case of the best friend mentioned above, I would say “you tell or I do,” no discussion. Of course I would probably say the same in the case of cheating, but an STD makes the situation more immediate.

  4. I have been a part of the moral dilema. I had a friend years ago that for the better part of the 12 years I knew him was the cheater in his marriage.

    He had many excuses for why he was doing it and none of them pointed to any fault on his part. It was always something to do with his wife: “we don’t have sex anymore” or “we’ve been married so long that we’re not any better than housemates” or “we’ve moved into our own rooms so it must be ok”. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

    The reality was that he was hardly home and when he was he was doing things for himself (and one should do things for themselves) but he never planned and did anything for his wife. He had zero responsibility in their home. She did all the cooking, she did all the cleaning and the shopping and taking care the children, etc. all while working a full time job herself.

    No wonder they had seperate rooms. HE derailed their relationship.

    Sure, I was a good friend to him for not telling his wife about his indiscretions, but she was also my friend and I was a bad one to her for not informing her.

    They finally divorced, on good terms, 7 years ago, when their youngest turned 18.

    I’m sure that she had to have known. She is a smart lady and I’m positive that she turned a blind eye to his relations with other women.

    So was it my responsibility to affirm her suspicions?

    I would say not. Only for the reason that it ultimately is not my place or my responsibility. Again, I’m sure she knew and if she chose to ignore it and be ok with him cheating, then is she just as responsiible herself?

    I would have to say though that the bottom line was that it did not directly affect me and I chose to not be involved for the reason that had it become an ugly situation there is a potential for real danger.

    In the end my friend moved and disassociated himself from his friends largely becuase the more that learned of the situation, the less his friends wanted to be around him.

    You’re right, he did eventually hurt himself by losing his wife of 20 years and friendships that spanned that far back as well.

    • No. It’s never their fault or their responsibility, is it?

      My favorite delusional justification (just because of how pathetic) is that it’s not cheating unless penis enters vagina.

      Oral sex? Not cheating.

      Kissing? Touching? Cybersex? Online flirting? Emotional affairs? All not cheating.

      I mean, really? Who are they kidding?

      Deception hurts everyone. No doubt.

  5. Everyone always assumes that STDs are something easily identified and often they are. However, as any medical professional can tell you, there are several that are rather unpleasant and often go unknown for long periods.

    Also, after working on the HIV/AIDS Hotline for years, I can confirm there are hundreds of cases of a condom providing insufficient protection for at least three common nasties. Just think, if a sperm can get through…hardly a barrier for a virus.

    In any case, swingers and others who engage in sex with multiple partners always run the risk of catching something. I’ve talked to many on the Hotline. Visit a nurse in a clinic and they could tell you stories. At the end of the day you have to decide is it worth the risk and always remember you are having “safer” sex. There is no such thing as safe sex.

    As for people not telling others they have an STD, I think that is far more common than those who are honest as they cheat or take on multiple partners for there own sexual fulfillment. Really, aren’t relationships about far more than sex? Isn’t trust really about something that means more than sex? Sex is just an act that can be ruined by 100s of factors. If I love someone it is far more than sex. If we bring in a third party it would always be as a couple, never as individuals. Those who need flirting, cyber, and multiple partners should probably just remain single. Isn’t that what being single is for?

  6. Right there with you. If you’re going to screw around, then don’t destroy your family (esp. children) while doing so. You’re creating a whole new generation of dysfunction, deception, and emotional destruction.

  7. This is a very close to home question you are posing, because yes I been faced with this exact situation more than once. But, I really would like to break down that analogy though. I don’t thing it rings as true, because an STD is a disease and in essence the person passing on this disease to people without telling them is in essence committing a crime. Especially if the STD is one as terrible as AIDs. Wasn’t there a woman tried for attempted murder because she was specifically passing on AIDs to men because she hated the opposite sex for giving her the disease to begin with? I think the responsibility is greater in this instance because it puts someone’s life in jeopardy and there are no “matters of the heart” to cloud this ethical question.

    Infidelity can be compared to telling a mother that her child is a bad person. The first act of that Mother is to deny. Even though they might know in their hear that their child or husband or lover is acting terribly admitting it is a very hard thing to do. When you reveal what you know, unless you come with hard proof (photos are about all that cuts it) the first thing they do is deny it.

