The Ethicist: Do I Have to Repay a Loan to an Ex-Lover?

December 16, 2018 by Joshua
in Blog

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Do I Have to Repay a Loan to an Ex-Lover?”.

I recently ended a long relationship (we were engaged for several years). The split was tumultuous but ultimately amicable. While we were together, my fiancé gave me a loan to help with rent while I was on a low-paid work assignment as part of a graduate program. The sum was not small, but also not cripplingly large — about what you would pay for a used car, and he could afford it.

He asked me to sign a contract — a template he pulled offline. As part of this deal, he stipulated that if we ended up getting married, said contract would be null and void. However, if we broke up, I would be bound by this contract to repay him the money. I signed the contract.

When we broke up, he insisted I repay the money. I feel strongly — and this view is backed up by friends and family — that this was money he invested in the relationship while we were together, and like many other financial hits both of us suffered by separating, he should forgive the debt, cut his losses and allow both of us to move on. He was in a much better financial position than I, and it would be easier for him to take the loss than it would be for me to repay him.

He did not agree with my rationale, and since I was bound by this contract, and my own sense of pride and duty, I began making monthly payments, albeit small ones.

I’ve paid off about half this debt. I strongly believe that continuing to make payments to him keeps both of us from moving on with our personal lives. I can’t imagine it’s pleasant to receive a check with my name on it every month, and I don’t enjoy seeing his name on my bank statements every month, either. Despite all the growth my ex claims to have done, he still believes I owe him the money.

I know that it’s likely I am legally obligated to repay the rest of this debt. However, I think it’s unlikely that my ex will go to the trouble of taking legal action to pursue repayment. It’s probably not worth the cost, time and hassle.

Ethically and morally, is it O.K. for me to just stop making payments? While the monthly amount I send him does not impact my lifestyle hugely, it would still be nice to invest this money into my future goals, rather than sinking it into this past obligation. Given that I believe he should have just forgiven this debt, I feel like I should at least put up a bit of a fight and make it harder for him to collect these funds. —Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Normally, I prefer sticking with my standard answers since they normally work so well. In this case, things seem so obvious to me I’ll divert from my usual practice. Why did you sign a contract if you didn’t believe in it? What do you think contracts are for?

He gave you credit, from the root meaning trust or believe. If you behave in an untrustworthy manner, expect people not to trust you. If you can’t afford to pay, you can declare bankruptcy. If you can, not paying your debts tells the world not to trust you.

The New York Times response:

As a rule, loans to lovers are a bad idea: they link people through affection and through the market at the same time, in ways that are hard to manage emotionally. If, as you say, giving you the money outright wouldn’t have been a hardship on your ex-fiancé, the fact that he wanted a contract for repayment was a worrying sign. Still, you went along with it.

Today, you (along with your friends and family) have decided that, legalities aside, you aren’t morally obliged to fulfill the contract, because the money was not — as the contract presupposed — a loan but rather an “investment” in your relationship. That’s a rather commercial metaphor, which could suggest that he was, in effect, buying your companionship. Neither morality nor popular music support the idea that money can buy you love. The original deal, though unwise, was morally O.K. If, at the time, you viewed the money as a nonreimbursable investment, you should have let him know, and refused to misrepresent the situation as a loan.

Nor do the other reasons you provide — that it wouldn’t be worthwhile for him to collect on the contract; that you would prefer to do something else with the money; that the money is less significant to him than it is to you; that the connection represented by a monthly check stops both of you from moving on with your lives — support your view that the contract is void. The moral meaning of an agreement cannot be decided by one party in retrospect.

You think he’s being a jerk about the money. And perhaps you’re right to. The fallacy is concluding that if an assertion of a claim is blameworthy, it’s no longer binding. In a play on the term “supererogatory” — which refers to acts that go above and beyond what duty requires — the philosopher Julia Driver coined the term “suberogatory,” for acts that are deplorable but not a breach of obligation. That’s what you’re describing. If you want to break the connection with your ex, take out a loan for what you still owe and pay him off now. This will give you two things that the current arrangement doesn’t: escape from an emotionally freighted deal and a chance to build your credit.

Not long ago, a couple of months before I completed my undergraduate degree, I confessed romantic feelings to a female friend, with whom I had been extremely close since freshman year. At one point, in a boneheaded move straight out of a romantic comedy, I attempted to kiss her. I didn’t dwell on it because we continued to talk for another half-hour. She later came to my house, and after we talked for a while, said that she thought we should take some time apart. I was sure our friendship would recover.

I asked her to grab a beer with me a few times over our remaining college months, but she said she was not yet ready. One day, seemingly out of the blue, she told me she could not see me anymore because she no longer felt comfortable around me. I didn’t understand. We had been best friends for nearly four years; to me, this was merely a small speed bump. I begged for clarification, but my lack of understanding was upsetting to her. Ultimately, I asked her if what she really wanted was for me to delete her phone number and never contact her again. She said yes. Hurt, I did what she asked.

When the #MeToo movement was in full swing, I thought about how this friend once told me, tearfully, about being sexually assaulted as a teenager by a guy she knew and trusted. And she now carried that assault with her everywhere she went. I suddenly understood. As much as I know I wasn’t — and would never be — that guy, to her I was, or at least I could have been. I broke her trust and our bond by trying to kiss her when she did not want to be kissed.

I’ve felt awful about this for nearly a year. I want to email her and profusely apologize. How can she ever get close to a man without being afraid he’ll want more than she does, and try to take it?

My ethical question is: Would I be breaking her trust again by contacting her after I promised not to? Would I be forcing her to relive something painful to make myself feel better? Or would she appreciate my apology, appreciate that the #MeToo movement made me reflect on my own behavior and its impact on those I care about. Does #MeToo allow me to take responsibility for my actions by apologizing directly, or would I be just another man making a woman’s pain about himself? – Name Withheld

My response:  Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

Does #MeToo allow me” . . . There is no entity to give permission. It’s not even obvious she asked you not to contact her, only that she agreed that what you said is what she wanted. If the genders were reversed, many would call her behavior, were she a man, abusive. Many women say it’s the man’s responsibility to initiate the first kiss.

The New York Times response:

If someone reasonably asks you to do something and you agree, on what basis may you unilaterally withdraw your agreement? This was the question posed by the previous letter. In this case, your urge to try to make things right by apologizing is a decent one. But what matters is what would be good for her now.

It’s possible that she would value the knowledge that you understand why she felt wronged, especially if you kept your note short, and focused on apologizing rather than burdening her with your feelings. It’s also possible that she has moved on and won’t be pleased to be reminded of what happened. You can’t be confident that your contacting her would bring her the substantial benefits that might justify overriding your agreement. You’ve learned your lesson. That’s good. But she asked you not to contact her, and you aren’t entitled to relieve your remaining sense of guilt at her expense.

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