Confidentiality: Troubled Relationships—“You Sound Just Like Your Mother!”

“There you go again, just like your mother,” he shouted, “always changing the subject when things get hot.”

“And what if I do,” she objected. “Mom and Dad have been married for 19 years—I could do a lot worse.”

“And fighting for 18 of them—probably because he never gets a chance to finish a sentence. She keeps changing the subject before he can make his point.”

“That’s a cheap shot! Maybe we should stop seeing each other until this blows over.”

“There you go again. Do you think that not seeing each other is going to settle anything? C’mon, stop avoiding things and talk to me.”

Does this teenager fight the way her parents do? Do we inherit patterns of coping from our parents, passing them on from one generation to the next along with the shape of our noses and the color of our eyes? Do parents who deal with conflicts by avoiding them, for instance, have adolescents who use the same approach with their boyfriends or girlfriends? How might we find out?

This is a sensitive area of research. To obtain data, investigators must ask adolescents to answer difficult questions about their own and their parents’ relationships. Often the answers aren’t pretty: petty quarrels, verbal aggression, family violence, failed relationships. These are matters most of us would like to forget, and nearly all of us, if we do tell others, want to be sure the information will be held in confidence. How do investigators treat issues of confidentiality? More generally, what ethical considerations guide their treatment of subjects?

The American Psychological Association, like most professional organizations, provides guidelines governing the ethical conduct of research with human subjects. The overriding concern is to respect the dignity and welfare of those who participate in the research. Other considerations follow from this concern. Subjects are informed, for instance, that their participation is voluntary and that they are free to leave at any time. They are also assured that their answers will be held in confidence.

How can an investigator keep answers confidential and still make public the findings of the research? The key to this problem is anonymity. Investigators code the information subjects give them to prevent the identification of individuals. A common procedure gives subjects numbers to use instead of their names. If an investigator anticipates the need to disclose information, she or he must inform subjects in advance so that they can decide whether to participate under those conditions.

What conditions might cause an investigator to disclose confidential information? Information suggesting that a subject may be dangerous to himself or herself or to others is sufficient cause to violate confidentiality. Threatened suicide or attacks against others are examples. In other instances, investigators may be forced by the courts to reveal information concerning illegal activities. Research on gangs or delinquent activities serves as an example.

Barclay Martin (1990) looked for similarities in the ways adolescents and their parents resolve conflict. Late adolescents responded to questionnaires on the frequency of overt conflict between their parents, on the ways their parents were most likely to resolve conflicts, and on the way they resolved conflicts with their own boyfriend or girlfriend. Martin protected his subjects’ confidentiality by assigning each subject a code number to use instead of a name.

As expected, Martin found that conflict styles are similar across generations, especially when avoidant styles are used. Martin suggests that because the latter approaches do not deal with conflicts directly, needs and feelings will persist. Also, adolescents don’t have the chance to learn the skills that will enable them to cope with conflicts when they arise in their own relationships.

Martin also suggests that adolescents may select partners who are similar to their parents in the way they resolve conflicts—for example, those who also use avoidant styles—either because this style is familiar and comfortable or for deeper psychodynamic reasons. In either case, they are more likely as a couple to perpetuate the difficulties in the relationship experienced by their parents than if they were to select a partner who approached conflict more directly.



B. Martin. (1990). The transmission of relationship difficulties from one generation to the next. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 19: 181–199.