Considering confidentialities

Dear Ms. Behavior: I am a graduate psychology student and am required to recruit strangers or acquaintances for testing so that I can practice psychological assessment. Finding people to test can be awkward, so occasionally I fudge it and use someone from my circle of friends.

Last year, I tested my friend Tony’s date, Stefan. According to the personality tests, Stefan seemed seriously disturbed and extremely narcissistic, with a borderline personality disorder. I was relieved when Tony’s relationship with him didn’t go anywhere.

Now, fast forward to the present: Tony called out of the blue and said that he and Stefan got back together and he’s thinking of letting Stefan move in. He wants to know my thoughts about it. I’m tempted to tell him that Stefan has a very disturbed psychological profile, but I’m torn because the testing is supposed to be confidential. On the other hand, I don’t want my friend to get hurt. Should I make an exception to try to save Tony from further involvement with this guy? — Pre-Ph.D.

Dear Pre-Ph.D.:

You’re discouraged from testing your friends for precisely this reason: so that you don’t diagnose them and then go blabbing the results to others. Perhaps testing people and spouting out the names of disorders makes you feel that you’ve gotten your money’s worth from your degree.

Maybe it gives you the same thrill that firefighters feel when they get to hold the hose for the first time. But really, any bozo could pick up the DSM-IV and diagnose their friends and relatives, just like anyone could put out a candle with a garden hose. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

As a professional-in-training, you’re supposed to adhere to the ethics of your profession. If you were a layperson who carried around a textbook and diagnosed his friends, it would be annoying but at least you wouldn’t be violating ethical or legal boundaries. Also, there’d be no license for you to lose and no professional board to admonish you.

Feel free to tell Tony anything that you would have said before you conducted your tests, e.g., “Stefan seems grumpy late at night” or “I like his hair.” But since Stefan does not appear to be a danger to himself or others, you must otherwise keep your mouth shut.

From now on, if you need to do psychological testing for school, make sure to extend your reach much farther out than your own polluted little pond of friends.

Dear Ms. Behavior:

I’m worried about whether I should move in with my girlfriend Gina. She’s great, but her daughter Becky is very fat. I don’t hold this against the kid; the problem is that Gina makes bad decisions. She stocks the pantries with potato chips and snack cakes, encourages the kid to eat like a pig, then complains that her 12-year-old daughter weighs over 200 pounds. Now she wants to staple the kid’s stomach — instead of putting her on a diet. I find it repulsive and weird. I’m not interested in being Becky’s mother, but I would certainly do a better job of getting her into healthier eating habits.

My friends say I should stay distant and have a non-live-in arrangement with Gina. I like her house, though. I think we would do well living together … except for the kid. What do you think? — Reluctant

Dear Reluctant:

You say you’d do well living with Gina “except for the kid.” But there’s no such thing as Gina without Becky, other than in your fantasies. When you’re considering a relationship with a woman who has a child, you may as well envision them as Siamese twins — with two little heads on one body — and see if you still like the idea.

The fact that you want to stick yourself in the middle, like the gooey cream center in their household of Ring Dings, is worrisome. So, here’s some specific advice for you:

1) Never, ever get involved in an argument between a girlfriend and her child. No matter which side you’re on, you’ll lose.

2) Never move into a household of conflict.

3) Don’t ignore red flags and your reactions to them. Gina is too lazy to help her daughter diet, and yet is willing to “fix it” by arranging gastric-bypass surgery for the child. Hello? You can be sure this problem extends into other areas of her life.

You say you want to move in with Gina because you like her house. What about love or sex or shared values? On the plus side, no one could accuse you of being a silly romantic.

Meryl Cohn is the author of “‘Do What I Say’: Ms. Behavior’s Guide to Gay and Lesbian Etiquette” (Houghton Mifflin). E-mail her at [email protected] or visit www.msbehavior.com.