    In my case, they denied it, called me the jerk. Accused me of jealousy. Accused me of wanting him and then threw me out on my butt and never spoke to me again. Even when she caught him in bed with the woman I told her he was stepping out with. He wasn’t hiding it, he wanted to get caught, it was an easy out.

    In the next case it was a family member and I didn’t want to relive what had happened before so I passed on the information to a “closer” relative of the cheater. I don’t want to know what happened, but the couple was divorced shortly afterwards. But is this better??? I am the product of a divorced home. My father was cheating on my mother, and it ended in an amicable divorce but still a divorce. I was a teenager and I think it really screwed me up mentally. Going from this perfect (on the outside) family to now living in a new town, going to a new school with a dad I only see on weekends. Was it worth it. Should we make sex worth it? Because that what it all breaks down to. The ratio is that 60% of all married couples engage in infidelity. That is high! Are we kidding ourselves with this monogamy thing? Mated for life birds and animals of that nature that practice monogamy don’t cheat on their mates. Maybe we should just shuck it and say we aren’t mate-for-life creatures.

    I’m giving it a go, my husband and I have been together for 11 years. I think if he were to “step out” I wouldn’t want to know. Ignorance is bliss.

    • I’m from a broken home, too. Infidelity was involved.

      I am fucked up by the divorce, no doubt. I have serious abandonment issues, and I don’t doubt some of that stems from what was going on at home (my mother suffered serious emotional and verbal abuse from my father) and the subsequent divorce (all before I was 5 yrs old, btw). I have no conscious memories of it, but it shaped who I am just the same.

      Still, I am glad of the divorce. Yes, it fucked me up; but I would have been even more screwed up had they stayed together. My father is a misogynist and rather emotionally abusive, as I’ve said. Now I have a tendency to choose men just like him, subconsciously of course. Had my mother stayed with him, I likely would’ve learned that was acceptable behavior and that women are truly “worthless,” which is what he always called my mother. Now, although I choose abusive men, I don’t stay with them. Once their abuse is undeniable, I leave.

      To answer your question, yes. We are kidding ourselves with this monogamy thing. If you haven’t yet, please read my post “Polyamory as an Alternative to Infidelity.”

      The problem with infidelity is the betrayal and the deception, not the sex.

      Ignorance is bliss only if you remain ignorant your entire life. If you ever find out, you will have years of deception to account for. Trust me, finding out that a few months was a complete lie is devastating enough.

      • I completely agree with you, especially
        “The problem with infidelity is the betrayal and the deception, not the sex.”
        I’ve been in this position, and whilst our relationship has survived, I’m left with nagging trust issues. More to the point I’m left with the dilemma of what to do about the other party, who I know is a serial user and will go on and on destroying other people’s lives and relationships I’ve never met this man or his wife, but I’m quite sure she deserves better. I’ve wrestled with this issue for a few months now, but feel no closer to a resolution.

      • It’s a tough decision, no doubt. I’ve consulted lots of betrayed wives, and of them say they wish someone would’ve told them. I’ve also talked with several married women who have not been cheated on, and of them say they would rather know, too. If you choose to tell the woman, you have my respect and support. At least someone is giving her the respect of the truth and a choice. If you don’t choose to tell her, you have my respect and support as well, as it will open a world of pain for her and her family. I guess it comes down to which choice would you feel less guilty about? Neither are good choices, and I’m so sorry to hear you are in this position.

        Remember, you are not doing this to his family, *HE* did this to his family.

        As for your trust issues, it does take a long time to rebuild trust. My thoughts and sympathies are with you. If I can do anything to help, I’m just an email away. Please don’t hesitate to write.

  8. […] wrote a blog a few weeks back entitled Ethical Responsibility that touches on this in another […]

  9. Ethically speaking, one should not conceal, aid, or support someone else’s infidelity. Which means that if you find out that you are the other wo/man, you need to leave the relationship. Someone who will cheat on a spouse will cheat on you. And may already be doing so.

    Not supporting infidelity is easy. Telling someone about their spouse’s infidelity is difficult. It really needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, but speaking generally, one needs to have undeniable truth on their side before broaching the subject. Denial is a natural human response. Not a healthy one, but a natural one. Most situations will be uncomfortable when the spouse finds out about the cheating, but this is a case where there is no bliss in ignorance. If one is afraid of confrontation, there are methods to pass the information on anonymously. These usually involve photos.

