Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Must I Tell My Long-Distance Boyfriend I Met Someone Else?

May 22, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Must I Tell My Long-Distance Boyfriend I Met Someone Else?


I have been with my boyfriend for several years, and I love him very much. We each decided to study abroad for the spring semester of our junior year and have found ourselves on opposite ends of the globe. We will be apart for almost six months, with only intermittent access to the phone and Internet. Before we left, we agreed that it would be best to temporarily open our relationship. We wanted to fully enjoy our respective experiences and take the opportunity to explore being with other people. We decided that we would not discuss our flings with each other, at least until we returned. We did this, I believe, with the implicit assumption that we would not fall in love with anyone else.

Although I was the anxious one before we left, I have found myself in a bit of a sticky situation. I am falling for a woman I met on my study-­abroad program. I know that this is not just a casual affair and that I am developing real feelings for this woman. I feel as though I am betraying my boyfriend, and I am sure he would feel the same, despite the fact that I am not technically breaking the rules of our relationship. Communication is sketchy, and the prospect of talking to my boyfriend about this while the signal comes and goes is a little horrifying. I know that this information would hurt him deeply and that his ability to enjoy the remainder of his semester might be diminished. At the same time, I know that this is not what he had in mind when we agreed to an open relationship, and I feel as though I am deceiving him every time we talk. Should I tell him what is going on? Name Withheld

My response: Your specific question was “Should I tell him what is going on?” Of all the questions you could have asked, this one seems to have the most obvious answer. How long would you expect him not to learn otherwise? I don’t see a better option than to tell him, but our values may differ and only your values matter to you.

I suggest that you might get more value from asking for what ways to tell him and how to handle the emotional pain from what has already happened so you can’t undo. Or how to develop emotional resilience for inevitable situations of life. You can’t avoid things like relationships ending, people dying, outcomes that feel unfair, and so on. The question is not how to avoid them or wish they went away but how to handle them without feeling miserable, at least in my experience. I’ve found the phrase “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” helpful.

The New York Times response:

Commitments have rewards. They can keep you out of situations like the one you’ve fallen into. Agreeing to allow a relationship to be “open” for a time carries risks. If you’d thought of yourself as your boyfriend’s exclusive partner, you might not have entered into this new relationship. By your account, you have kept to the letter of your understanding but breached the spirit. Unless you’ve decided that you are going to return to your boyfriend, you’re keeping from him a central fact about your relationship.

Still, what’s done is done. Like it or not, your boyfriend took this risk in making the agreement with you. An affair, once started, is not fully under your control. Falling in love isn’t exactly a choice. You say you’re worried about disturbing the rest of his semester; could that be an excuse? Once he knows you’re not coming back to him, he can mourn and move on. If real-time communication isn’t good enough for a proper discussion, why don’t you send him a message that explains (as you have to me) and apologizes (as you probably should)? Apologies express regret; they don’t always accept guilt. So you could do this even if you thought you had done nothing wrong.

We send our two children to the only independent K-8 school in our rural town. It is a good school with caring teachers and a fine curriculum. Every year, there are fund-­raisers organized by the parents’ association: a rummage sale, an auction, a uniform sale. All money goes to the children. In addition, the school’s development office conducts a campaign that does not specify a dollar goal but instead a participation goal: 100 percent faculty and board members and parents. A former board member told me that money raised from this campaign and the parents’ association fund-­raisers goes into a single fund, but the school does not market this fact. It seems that if you support the parents’ fund-­raisers, you are contributing to the 100 percent goal, and this should be acknowledged. The school prominently posts the names of all contributors to the 100-­percent-­participation campaign.

The school focuses on a different value every month: September’s is honesty. This fund-­raising practice strikes me as not very honest. How does it strike you? Name Withheld

My response: It strikes me that you have an issue and instead of doing anything about it or talking to people that it concerns, you’re writing the New York Times about it. You sound like you’re asking for the Times to judge these others, probably to agree with you, though you aren’t communicating clearly, at least not in my opinion.

