When we’re in a relationship, “doing the right thing” can become a complicated equation. Perhaps we’re trying to decide if we should stay or go, how honestly to express to a partner what we want, or making a determination to speak up about sex, money, or marriage.
When people love us, rely on us, expect things of us; when those expectations clash with what we want, we may be faced with a deep dive into moral ambiguity. There is no clear “right path” that would suit all involved. Either we sacrifice something we want, or we require that others do.
It’s easy to see how discussions of everyday morality aren’t cut and dry. Yet choices are — or should be — influenced by their impact on others.
That’s a simplistic statement of my own beliefs of course, and for the moment let’s eliminate scenarios in which we are legitimately in an adversarial position — sitting at the negotiating table, brainstorming to beat the competition, or fighting it out in a courtroom on a make-or-break case.
Let me be clear. We cross lines in these scenarios as well; then we argue the acceptability of “bending the truth” or bluffing or outright lying.
We Want What We Want, So We Blur Boundaries
Sticking to the relationship realm and significant personal decisions, aren’t we more judgmental of others — bending the rules for ourselves when we really want something?
In relationships, it seems to me we ought to give weight to the emotional, logistical, professional and related impacts to those close to us in our decision-making. And yes, how much we sacrifice in a relationship is a difficult question. How much we should be expected to sacrifice, likewise. There is no “right answer” as to the circumstances under which we will feel compelled to set aside our own wants (and even needs), not to mention aspects of who we are.
Here is an example that I suspect is common. Let’s say we have two adults both of whom are invested in their professions. They have children, so any mutual decisions need to include their best interests. One spouse is offered a position in another part of the country and it is a major step up. He wants to take it, he’s excited about it, and he points out advantages to the kids (better schools, better neighborhood).
She realizes that not only does this mean giving up her job, but with it — financial independence, the ease of established childcare routines, proximity to her aging mother to whom she also feels understandable obligations.
They’re doing fine financially now — they scrimp a little and hold off on big ticket items like most of us — but there is no pressing need for this move except that it is an opportunity he wants, and he wants it a great deal.
The crux of the matter is this: his wants versus her wants, and her desire to see him happy. Thoughts of a “rebirth” of their relationship may also come into play. As for the children — let’s place them at a young enough age to minimize relocation impacts.
What is the “right” answer?
Compromise May Be Harder Than We Think
A reasonable solution might be to discuss and find ways to implement a “congruent career strategy” rather than the more traditional view of women’s work. However, most of us who have been married or living with someone as a dual career couple (with kids) know that this can be a challenge to achieve.
The conventional answer? He will make more money in the long run, her focus is more on the children anyway; she moves, the family moves, and if she has no professional opportunities in the new location, she will throw herself into full-time mothering with the same determination as she did her job. (We’ll debate the societal merits of that one another day.)
If she’s fortunate, she will create a group of new friends, discover new interests or an entrepreneurial venture to her liking, and her partner will do what he can to encourage and support her choices in the new location. But what if this optimistic outcome never takes place?
What if she lives her job, lives their current community, and doesn’t want to give it all up?
In reality, won’t the relationship suffer? Will she have sacrificed too much? How much sacrifice in a relationship is normal?
Perhaps the relationship will indeed improve because he’s happier in this new job. Perhaps she will resent him for what she gave up, which will weaken their bond. Perhaps the scenario is tweaked such that it isn’t a good relationship, yet he still wants or expects that she make these sacrifices. The status quo when you’re in an empty marriage is one thing; additional expectations with nothing in return is quite another story.
We Make Choices; They Carry Consequences
None of us has a crystal ball, and it’s rare that we make decisions with sufficient information. And naturally, most of us do not intentionally hurt the people we love. We may sense we’re making a mistake, and anticipate consequences; we may only see a set of choices in which none are ideal, but one is a matter of survival.
Our own survival, and possibly the lesser evil for those we love.
Aren’t most of us left to character issues as we consider what the best option is for the relationship or the family? Isn’t the desire to “do the right thing” the reason that so many unhappily married adults stay together until the kids are in college?
If we’re really doing the right thing, our decisions are a matter of “us” and not “me.” Surely this makes these decisions extremely complicated, especially if they involve working against self-interest.
Additional commonplace situations are easily identified: She wants a child and he doesn’t, but she “accidentally” gets pregnant; he wants a larger family and she doesn’t, so she takes the pill and keeps quiet.
Ah Yes… Falling in Love
Here’s another scenario that we’re sure to recognize. You’re not involved romantically, you meet someone you fall for hard, and it turns out he isn’t free, but the feelings are mutual. You try to fight it, but you’re drawn to each other, and not just physically but emotionally.
What do you do? Do you walk away? Do you only walk away if he’s married? Some of us may allow ourselves to become embroiled in an emotional affair, while making a decision to take it no farther. Some of us may believe that if he’s engaged (but not married), he’s still fair game. So what if he’s married and he tells you he and his spouse lead separate lives?
That’s an old story, an old line, an old excuse.
But what if you know it’s true? What if you are certain there is an open marriage, or a sexless marriage in which one partner has agreed that the other will fulfill his or her needs elsewhere? Is there moral ambiguity here? Is my moral ambiguity your clarity? Is your decision different at 40 than it would have been at 25? Is your decision different again at 60?
To say that integrity is at risk — at least for some of us — is to state the obvious. We will use our sense of right and wrong as a guide, though we all take what we want (and justify it), according to the circumstances.
What if you are convinced there really is no harm? And how do you measure short-term pain against what you perceive as long-term gain, in other words, the “right thing” is ending a relationship?
Money Matters, and More…
It’s so easy to look at a breech of relationship trust as a matter of sexual or even emotional fidelity. I can’t help but consider issues of truthfulness in financial matters as being too easily overlooked. You may sneak an expenditure you don’t reveal here or there, or set aside a little something to protect yourself and your children “just in case.” Is this another example of moral ambiguity? What if you receive bonus money and sock it away, never telling your spouse? What if you are siphoning off funds in other ways and you tell yourself it’s all “collective” money?
Let’s consider friendships for a moment. At times, these seem clearer to us. If a friend asks you an opinion about something important to him, you may tell the truth. Or, you may pull your punches to be kind, though you see he’s wasting his time on a project or person that you believe will lead nowhere.
When a friend asks something difficult of you, though it may stretch your own resources to provide it, you may choose to say yes. Do you only do so if you know it will be reciprocated?
Maybe you extend the same courtesy to your significant other or spouse, and maybe you don’t. Does it depend on how long you’ve been together, on how you’ve been treated, on whether or not you have kids? What about sensing you are too emotionally vulnerable? What about putting yourself at financial risk? Is this never an “absolute” with a single right answer, especially if you’ve lost the basis of trust or friendship that was once the bedrock of your shared dynamic?
You May Also Enjoy