    It is not an easy thing to tell someone the person they trust most in the world has betrayed them.


    • No. Not easy at all. Perhaps ultimately not one’s responsibility either, but like you said, needs to be examined on a case by case basis.

      Thank you for the comment.

  10. I was an unwitting other woman. I thought he was single but discovered that he lied to me about having a baby and living with his girlfriend. When I untangled the web of deceit, I ended the relationship. I did not feel that he was accepting any responsibility for his actions and that he would continue to cheat. About 2 months later, I called the girlfriend at home when I knew he was at work and told her. She told me that he had a history and she had been suspicious that he was cheating on her. Comparing notes, I am not sure I was the only “other woman.” It was a difficult decision to call her but I think it was the right one. I suspect she will stay with him for the short term due to the baby. But at least she can make an informed choice. Had I been informed about this cheater’s situation, I would have never gone out with him. The secrecy surrounding affairs also harms the third person who usually is lied to by the cheater about his availability. I never agreed to lie or cover up anything and was offended that I should be expected to do so.

    • I’m so very sorry to hear about your being so very deceived. And I think you did a brave thing to contact the SO. You gave her two things her partner didn’t: the truth and a choice.

      I’ve read horrible accounts of women who were deep in relationships with men, to the point of getting engaged, before finding out they had a completely different life/family elsewhere.

      The cruelty of some people never ceases to amaze me.

  11. And I can’t help but notice that most discussions of “consensual nonmonogamy” fail to address the 3rd party. I don’t think it is ethical to treat another person as just a meaningless outlet for your relationship problems. There should be full disclosure to the 3rd party that any relationship is a dead-end. Of course, that would severely reduce the pool of available partners which is why they lie in the first place.

    • Agreed. There should always be open communication, but unfortunately that is not reality. Think how much simpler things would be if we just opened up to one another. Truly.

  12. […] Original Blog Post […]

  13. So the question of “Do you tell?” assumes that the existing relationship has a monogamy clause.

    If I am unaware of the agreements in the publically acknowledged relationship it’s very much not my place to become involved, unless I am already involved. For example: I start seeing one of the already-coupled-people – it’s now my business, One of the already-coupled-people asks my opinion – it’s now my business. Alternately, if I am close enough to the couple to have some knowledge of their agreements and know they are being broken -it’s now my business.

    In the first case, it’s my responsibility to inform the person I have injured in my ignorance. In the second case, it’s my responsibility to answer any questions fully and honestly. In the third case, it may be my responsibility to confront the cheating spouse with knowledge of their actions, or allow/prompt the cheated-on spouse to ask questions of me, depending on my relationships to each of them.

    I will not allow a friend to suffer not-knowing, unless I know that is their preferred state.

    • Yes. These are “monogamous” relationships, or more accurately one-sided, nonconsensual non-monagamous relationships.

      Very good answers, Kel. Thank you for your input. I find that the answers are not clear in this dilemma, and there are always so many variables to consider.

  14. If you are the friend of the person being cheated on, then you tell them. It’s that simple. Silence equals aiding the deception, and there’s no other way to look at it.

    If you are a friend of the person cheating, you tell them to end the affair or to confess to their spouse, or the friendship is over. Why would you remain friends with someone who won’t even be true to a person they took a PUBLIC VOW to be devoted to?

    I will qualify this in only one way. I’m referring to when the spouse is repeatedly and presently cheating. If the person who was cheating has put it in the past and changed their ways, then leave it be.

  15. […] And for that woman who is still oblivious to who her husband really is, I’m so sorry that no one gave you a choice in this manner. You deserve far more respect than […]

  16. That’s a deep one. My inclination would be not to tattle, because chances are, I’d be tattling on a strong suspicion, not proof. Even if it was my best friend who told me what was going on, I’d have to remember all the times I embellished tales for whatever reason. I generally believe my friends, but its still not unequivocal. Proof is complicated, and do you really want to risk someone else’s world view on strong suspicions? And are you willing to take the risk that the person engaging in this non-consenting non-monogamous relationship might be in physical danger if it is exposed? What about the safety of their kids? The other man/woman. And do you know the full situation? Is there coercion compelling someone into the scenario? Every situation would need it’s own individual approach, but wouldn’t talking to the would be “cheater” be the prudent route?
    Also, sometimes what looks like non-consensual non-manogamy on the outside might be in-fact consensual. I, for one, wouldn’t want to make too many assumptions about someone else’s relationship.
    However, if I felt it was imperative that the person who doesn’t know have the opportunity to know if they choose to, then I’d ask a question that would excite the proper curiosity and engender some checking up on the “wronged” party’s part- if and only if s/he were inclined to look.

