When Do You Tell Someone Bad Stuff About Their Marriage?

Reader:  Hi Athol, I recently found out that a female relative of mine had done a handful of porn movies many years ago. I don’t know the why, how or wherefore. She’s now in her late thirties, married, with two kids and seems to be doing well for herself. I’m not going to tell anyone about this, least of all. her husband.

I know intuitively that this is not one of those situations where it would be appropriate to tell––she has kids, it’s behind her, I don’t really know her that well and it’s probably none of my business anyway. For all I know, he knows about her past and is cool with it. If he isn’t, nobody gains anything from the revelation and a possibly broken family.

However, this got me thinking. When is this kind of potentially-marriage-destroying information appropriate to divulge to the spouse (or spouse-to-be)? Are there any general guidelines to follow?

My horse sense is that, if you’re related to the “offending” party, and it happened years ago, you should keep your mouth shut. Ditto if the marriage has already happened, or if they’ve been together some years. However, I can think of other situations where things be a little weird. Notional examples:

-Your brother’s about to be married to a wonderful girl. He (your brother) was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties, a condition which he keeps in check with medication. As far as you know, he takes his medication regularly, but he tells his girlfriend it’s “for insomnia and headaches” and she believes him. The marriage is in a couple of months. Should you tell your brother’s wife-to-be?

-Your cousin has mooched thousands, maybe even millions of dollars off family and friends. Now she’s getting married to a wealthy guy who she’s told lies to (e.g. that her family “hates her for no reason”). Do you tell her beau what he’s going to be in for?

-Your niece is getting into massive debt with her shopping addiction. She told her husband that it was from an inheritance but she spent that years ago. He thinks everything’s fine. It isn’t. Should you speak up?

In essence, when is ignorance bliss, and when is it a curse? When should you tell, and when should you avoid it?

Athol:  These are good questions and there is not always a perfect answer to these “landmine” issues. I call them landmines because they lie under the surface, are hard to detect and as long as you have the area the landmine is placed in fenced off pretty well… they don’t actually do much damage. Plenty of people in the world live “next door” to uncleared mined fields from past conflicts and apart from having to buy a new soccer ball every time you kick it out of bounds, it’s not like they are catching the full brunt of exploding mines.

The difference between physical mines and these emotional ones, is that the emotional ones explode as soon as knowledge of the mine is brought to light. Thus the secret has to be kept, or it explodes. I know of people who have unbidden fessed up to things ages after the fact and vastly more regretted the telling, rather than the actual thing they did.

The core questions I would ask myself is, (1) whether or not the situation is going to be made better and/or further disaster averted by the revelation of the potentially relationship breaking issue, (2) whether or not innocent bystanders are going to be damaged by the revelation. i.e. are the children going to be screwed over by it, and finally (3) whether or not the inappropriate behavior is ongoing and/or likely going to continue into the future and screw over an innocent bystander who will get taken advantage of.

So lets try the cases…

Short term porn lady from ages ago. The best possible hope from revealing the information is that nothing much changes other than a month or two of drama that gets sorted out in porn lady’s marriage. The worst case is that the husband is unable or unwilling to continue on in the marriage and it ends rather quickly. In the worst case scenario, the kids have their family shattered and it’s going to blow up their world like a bolt of lightning on a clear sunny day. So telling is potentially going to screw up four lives and offers no clear benefit. Plus she’s no longer engaging in this behavior and doesn’t appear to be currently trying to be anything other than a good wife. Thus don’t reveal.

(As a clarification, if Porn Lady was shooting porn on the side now, or cheating now, or anything really bad now…that I would reveal. In that case what she’s currently doing can turn into something that’s going to blow everything up and end the marriage. Or she can catch a disease, or get pregnant, or get a crazy obsessive guy or whatever else can go wrong in cheating and affairs. What she did in the past and stopped doing, didn’t result in disease / pregnancy / relationship failure / et al, so it’s a in a sense like she ran a red light… but didn’t hit anyone. In a sense, she indeed got away with it, but you also don’t T-Bone red runners purposely to “punish” them.)

Schizophrenic Brother. My hunch is that eventually once she’s a wife, she’ll discover the truth about his schizophrenia. She’ll Google the medications he’s taking and wonder why he’s seeing a psychiatrist instead of a neurologist for his “headaches” and it will all start to unravel. The truth will always come out with this one, so you may as well reveal now, as opposed to letting the issue blow up even bigger in the future. Telling now does of course risk the ending of the relationship, but if ends now, it would have extremely likely ended when it was revealed in the future anyway. Schizophrenia is a definite need to know information, and the fiance is an innocent bystander here as well. So reveal.

