Sunday, November 20, 2011

Your parents or your spouse

A reader from New York City writes that he believes most of the questions I try to tackle in the column each week are "relatively small scale." He, however, believes he has "a biggie."

"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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


I couldn't agree more... damn it. :( What fun is an ethics debate without the debate?!? My first thought on reading your premise was specifically that the writer was looking for a clear-lined rule where none could exist and that the writer needs to think for himself, much as arguably his spouse and parents have also. This will lead to 'siding' with one at one time and the other another. Arbitrarily siding with either the parents or the spouse consistently is a recipe for disaster.

Can we get a controversial topic now? :)

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like this requires a marriage counselor or a lawyer. Jeffrey has taken the right attitude regarding your vows to your spouse, but I'm wondering what kind of relationship the questioner has when he has to pit spouse against parents. This sounds more like a job for a lawyer than an ethics counselor.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Susan Hammond said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

I agree with you that the man must, ultimately, make his own decision regarding the issue that, apparently, divides his family. BUT, here comes the "controversy" you wanted, Mr. Jacobson! In the Bible, the book of Genesis, chapter 2, verse 24 (you can read more for context, of course), the writer, inspired by God, said, "For this reason [see preceding text] a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

I cite this because the teaching lays the foundation for man's and woman's relationship in marriage for all time to come. The man is, "one" with his wife, and she with him - not just physically, but also in principle. Their union is the most important relationship on earth, taking precedence over everything and everyone else - yes, even children, because their interests are better served when mom and dad are united well.

In the New Testament, Jesus repeated the Genesis teaching, as found in the book of Matthew, chapter 19, and the book of Mark, chapter 10. Then, the Apostle Paul also reiterates and further expands on this teaching in the book of Ephesians, chapter five, verses 21 through 33. Ah, lots to chew on here. Read carefully, consider prayerfully - dig deeper.

I think these spouse/parent issues come up more as the holidays approach. I face this now with my own son and his wife. When there are conflicts of drawing on his and his wife's time, I have to defer to their marriage relationship and not try to press my will on them. To do otherwise is neither "healthy" nor wise, and violates the Biblical teachings that I hold dear to my heart and life. We, who are married, or who have been married, understand how difficult the marriage relationship is. It is assaulted on many levels, and thus requires the man and wife to be united, to, indeed, cling to each other for protection of it.

It is left with the husband to make the ultimate decision because he is the ultimate head of the home. But, hopefully, that decision will be made with the understanding that it is his wife's needs/desires that take precedence over that of the man's parents. The man should do what is best for his wife and best for their marriage out of love for his wife. May God grant him much wisdom and understanding.

Shmuel Ross said...

Essentially what Susan said. In cases where "the obligations are specific and mutually exclusive," the spouse wins, period.

More importantly, your answer seems not to answer the question you were actually asked, but a different one. The question was about cases in which one has mutually exclusive obligations to one's parents and one's spouse. You ignored that issue entirely and instead addressed what happens when one's parents and one's spouse disagree about some sort of "divisive issue." These are entirely different things! The former is what to do if your parent and your spouse are in hospitals on opposite sides of town and you can only visit one; the latter is what to say if your parent roots for the Red Sox and your spouse favors the Yankees. You focus exclusively on "disagreements," which are matters of opinion; the question was about obligations, which are not.

Try again, Jeff.

Anonymous said...

The way I'm understanding this, our moral obligation is to the right and the good — not to some person out of accident of birth or blind loyalty.
Rick Kenney
Fort Myers, Fla.