    • All valid points. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to this ethical question. I think it is always a matter of individual case and very carefully weighing one’s options. Thank you for your comment.

      • “However, if I felt it was imperative that the person who doesn’t know have the opportunity to know if they choose to, then I’d ask a question that would excite the proper curiosity and engender some checking up on the “wronged” party’s part- if and only if s/he were inclined to look.”

        I agree to this…I knew of someone who cheated his wife for more than 10 years now. He and his other woman have 2 children…the wife did not even bother to check on his husband since the husband was able to manage his time…every Friday, the husband go home to his other woman and their children, then go back to his wife on Sunday morning. One Sunday afternoon, i saw the husband and his wife at the grocery store…I was supposed to talk to the wife but she immediately called his husband and told him about my presence. For me, that was the right time to rouse her interest if only she didn’t call the attention of her husband. Since then, I didn’t have a chance to meet the wife again. I wish I could meet her so I could give some “clues” regarding her husband’s infidelity. The husband usually come to my office as the other woman is my officemate.

      • Wow. That puts you in a very difficult position. Isn’t it disgusting to watch such behavior go on? I have no respect for cheaters. I have no respect for people who know that their actions hurt others and do nothing to change those actions. I have no respect for people who are too weak or in denial to look inside and ask difficult questions about themselves.

        I respect integrity. I respect honesty. I respect self-awareness and personal growth.

  17. Spying on a mobile is crucial to find out the truth about what he/she reallly is doing. Because let’s face it, if either your child, partner or employee is doing something that he/she knows that you can’t accept, then it’s obvious that he or she will not tell it to you.
    Sure, you can hire expensive investigators to find out the truth, but they can cost you thousands of dollars. You can also install hardware on to the targetted phone, but this is an unstable method because it can be detected easily. To safely spy on a mobile phone, you really have to use software – trust me on this

  18. […] year I published a post called “Ethical Responsibility,” and it has been one of the top viewed posts since. In that post, I pose an ethical question […]

  19. What if it’s an emotional affair? No sex, but the one involved is spending more of his/her emotion and even love on the other wo/man? Would most even consider that cheating, since there us no sex? I think it is, perhaps even worse than the physical affair because you are fighting an idealized version of the Other. Of course, I may be way off base too. I think I would tell someone, even if I knew how much it would hurt.

    • Emotional affairs in which deception is involved, meaning the spouse/SO doesn’t know, then it’s definitely cheating. Flirting online without the knowledge and approval of one’s SO is cheating. I’ve met several cheating bastards who think that unless penis enters vagina, it’s not cheating. News flash…ask yourself if your wife would be okay with this. If not? It’s cheating.

      It could be worse than a physical/sexual affair, depending on the situation and the relationships and the individuals involved.

      It’s just like reading how women find emotional/spiritual rape worse than physical rape. How psychologists will say that being hit as opposed to straight emotional abuse is easier to deal with because the action of being hit is present. It is clear. Defined. It is recognized as abuse by society and peers. It is horrible and certainly comes along with emotional abuse on top of that. When it’s physical, it’s undeniable. It’s tangible. With physical rape, the same thing. I read an account of a woman who had been both physically raped and psychologically raped, separately. She said that the physical rape was actually easier (not by any means easy) to heal from because of that very reason. The psychological rape, it’s hard to even get peer or societal validation for it let alone any sort of justice. Emotional rape is not against the law. Psychopaths and sociopaths and other sorts of monsters can destroy someone’s life through psychological rape and then move on to their next target without any remorse or accountability. Careful that no legal line is crossed…so there is no recourse. Nothing.

      So, yes. Emotional affairs are most definitely cheating.

  20. […] I had repeatedly tried to avoid without hurting his feelings–as he was my best friend, and then decided he couldn’t handle the situation afterward, abandoning me and our friendship I had sacrificed myself to honor. I felt I was partly at fault, […]

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