 Mooching Cousin. Well if her pattern is to siphon cash off the unwitting, you can bet that she’s planning to continue it with her new husband. When it blows up a few years into the marriage, that might be the end of things. Revealing now might mean that the situation doesn’t spiral out of control, yet the wedding could potentially proceed. The new husband for example may want to restructure things financially before he marries, but still marry. Revealing potentially makes things better and protects an innocent bystander in the potential new husband. Reveal.

Shopzilla. This is almost exactly the same issue as the Mooching Cousin one, except things have already progressed in the direction of bad. Blowing the lid off it when she’s $10,000 in debt is better than the husband finding out about it when it’s $25,000 debt. Revealing now might turn a marriage ending crisis into a rough patch in the marriage. So reveal.

How To Reveal…

This is a fairly simple process. You offer them the option to save as much face as possible and tell their partner the truth, or if they don’t, you’ll tell them. Plus you also offer to be present for the telling if they decide to do it. Having a third person present will typically reduce the chances of moments of unfortunately poor judgment by both parties. Look, sometimes people just snap and five seconds of seeing red gets them landed in jail despite a lifetime minus five seconds of being a pretty decent guy. People tend not to snap with an extra witness in the room. Oh they may well get mad as hell, but it can stay verbal rather than physical. Your frame is that you are a friend of the marriage, rather that taking sides.

And yes indeed you’re going to be unpopular as a fart in an elevator when all this goes down. Over the long term though, things should get better and even if they don’t like you much, they will at least respect you. Which if you take the moral high ground is considered a win.

However… if the person doing the bad things is bona fide Batshit Crazy and all that Batshit Crazy is going to now focus on you like the Eye of Sauron… suddenly an anonymous tip off looks really good. If you could reason with crazy people about the moral high ground, they wouldn’t actually be crazy. That’s what crazy means.



  1. I think it all really depends on who your friend is and what the problems are.

  2. Interesting little thought for those Christians who may auto-say “reveal:”
    1) The commandment is not “thou shalt not lie,” but rather “thou shalt not give false witness against thy neighbor.” In other words, don’t get someone in trouble for something they didn’t do.

    2) The Bible doesn’t say “If any man is a thief, he should turn himself in,” but rather, “if any man is a thief, he should no longer steal, but do honest work so that he has something to give to others.”

    So, 1) Unless you know for sure, don’t reveal. 2) If you are a Christian, you only have an obligation to reveal if both members of the marriage are also believers.p, and you have an obligation to take it up with the offending party first. 3) A lot of people in the current Western church assume 1. “Repentence means saying sorry (it doesn’t. It means turning around and doing the opposite, e.g. thief should earn honest money and give to others), that 2) Forgiveness exists for your own personal emotional health, and should always be given (maybe by the modern sense of the term. The word used in the Greek and Hebrew is about restoring someone to a former position, and is concerned with the offending party’s place in your life, which is given back to them. And while it happens from time to time in the Bible for unwitting crimes, it typically requires repentance: i.e. You KNOW that things are different now.) and 3) Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation (once again: the words that are translated in Scripture as forgiveness outright mean restoring the person to thier former place.)

    If, then, to use the example of the first one, the lady is a believer, she has a Biblical command to confess to another believer (which she may have already done). If her husband is a believer, she has a mandate to confess to him, and he has a mandate to make it work between them (i.e. real forgiveness). If he is not A believer, she has no such responsibility, and she has a responsibility to her kids to hold things together, whether that means confessing or continuing to keep the secret. If he calls himself a Christian, but does *not* believe in Biblical forgiveness, then he is not a Christian. Not say he’s going to Hell – that’s for God to judge, not me – but Jesus specifically said we would be forgiven in same way we forgive. If we say “I forgive you, but I never want to see you again, so go away,” then God has the right to say the same thing when we are judged. Unfortunately, the only place ‘away’ for God to send us is Hell. Once again, he has the option, playing by his own rules. I’m not saying he will – that’s his business.
    My point is that even if hubby and wife both call themselves believers, you want to make sure they both have an accurate understanding of both repentance and forgiveness. If they don’t, then they’re doing it wrong, you have no obligation to drop a bomb that their actual religion, Churchianity Americana, can’t handle, and it’s better for the kids if you don’t.

