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.