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Sunday, June 07, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: DRAWING A LINE IN THE WATER

A reader in North Carolina is trying to sort out the difference between "the sensible thing" and "the right thing" after hearing the story of a couple of newlyweds who are friends of his daughter.

One weekend the newlywed wife was alone on the couple's boat, moored at a pier, when she was approached by a much smaller boat with two people aboard. One of them, a woman, asked if she could use the bathroom on the larger boat. The newlywed said that it would be OK.

Once on board, however, the young woman said that she needed her boyfriend to come aboard as well, to bring her some personal necessities.

Again the newlywed wife agreed, and the boyfriend boarded. The newlywed wife felt, however, that the two were spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom.

At this point the newlywed husband arrived on the scene, and his wife explained the situation. He decided to investigate, and found that the guests were consuming drugs.

"Get off of my boat," he told them.

The visiting couple got belligerent and a fight ensued. The interlopers finally left, but the newlyweds weren't speaking because the husband was mad at his wife for letting them onto the boat in the first place.

My reader believes, however, that the husband is out of line, since his new wife's "kindly nature (is) part of what made her lovable to him in the first place."

There are two issues here, but only one of them has an ethical component.

Whether or not the newlywed wife should have let the strangers onto the boat isn't an ethical question. Courtesy is a matter of etiquette, and as such can and should be balanced with other considerations such as legal liability and personal safety. How one strikes this balance varies from person to person, and clearly the newlywed husband and wife set the boundaries somewhat differently.

There is no moral imperative here, though, so the question is not whether the husband or the wife has the right answer. His answer is probably more sensible, but that doesn't necessarily make it right.

The other question, the one my reader specifically asked, is whether the husband is justified in being angry at his wife. He would have acted differently than she did, but does that justify his losing his temper with her?

I'm pretty sure that, if I came aboard my boat and found a young couple doing drugs in the bathroom, I'd be angry. Fortunately, I don't own a boat.

My reader has a valid point here, however. While the young husband has every right to be angry, his anger seems misdirected: He should be upset with the couple who took advantage of his wife's hospitality, not at his wife herself. He did the right thing in kicking the drug abusers off his boat, of course, but his anger should have ended there.

Marriage imposes a complex series of ethical obligations, and one of them is that a family's basic policies must be arrived at through discussion, agreement and, when necessary, compromise. Neither party can assume that his or her view automatically prevails unless it's previously been discussed and agreed upon.

I'm guessing that the husband's anger derived in large part from adrenalin left over from the confrontation and from retrospective dismay at the possible harm to which his wife had been exposed. He doesn't want to see her hurt, and feels that she heedlessly put herself in jeopardy.

That's a reasonable point of view, but it's not the only one.

The right thing for him to do is to get past the initial confrontation, calm down and then discuss the matter with his wife. If she agrees that a policy of not allowing any strangers on the boat is a good idea, then that can be their policy. If she feels that hospitality is too important to her to be discarded simply because two individuals took advantage of it, and merely hopes to be more judicious in deciding who is and isn't allowed aboard in the future, that's also a reasonable point of view.

The important thing is that the policy be mutually agreed upon. Until it has been, the husband should try to avoid getting angry at his wife for being the kind of person he fell in love with in the first place.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

2 comments:

Charlie Seng said...

Hello, if ever "much ado about nothing" applied, this one is it. Is this what married couples argue about, newly married or not? What a couple of wimps! Sure, the wife who let the druggies onto her boat was foolish, but her husband is an ignoramous and poor partner to his wife if he gets mad at her. The husband was right to demand the interloping couple get off the boat and maybe when they've both settled down, they can have a calm discussion about not allowing strangers on their boat. Unless the person who approached Jeffrey on this isn't telling the whole story, the whole thing sounds like something was left out. What a bunch of losers, the four of them!

Charlie Seng

Elian said...

People who boat and cruise have a sense of community and mutual assist that is above average, and there is a lot of trust at play amongst boaters (except for the occasional pirate.) Given that the larger and smaller boat were at a pier, there might well have been a public bathroom available. That said, assuming we have the whole story--since we are three degrees of separation away from the actual event--we are somehow still hearing the side of probably only one newlywed. I think the wife is telling her side through her friend, her father, and now Mr Seglin. Who knows who did what to whom past the point of booting the miscreants off the boat. Maybe the new hubbie had a couple of beers in him as did the wife, maybe a lot of things. Bottom line, in or out of the water, couples aught not speak harshly to one another, regardless of the provocation. Self mastery under various circumstances is part of the homework we get to do forever. We also don't know the age of the newlyweds, but it is safe to assume that they were below 45. One learns to evaluate character by experience that comes with a varying price tag. In this case, the wife was lucky that the husband came back given that she was outnumbered and obviously not a good judge of character -- there is a difference in the tone of someone wanting a cup of sugar and wanting to do drugs in your boat's bathroom. You need to work your radar for that if you can't tell which is which. These newlyweds need a book on how to communicate together with respect and towards growth, not mutual deprecation, which is where they're headed if as newlyweds they are already out of patience with one another.