    So my matrix for believers would be:
    If the offender is a believer, and penitent, and spouse is believer and understands forgiveness, you should be able to talk the offender into confessing, and things will work themselves out.
    If the offender is a believer and penitent, and the spouse is not a believer and/or does not understand forgiveness, then don’t turn the offender in. It is enough that he/she has changed his/her ways.
    If the offender is not a believer or not penitent, then use your judgment, then do what has the most positive results for the most people.p, especially any kids. Divorce is just about the worst thing that can happen to a kid, and should be avoided if at all possible. It’s also hell on the divorcees whether they wanted the divorce or not, so my rule would be: before marriage/kids, tell, as issues will sabotage the marriage, but after marriage/kids, keep your peace unless it’s something that will cause more damage unaddressed (abuse, for example). And then, keep your peace until you are certain.

  3. “Interesting little thought for those Christians who may auto-say “reveal:”

    Nice strawman you’ve constructed there. Hope you enjoyed knocking it down.

  4. I'm a man says:

    Good lord! Mind your own business! IMO Men are too busy for this type of stuff. Its an Alpha trait not to gossip and Beta trait not to involve yourself or family in other peoples drama. Seriously, if someone is involved in “shady activities” this will become apparent and its not your place to scurry around and insert yourself in the situation.

    Here is a rule of thumb:
    Is it illegal and/or children are in danger? =>yes => Call the cops.
    Is it illegal and/or children are in danger? =>no => Shut y’r cake hole.

    However forwarding links to said porn to other men is completely acceptable male behavior, do share!

  5. holdingallthecards says:

    @Juste Someguy: this is not a religious site.

    I agree with Athol; if the past drunken frat party antics are long gone, write it off as the past and completely irrelevant. If you catch your best friend’s spouse cheating or buying crack, consider an anonymous note after giving the spouse the option of revealing it themselves.

    Then again, many spouses turn a blind eye to bad behavior, but it’s usually because they are addicted to the money tit (especially women). Bad behavior usually doesn’t change until the outside world gets a glimpse (like cops called, getting sued, or neighbors catching the action by accident).

  6. Perfect knowledge

    A key issue is “perfect knowledge”. Many things in life become easy if we knew the truth – and the whole truth. Thus, like Athol suggest, we reveal. However, if your knowledge is imperfect, biased, skewed by word-of-mouth, errors, etc. you can create huge problems where none exists. The post from “I’m a man” alludes to this when he points out that Alpha’s don’t gossip.

    The reason I point this out is that many (if not most) of the time, what we know about someone else’s relationship, their character, their history, their intentions, and usually the facts themselves are not 100% correct. I’ve watched countless people get all worked up about stuff only to have it turn not to be true — one person’s point of view. Most people will fall into a victim role and skew the information about someone else that makes the other person look like a monster. As an example, find a couple going through a divorce and talk to the best friends of both the husband and wife. You’ll see how the friends will be spoon fed half the situation and be 100% convinced the other spouse is totally at fault. It is absolutely essential that you work with nothing but the facts if you are going to “reveal”. There is so much biased, half truth and lies said about people, and usually it all depends on your point of view (think rationalizing hamster).

    The porn and Schizophrenic Brother are ones that can be proven. I agree with Athol to leave the porn alone, but reveal the schizophrenic brother.

    The Mooching Cousin and Shopzilla stories are ones where there is a low ability to know truth (or even find it). There is no way to really know what has occurred with the mooching cousin — what promises were made, etc. Maybe those who gave money were being “White Knights” and foolishly offered money when they heard her sob story. Basically, if you were not “hurt” by the cousin’s actions (i.e. she lied to you, betrayed an implicit contract and took your money under false pretenses), then you should keep your mouth shut. (You could suggest to someone who was wronged to tell the fiance his story). You would just be a busy body, getting in to other people’s businesses, of which you only have one side of the story. Plus, a relationship breaking lie is not, “My family hates me for no reason”. That is the typical “spin” that most people put on their lives to help them cope (not the best coping mechanism, but typical). This is really no more than the rationalizing hamster doing what it does best, avoiding personal responsibility. That is a far cry from a systematic falsehood to take advantage of someone. It is not a lie, but a different point of view (a poor one), and does not give justification to discredit the fiance or get involved to “protect” someone else.

