Duty to warn: A (fictional) counselor’s dilemma

For my ethics class we have a presentation about an ethical dilemma. Here is the case we made up:

A counselor has been seeing a male, married client for two or three months. The client is suffering from extraordinary feelings of guilt and anxiety because he has been having an affair for eight years. He’s been married for fourteen. The client and the counselor are both Christian, and even belong to the same denomination.

The counselor believes strongly in a Christian theory of completely confessing all of your sins, and in so doing, you will be redeemed. The counselor recommends this technique (and feels that he has a fellow Christian duty to promote this technique) to the client, who seems very hesitant. The counselor feels that the client will continue to suffer from guilt and anxiety until he confesses. The client finally agrees, and his wife comes in for a session, under the assumption that they will be discussing the state of the marriage.

At the counselor’s gentle urging, the husband turns to the wife and tells her that he’s been having an affair — for eight years. At first the wife stares, shocked, as the husband tells her how he met the woman, how he has slowly fallen in love with her, how he still loves his wife their children, and how anxious, guilty, and worried he’s been that she would find out.

The wife’s eyes soon begin to narrow and she becomes very angry. In a low, trembling, angry voice, she asks him question after question: “How many times have you slept with her? Where do you do it? Do you talk about me to her? Does she know about me? Is she better in bed than me? Are you using condoms? Have you been tested? What does she do? Where does she work? WHERE DOES SHE LIVE? WHAT IS HER NAME?”

At this point, both the client and the therapist are beginning to get nervous, and are questioning whether this technique may have been a mistake. The client keeps darting his eyes nervously at the counselor, but the counselor nods as him, knowing he has to finish the technique, so the client gives his wife all the information, including the name and address.

At this point, the wife pulls out her cell phone and dials 411. In a clear voice, she asks for the address of the mistress. She writes it down on a notepad nearby. As she hangs up, the counselor and client stare at her at alarm. The client smiles sweetly: “I’m just going to pay her a little visit,” she says. “She will not be sleeping with any more married men in the future.”

The dilemmas are related to the duty to warn principle. Is the therapist responsible to warn the mistress? Did the wife really make a threat? In the past therapists have been responsible to warn the third party because of thier relationship with the client. But the wife is not the client, so is their no responsibility there?


About shenpa warrior

"Patience is not learned in safety." View all posts by shenpa warrior

3 responses to “Duty to warn: A (fictional) counselor’s dilemma

  • Emily

    Ah yes. You’ve been discussing the Tarasoff case? Therapists are somewhat fortunate that the Tarasoff rule applies to them, I think. Prevents them from having to choose between professional ethics and personal ethics. Seems in this case a licensed professional therapist seeking to avoid tort liability would indeed have a duty to warn the mistress because the contents of the therapy session which he facilitated / encouraged / supervised would be a proximate cause of anything bad that might be about to happen to the mistress. I can’t remember right now what happened with the lawsuit against the Jenny Jones (?) talk show where a man on the show revealed his feelings for another man on the show, resulting in the other man subsequently murdering his “secret admirer.” Is the therapist in your example named Maury Povich or Montel Williams, by any chance?

  • Emily

    Hmm. Perhaps even a heightened duty exists because it’s not just a client coming in and telling the therapist he/ she’s going to do SBH* to somebody, rather, the therapist helped set up a situation in which somebody became homicidally angry. If the wife wants to kill the mistress she should rush right out immediately and do it, though, in order to have it be possibly second degree murder instead of first. Defense might even argue manslaughter since it’s sort of like she caught them in bed together, but that seems a stretch. She would need to get there fast enough not to have any “cooling off” period.
    *(common law school abbrev. for Serious Bodily Harm)

  • adam

    Wow–very interesting. : ) It’s that kind of legal talk that really makes me want to go to law school… But that’s all up to fate now, as I’ll be casting my nets all over the place in a year when I start the application process again…

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