For some time, I’ve been sitting on a question raised by a handful of readers who happened to share a practice in their marriage that caused them to wonder about its ethical intricacies. The practice went something like this: As one member of the marriage spent money on themselves, the other felt it only fair that they spend an equal amount, even if they didn’t really desire anything at that moment. Judging from the questions, the practice evolved from some sense that the partners didn’t entirely trust one another to be responsible with money so they better spend equivalent amounts before the resources ran out.
I suspect there was more behind the motivation to keep score on who spent what, but the underlying premise was it was only fair that if partner A got whatever, then partner B deserved to get an equal whatever. The question I received typically arrived after one of the partners wanted to stop this practice while the other one didn’t. Was their partner’s choice not to stop unethical, was the question.
Let me remind readers that I am not a marriage counselor, psychologist or any sort of psychotherapist. My approach to therapy, I sometimes joke, would be to hear what behavior is bothering a client and then tell them to knock it off. If they arrived at the next session without having knocked off that behavior I would double my rates, and then proceed to double them each time the client showed up not having resolved the problem. While I might find such an approach inspired, I am confident it does not make for good psychotherapy. I don’t know, because I am not a therapist.
But the question of whether it’s unethical for a partner not to agree to stop a joint behavior because the other partner wants to change is one I can address. The short answer is that no, it is not inherently unethical behavior if someone doesn’t agree to stop doing something we don’t want them to do.
There are behaviors we might not like in others, behaviors with which we disagree, behaviors which we wish weren’t so, but that doesn’t make them unethical. In her essay, “On Morality,” published in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Joan Didion wrote: “Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.”
I agree. Simply because we disagree with a behavior does not make it unethical.
Taking the time to find out why there is enough of a lack of trust in one another to feel the need for such a tit-for-tat practice seems the right thing to do rather than to perseverate about who is right and who wrong. If the services of a strong marriage counselor or therapist is needed to kick-start and mediate such a conversation, then that seems better money spent than trying to buy stuff simply to keep up with a partner’s outlays.
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