    I think Shopzilla is even more clear. How did you come about the info that she spent all the inheritance? Did she tell you herself? Did she tell you that she was overspending and had lied to her husband? If you heard it from someone else, then it is hearsay, and you can’t establish the validity of the information. All you know is that she is buying a lot of stuff.

    While I’d hate see someone I care about get hurt, getting involved in other people’s relationships is harmful. You better be sure of your facts and not trust what you heard from anyone else.


  7. cassius says:

    To summarize –
    Already married, past issues – don’t tell
    Not yet married, current issues – always tell.

    Those were the examples given. For the other two possibilities I suggest:
    Already married, current issues – tell, but warn first – give them a way out.
    Not yet married, past issues – tell, if they are major issues. If you are not sure how serious the issue is, don’t tell.

  8. In the case of the schizophrenic brother, I would tell. You have tons of proof. You’re doing it to help both of them because the situation will blow up later, hurting both. The key is to handle it with delicacy and tact.

    I wouldn’t get involved in the other situations. It would either do more harm than good (porn lady), or you probably don’t have convincing enough proof (all the others). Even if you tell the unsuspecting partner, they’re in love and probably won’t believe you. I know of multiple cases in my family where someone was warned of a cheating spouse but didn’t believe it. Some of them were warned again and again by different people. They didn’t want to believe what they were hearing.

    On the other hand, if the spouse/fiance said something to indicate that they wonder if there is a problem, or maybe flat-out asked me, I’d tell the truth. I’d take that as a sign they might actually listen.

  9. I was the Clueless Wife in this type of situation.

    I still don’t have the whole story, but apparently my ex had some shady goings on before we got together. Nothing illegal or immoral by my standards, but shameful by his. When we got together, I think he was clean, but eventually, some marriage stress brought the bad stuff out again, and the marriage started dying. I tried for years to save it, before he went completely Batshit.

    Our friends never told me. I wish they did, even though the past seemed over, because it wasn’t. Chances are, I would have married him anyway, and we’d have worked our way through the problems together and maybe avoided the divorce.

    I’m biased, but I vote for coming clean before any vows. A friend should revela that there is Past History, but not necessarily what it is. A marriage where the spouses can’t share their pasts is not a marriage worth having. It may last 25 years, but secrets are time bombs, and can go off at any time.

  10. Joe Commenter says:

    People are WAY TOO judgmental. YOU might not want to marry any of these individuals. But the OTHER people might be just fine with it. Maybe I want to be married to a schizophrenic, porn acting, shopaholic, drug addict. That’s my business. If I have not done my due diligence before marrying that’s my problem. If I am dating someone who does any of the above, I am certainly going to suspect something is “off”. And I am going to be asking those around my partner some questions. That is when the reveal is appropriate. Unsolicited advice is never welcome.

    Has nobody here had a friend break up w/ a GF or BF? After the breakup you tell your friend that you always suspected that the ex wasn’t right for them. Then your bud re-unites w/ the ex and you become the *sshole because you revealed what you thought.

  11. PocketAces says:

    Agree with “I’m a man” completely.

    Unless it was family on the receiving end, I’d shut my mouth. People 95% of the time know the real deal of what is going on, they just don’t want to admit it to themselves. Bringing reality to their attention makes YOU the bad guy.

    Heck, in the past few years, I have learned to shut my mouth with half my family too. If I did open my mouth I’d do it with full knowledge that they may never speak to me again.

  12. The shopzilla situation is why you NEED to see credit reports (and maybe bank statements) before you even consider getting married. Don’t even think about it before you see what’s going on financially in the other person’s life.

    Yup said this before. You need a credit check to rent an apartment for a year, so why not to clear getting connected to another person for life?

  13. Agree wholeheartedly with PocketAces, and for what it’s worth: I knew of some bad behavior of a friend’s spouse and asked this ‘friend’ if they would ‘want to know’ if their spouse was doing, or had done ‘XYZ’. They responded, “no.” That was good enough for me. My only exception is mental health. I REALLY wish that my ex’s family had told me about the episodes of mental health prior to marriage. It was my right to know and would have affected my decision to marry. Instead, everyone pretended it didn’t happen and “hoped” that it was in the past. It wasn’t, and the misery to children, self, finances is incalculable. Mental health or illness can be faked for quite a while with some really adverse consequences for the unknowing parties; I really wish he’d been a shopaholic, borrowed money from his family and done porn!

