A Problem in the Ethics of Relationship/Marriage Counseling

When I was studying philosophy, I became interested in the ethics of counseling, marriage and relationship counseling in particular. This problem applies equally well to either party in both hetero and gay relationships.

One partner has revealed to you in private that they have had an affair that the other party is unaware of. S/he wants to reveal it to the other partner.

I'll throw out two considerations, and leave the rest to you for now:

1. By unburdening him/herself, is the unfaithful partner transferring his pain to his partner.

2. Does the other partner have the right to know they have been exposed to the sex life of the partner(s) of the unfaithful partner.

What should the counselor consider in helping this person?

I think you'll quickly find yourself involved in some very thorny issues.

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This reminds me of the timeless dilemma, "do you tell your friend that you know their partner is having an affair?" 

Yes. But anonymously. As they say, "No one likes the bearer of bad news."

Yes they should tell their partner if they've had an affair. The point in time where the other party suffered injury was at the time the affair took place. It's only ignorance that has prevented the affronted party from being hurt earlier.

The question the counselor might want answered is the reason the person wants to come clean with their partner.

As far as being exposed to the other persons illicit sex life, if the culprit partner gets a health check, that should establish whether STDs are involved.

The truth can hurt, but that does not make a lie preferable

But both partners have said they want to salvage the relationship and that that is their top priority, especially to the non-affair person.

They can't build the new relationship based on a lie. If they are both prepared to try to make it work, then they have to at least start by being truthful

they want to salvage the relationship and that that is their top priority, especially to the non-affair person.

There's this thing called forgiveness... our hypothetical counselees will likely need to do it if they are serious about salvaging such a relationship.

Many counselors don't take ethics into account. They will advise the client who has had the affair to be tested for STD's and if s/he comes back clean, to recommit to the relationship and walk the straight and narrow from now own.

But look what happens: One partner has a huge secret from the other partner that they must carry around for the rest of their life, along with the risk that it will someday come out anyway. There's the hotel receipt that fell behind the dresser, the mutual friend who saw the affair partner leaving the hotel or kissing in the park with a non-partner, or some third party who was a confidant(e) of someone who knows about the affair drops a bomb someday.

Counselors are not taught to respect the truth but to help those they counsel attain the goal they seek.

BTW, let's backtrack a little bit. Now, if the counselor counsels the affair partner not to reveal the affair, s/he is colluding with the affair partner to keep a secret from the non-affair partner, which raises other ethical issues.

By unburdening him/herself, is the unfaithful partner transferring his pain to his partner.

In this case, ignorance is bliss... until it becomes syphilis... then it's just syphilis and confusion. Which leads me to my main point:

Does the other partner have the right to know they have been exposed to the sex life of the partner(s) of the unfaithful partner.

Yes. The additional partners increase the risk of contracting STIs, therefore the ignorant party cannot give informed consent without knowing about the additional new partners.

EDIT: I don't see the dilemma... please explain?

I'm not sure what dilemma it is that you don't see, but let's consider the question of whether in relationships the parties have a right to "informed consent" at all times about everything. 

Ok I just read the OP without reading any other comments so far...as to not be bias...

My first impression is that it's not actually as big as you make it sound to be. The counselor's role is to remain neutral and objective...so what are you asking? If the counselor should rat out the other person and spill the beans for them? No I don't think so.

You still don't understand the question. Read the 2nd paragraph closely. 

The one who is unfaithful wants to spill the beans and is asking for the counselor's advice.

Suppose the unfaithful partner doesn't want to tell. Now counselor is basically complicit with the unfaithful partner in keeping a secret from the other one.

RE: The one who is unfaithful wants to spill the beans and is asking for the counselor's advice.

A good counselor never gives "advice" but asks the right questions to help the person to discover the answer for themselves.

RE: Suppose the unfaithful partner doesn't want to tell. Now counselor is basically complicit with the unfaithful partner in keeping a secret from the other one.

I guess it ultimately depends what their particular confidentiality agreement states that both parties would have become aware of prior to beginning treatment with this provider. That might be something that varies across the field, but I am not sure. I have a friend I can ask who has her masters in the field.

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