"From an ethical point of view," he writes, "whose interests is a married person obliged to place foremost, if they come into conflict: His or her parents? Or his or her spouse?"
My first inclination upon reading his question is to assess who reads my column the most, my father or my spouse. But while such checking might prepare me for reactions from my father and spouse to my response, it doesn't change how I'd answer the question.
"The obligations to one's parents are obviously more comprehensive and of much longer standing," the reader goes on. "On the other hand, one swears a personal vow of loyalty to one's spouse, but not normally to one's parents. The obligations of a son or daughter are more or less imposed on you without consent, consultation or specific articulation. ('Because I'm your mother, that's why!')"
While it's obviously best to honor obligations to both parents and spouse or, if you can't, to find a compromise, the reader recognizes that in some cases the obligations are specific and mutually exclusive.
"What then?" he asks.
I'm not so sure my reader has as much of "a biggie" as he thinks.
Sure, anytime you try to drive a wedge between a spouse and a parent or a spouse and a spouse by introducing a divisive issue, there might be fireworks. In such cases, my own spouse reminds me, it's good to remember that you live with the spouse with whom you are building your own lives together.But my reader seems to forget that missing in his premise is that there's a third player in the equation, presumably with a mind of his own. Not only might a spouse disagree with his parents. He might disagree with both of them.
My own spouse believes that this fellow may just be "looking for trouble," trying to engage a columnist in settling a score between his spouse and his parent, so he doesn't have to take a stand.
But I'm not so sure that's the case.
Instead, like many of us, my reader seems to be looking for a set of rules that apply to any situation all the time. The trouble is that situations differ and so do our responses to them. There is no one set of rules that defines whose side you should take in a disagreement, beyond the rule that you should side with the person you believe is right. If you believe neither side is right, then express that.
The right thing to do when parents and spouse collide is not to arbitrarily side with either, but instead to have a mind of your own that presumably can produce an opinion of your own. But given that you have a committed relationship with your spouse and plan to spend the rest of your life with him or her, it's also the right thing to give a heads up to your spouse beforehand if your view differs rather than launch it by surprise in front of your parents. Such an approach honors loyalty and increases the likelihood that your spouse won't feel betrayed by your contrary views.
Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.