Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Do Another Woman’s Marriage Vows Bind Me?”
A single woman, I moved to a new town and became friendly with a married man who then told me that he was romantically interested in me. He said that while he wasn’t in an open marriage, his wife knew how he felt, and they were negotiating some arrangement that might allow him to pursue his feelings if they were shared. I was attracted to him but made it clear that I wouldn’t have an affair in secret and that I had no desire to cause a rift between him and his wife (whom I didn’t know as well but liked). At one point we saw a movie together, and we continued talking at work; we’re adjunct professors at the same university. It quickly became clear that his wife took a far more traditional view of their marriage, and although I thought I was being fairly responsible, I was pilloried by his wife, by her friends and by a close friend of mine for encouraging his attraction. I was told that I had no girl code, that I was antifeminist, that you just don’t do that to other women. Is a woman who has chosen not to marry really responsible for acting as a custodian of another woman’s marriage? My behavior may have been self-serving, thoughtless or any number of things, but I don’t believe it was ethically objectionable, at least not on the grounds that were presented. NAME WITHHELD
My response: You’re asking if you are responsible for someone else’s agreement. As I always write in this column, there is no objective measure of responsibility. Obviously, you feel you don’t have that responsibility. The man you’re courting seems to agree with you. The wife and your friend think you do. If there was an absolute measure, you’d all consult it and agree, but you can’t because it doesn’t exist.
What you label the behavior is a red herring. The bigger issue, I suggest, is the consequences of your actions. No matter how right you think you are, others disagree. You can’t change their minds, so you have to handle their responses even if you disagree with them.
Instead of asking about abstract concepts of responsibility, if I were you I would ask myself how I would respond to the conflict with others. How will you behave and communicate with them? If you believe you are right, can you influence them to be comfortable with your behavior? Are you willing or able to understand their perspectives? If not, would you expect them to understand yours?
The man seems to have misrepresented his wife’s views. Do you trust him? You say you didn’t want to cause a rift within the couple. Do you believe your behavior was consistent with what you said? Even if you do, can you imagine others seeing it differently?
The New York Times response:
Amy Bloom: I don’t think the issue is that this is antifeminist behavior; the issue is that it is self-serving, self-deceiving and thoughtless behavior. I am all for grown women who take the ‘‘sisters before misters’’ approach. Lots of grown women say this — I wish more stuck to it. As soon as she found out that this was not an open marriage, she should have removed herself from the situation, which means you don’t go to the movies and you don’t have little private conversations. There was a mutual attraction, and she knew that she was playing around the edges and it was gratifying and exciting.
Kenji Yoshino: Feminism has nothing to do with this. If a single man were consorting with a married woman, the man wouldn’t be breaking a girl code, but he would be breaking the code of the marriage vow and hurting another person (the married woman’s spouse). The friends’ objection seems to be misplaced in focusing on the gender of the parties. The letter writer actually seizes this when she says, ‘‘I don’t believe that it was ethically objectionable, at least not on the grounds that were presented.’’ So the wrong grounds have been presented — but she is intuiting that there might be an ethical problem on other grounds.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: It’s important to stress that marriage is a social institution. When the people in a conventional Christian wedding service are invited to witness it, they represent the community’s standing there to say, ‘‘We’re going to help you do this difficult thing, which is sustaining a loving lifelong relationship.’’ My own view is that marriage is absolutely not something you can do on your own. You need friends and community to support you, and that’s why gay marriage is an important institution as well as straight marriage.
Of course, there are people who within the framework of marriage have all kinds of arrangements with each other, and I’m not going to say that that can’t be O.K. But this is a case where the job of the people around is to help them do the right thing.
I would like to make the point that the friends here miss, which is that the major object of criticism here should be the guy. It’s very odd to focus on her wrongs when the center of the story is a guy who’s doing something seriously wrong in breaching a commitment, lying and so on.
Bloom: I wish it were odd. It’s utterly misguided to blame the woman rather than the man making these elaborate arrangements to be unfaithful to his wife, but I think that this happens all the time.
Appiah: She’s almost got it right, that the grounds of objection by all these other people seem to miss the central point. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem quite fully self-aware. She doesn’t describe going out to the movie with a guy who’s declared his sexual attraction to her as going on a date. That’s what it is. If she described it to herself in that way she would already have seen she shouldn’t have been doing it.
Bloom: And in fact I think she did see it. She says ‘‘self-serving’’ and ‘‘thoughtless,’’ and it seems to me that she is well on her way to having an ethical problem. She’s taken a lot of comfort in her correct assessment that the objections are misguided, but that doesn’t make her behavior any more ethical.
Yoshino: The fact that she is writing in and asking this question is terrific. It suggests that she is in conflict and understands that there’s something going on here that bears examination.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees