Sunday, April 08, 2007


Let's say that you have this friend. You and she used to spend a great deal of time together, but then she met this guy, a smart guy. He got into medical school. They got engaged. They moved in together. She started pulling double shifts at work to help pay the household bills, so you didn't see as much of your old friend as you'd used to. For the six years her fiance went to medical school and fulfilled his internship and residency requirements, the time your friend had to spend with you or anyone else dwindled to practically nothing.

Then, barely one year into his life as a practicing doctor, her fiance left your friend for another woman. He has no plans to repay any of the support she gave to him while he was going through medical school.

That's the story reported to me by L.H., a reader from Boston whose friend went through exactly this experience.

"Since he never married my friend, there was no legal obligation to supply alimony," L.H. writes. "But what of the ethical obligations?"

It's clear to me that L.H. believes that her friend has been wronged, and feels that she's entitled to some restitution for the sacrifices she made during the six years that she and her fiance were together. The response she's hoping to get from me, I imagine, goes something like this: "Not only does your friend deserve financial restitution, but her former fiance should be forced to wear a sandwich board with the message `I am a cad. Ask me how."'

I hate to disappoint a reader, and -- though of course I don't know the details of their breakup -- I'll concede that the ex-fiance may very well be a cad, but even so I'm not convinced that restitution is in order.

Clearly L.H.'s friend and her fiance had discussed marriage, but they weren't married. For six years they simply lived together, sharing none of the obligations that come with being married. L.H.'s friend footed the yeoman's share of the household bills while her fiance was in school, yes, but she was well aware that there was no legal framework in place to make her a partner in his future, even if she was to a considerable extent paying for that future.

It's no surprise that they had no verbal or written agreement that, in the event of their breaking up, her fiance would repay L.H.'s friend for the expenses she was incurring while he went through medical school. Most couples who fall in love don't spend time making plans or framing agreements about what will happen should they fall out of love. It's the rare unmarried, heterosexual couple, even one in which the role of provider is unequally shared, that anticipates something going wrong and wants to be covered -- just in case.

If she wanted the financial protection that marriage might have given her, the right thing for L.H.'s friend to do would have been to discuss that with her fiance sooner. After the fact, she doubtless wishes she had -- but that wish doesn't create any retroactive ethical obligation for her former fiance. Would it be a generous and thoughtful thing for him to repay some of the money his former fiancee laid out on his behalf? Absolutely. Is he under any obligation, legal, ethical or otherwise, to make such a repayment? No.

After she had worked so hard to help support him while he was in medical school, it may have been a callous thing for L.H.'s fiance to leave her for another woman. But he certainly was under no obligation to stay in the relationship -- that's the whole point of the distinction between married and unmarried -- and has no ethical obligation to repay L.H.'s friend for the sacrifices that, after all, she chose to make.

Given that they weren't married, her ex-fiance presumably took with him all the debt that he took on during medical school. L.H.'s friend is left with the cold comfort that it would have been even worse if they'd married and then he'd left her for another woman, and with the useful lesson that there is no guarantee that sacrifices made today for love will have a payoff tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

"He has no legal obligation to repay her for her support while they were living together. Does he have any ethical obligation?"

HELL YES! I don't understand how that man can look at himself in the mirror OR look at the second woman in the face.

I've been that first woman before--lending money to someone with a promise (in writing) to pay me back. All I got from her was more problems.

Hey, folks, I have news for you. If you ever lend money to someone, just think of it as giving it to him or her because odds are you won't be getting it back.

Scott Manas
Miami, Florida

Anonymous said...

The lady's story is lamentable but, she has made the same mistake that millions of women are making every day. They, as she, should not be altogether surprised at the outcome. The moment a woman chooses to lay herself down with any man, any chances of getting any future commitment from him is already seriously diminished. Her willingness to move in with him is the ultimate foolishness giving him most of what he wants without any further commitment on his art. Added to that, any of her
financial support of him unfortunately does not enhance her ability to negotiate any life long bargain. Now, it seems that all he wants is to update his wardrobe. As a friend of mine once said, "it is not wise to
invest in a book when there is a free lending library in town" Will
the modern woman ever learn not to give up her leverage when she wants
a little more than just a romp in the hay?

Raymond A. Goulette

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeffrey

I enjoy reading your articles in the OC Register (S Cal).

I enjoy your articles and views and find them stimulating, however I think you missed it on this one.

Your answer seems to focus on legalities and misses the ethical questions.

Engagement IS a commitment, and the woman invested in the man, expecting a prosperous future together. If the relationship did not last, that is sad, but to say that there is no ethical obligation undermines your credibility.

May I suggest you compare notes with another OC Register column writer (with biting wit) Amy Alkon ( Maybe a woman's perspective might fill in
some gaps (I know it helps me).

thanks so much, keep the good work up.

Lukas Sydo

Anonymous said...

The reason that two people “cohabitate” without getting married is to allow a fast and easy exit. This is universally understood. Dr. Cad exercised his option. I’m sorry that Miss Yeoman’s lesson on this will be in the form of hard knocks, but I’m sure her Grandmother could have warned her. An even greater pity will be if she has learned nothing from it and plunges back into a repeat performance.

I’m sure some cunning lawyer can get her a settlement – for third of the take, but since both sides were willing to live six years with the “fast exit” plan, I can’t say she deserves it.

Frankly, a few common-sense observations are in order:
1. Engagement does not equal marriage. I’ve certainly heard a lot of guys refer to their live-in as “fiancĂ©e” while admitting they had no plans to marry her.
2. If you are engaged for more than a year or two at the maximum, you are only kidding yourself.
3. The top two things guys value are freedom and sex. Marriage trades one for the other. Living together gets him both.
4. Women generally want security and love. Living together gets her none of the first only a weak version of the second

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

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