  14. Doug1111 says:

    I think Athol’s analysis as applied to the OP’s hypothesized examples was excellent.

    Another point I’d make. If the parties are first starting to date, reveal. If he’s talking about proposing, reveal. If engaged, reveal. If early into marriage but no kids when you discover the info, closer call, it’s a closer call and will be info specific, but I’d lean towards revealing. If it’s a long marriage and long ago behavior, don’t reveal. If there are kids and it’s long ago behavior, don’t reveal.

  15. @E:

    Excellent post all around, especially this bit:

    “Basically, if you were not “hurt” by the cousin’s actions (i.e. she lied to you, betrayed an implicit contract and took your money under false pretenses), then you should keep your mouth shut. (You could suggest to someone who was wronged to tell the fiance his story).”

    In almost all cases where I don’t have first-hand knowledge of whatever I’m considering revealing, I would much rather strongly encourage those who DO have first-hand information to come forward rather than come forward myself with second-hand information. To do otherwise is to put myself in the middle of a situation where I have no business.

    That includes trying to put pressure on the “offending” party to come clean, WITHOUT necessarily giving them a “I’m going to tell if you don’t” ultimatum. For example, if my brother were lying to a fiancee, I’d tend to think my chances of getting him to come clean himself would be rather good with a standard, “Look, you can’t base this relationship on anything less than the full truth. I don’t think you’re giving this woman enough credit. You can trust her with this, but if you don’t come clean with her and it comes out anyway– which it WILL, let’s get real here– how can you expect her to trust you?” lecture. ‘Course, maybe that’s just me and my brother, but I’d hold off on delivering an ultimatum unless the situation is dire, I have first-hand knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt, and less drastic measures prove ineffective.

  16. whitewhere says:

    I absolutely disagree with all the reveals except Schizophrenia. When dealing with a situation like this, I do not weigh right against wrong, but “wrong” versus loyalty. In essence, how wrong does something have to be in order for me to abandon my loyalty to the bad party and betray them?

    The mooching cousin and the shopzilla – if their men do not know that they will do anything for nice things then, well… that’s on them. Especially in the case of shopzilla – this behavior is apparent at the very beginning of the relationship. This is not something that’s considered shameful in today’s America. He knows this about her, or he chooses not to know it. Either way, am I going to destroy my my family member’s relationship because of it? Absolutely not.

    The schizophrenia one I would reveal. Here, the impact on the spouse may be that she gets hurt if my relative stops taking his medication for some reason. I would actually ask him to reveal it and threaten what if he doesn’t, I would.

  17. Eh. Given that it is addressed to those “Christians who would auto-say…” as opposed to Christians in general, I fail to see how it is a strawman. The range of people who claim the title ‘Christian’ is wide. I have been in churches that would stop and think about, and churches that would give knee-jerk responses. I know a pastor who did the knee-jerk thing and now regrets it. And I, too was once there. So, in order for it to be a strawman, my memories of my early twenties have to be wrong, as otherwise I know for certainat least on person a) thought himself a Christian, and b) thought as I described. If there is one mind a man is qualified to read (and there may not be), it is his own.

    But, hey: if you want to claim that my little rant, which says some X are Y and should be Z, claims that all X are Y when all X are not in fact Y, go ahead. It isn’t for the non-Y Xs anyway, so what they think of it is irrelevant.

  18. sEth day says:

    Joe Comment

    People are WAY TOO judgmental.
    YOU might not want to marry any of these individuals. But the OTHER people might be just fine with it. Maybe I want to be married to a schizophrenic, porn acting, shopaholic, drug addict. That’s my business. If I have not done my due diligence before marrying that’s my problem. If I am dating someone who does any of the above, I am certainly going to suspect something is “off”. And I am going to be asking those around my partner some questions. That is when the reveal is appropriate. Unsolicited advice is never welcome.

    Who’s making judgments? If you wish to marry a schizophrenic, porn acting, shopaholic, drug addict, fine but people have a right to informed consent. The commentors want to look out for their family members.
    Unsolicited advice is never welcome

    More often than not, it isn’t, but most people are willing to offend a family member to help them aviod a schizophrenic, porn acting, shopaholic, drug addict.


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