Why don’t you clarify how you feel and act on your feelings with the people affected?

The New York Times response:

The thing that strikes me is that all the money is, in fact, used in ways that meet the donors’ aims: to support the education of the children. The school could be a little more transparent about things, given that at least one parent, namely you, feels had. But I don’t see why knowing that all the money goes in one fund should affect what people decide to give.

Your other objection is that the development office won’t give you credit for contributing to its 100-­percent-­participation campaign if you gave only through the parents’ association fund-­raisers. Is this dishonest? I don’t see why. Nonprofits often ask us to contribute to meet some financial goal, even though we’ve already given, and even though all the money goes into one pot. Fund-­raising methods may involve an element of manipulation, but there are worse things than being wheedled into making a second gift to an institution you’re enthusiastic about.

Two and a half years ago, our otherwise healthy Newfoundland dog began to seem unwell. It was a Sunday, and our usual veterinary office was closed, so we took him to a different veterinary hospital. The vet diagnosed him with an ear infection and asked to keep him overnight for observation. The following day, we were told that our dog would need to stay another night. A bit concerned, we went to the veterinary hospital and asked to see our dog. Staff members had us wait for a little over an hour, although the hospital did not appear busy. When we were allowed in, our dog was completely unresponsive, experiencing extremely labored breathing, had a racing heartbeat and was lying in his own waste. Distressed, my husband insisted on speaking to the vet in charge while I lay next to our dog and spoke to him. About 10 minutes later, our dog went into cardiac arrest and died. Utterly devastated, we contacted our regular vet, who requested an independent autopsy and asked us to get a detailed report of our dog’s treatment. We spoke to the vet in charge, who stated: “I think we oversedated your dog, and he died from that.”

In the days after his death, the animal hospital performed the autopsy and then cremated our dog almost immediately. The treatment report we received was blank for the hours leading up to and following his death. The owner of the hospital said he would “reimburse our costs” (we paid $3,500 up front) if we “would sign a waiver of legal liability and not file a complaint with the veterinary review board.” We rejected his offer and contacted an animal rights lawyer. She informed us that even though it seemed as if we had an ironclad case, it was difficult to win most cases. She nonetheless filed a complaint, which included testimony from our regular vet, who noted numerous serious mistakes in our dog’s treatment. In the complaint, we asked to be reimbursed for our expenses and for the hospital’s and veterinarian’s licenses to be revoked, or for each to be investigated. After more than two years, the review board wrote to us saying they found no evidence the hospital or the vet were responsible for our dog’s death.

My husband and I are torn about our next steps. Do we contact the veterinary hospital and say, We lost our case, but we would like to be reimbursed regardless? Do we write up our experience on websites like Yelp in the hope that it will assist other pet owners? Do we simply try to move on? Name Withheld

My response: Your issue sounds strategic more than ethical: what do we do to create closure for ourselves, safety for animals if incompetent people are endangering them, prevention, and so on?

If so, the questions seem to be what resources you have (time, money, connections, community, etc), what you believe you can do given your resources, and how to do what you think you can. You know those answers better than anyone. Have you spoken to reporters, government representatives, or other people whose pets were treated there? They seem like the start of your list of resources, but you know your community better than I do.

By the way, I believe you can move on, in the sense of not feeling miserable, while still pursuing your goals.

The New York Times response:

If what happened to you is typical, people should place no confidence in the veterinary review board. By your account, your own vet, the vet who provided the treatment and the hospital’s owner all clearly thought the hospital did something wrong. (The hospital also destroyed evidence by cremating the dog without your permission and failed to keep proper records.) It sounds as if the board is among the many institutions in which professionals tend to take sides against their clients. It should itself come under review. There’s no harm in asking for the refund, but having won at the review, the owner may well feel he has no incentive to give you one. Do share your experience online, though, both about the hospital and about the state board. It won’t bring your own dog back, but in some small way, it might create more vigilance in the future about how dogs — and their owners — are treated.

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