A reader we’re calling Carla wrote to ask whether her mother is a hypocrite and behaving unethically. By Carla’s account, she and her mother got along famously until Carla began a relationship with the person who has been her partner for more than two years. She and her mother still get along about most other things, Carla wrote, but when it comes to her partner, their relationship has stalled.
“My mother doesn’t like my partner,” wrote Carla. Carla wrote that her mother has told her on several occasions of her dislike for her partner and that she wished Carla would break off the relationship and find someone new. Carla writes that her mother is not specific about what she doesn’t like, but she makes her dislike clear. What’s more, Carla’s mother refuses to talk directly to Carla’s partner.
But here’s the rub. Carla’s mother loves that Carla’s partner knows how to fix cars that are broken down or in disrepair, especially when those cars belong to someone in Carla’s family. “She will think nothing,” Carla wrote, of asking Carla’s partner to travel sometimes hours away to help one of Carla’s siblings or cousins when they have a car problem. “She once asked them to fly to a different city to help!” wrote Carla.
“My partner always says ‘yes,’” wrote Carla. Without hesitation, they will make time to travel to the relative’s car, assess the situation, pick up some parts at the local auto body shop if needed, and then get the car running again — so far, without fail.
“If she hates my partner so much, isn’t it wrong for her to keep asking for their help?”
As I regularly do when I am faced with a question that seems to fall outside the specific realm of determining the right thing to do, I must state that I am not a relationship counselor. That Carla’s mother can’t accept her choice of a partner when Carla seems safe and happy in her relationship strikes me that there is something going on in the relationship between Carla and her mother that could use some expert help. I am not the guy to give it.
But I will try to help Carla sort of what the right thing might be to do here for both Carla and her mother.
If Carla is upset that her mother asks for her partner’s help when her mother doesn’t have a kind word to say about them, the right thing for Carla to do is to decline the requests, which always get filtered through Carla. If Carla’s mother continues to want the help, then the right thing is for her to contact Carla’s partner directly to ask them. The partner can say yes or no. By talking with Carla’s partner directly, an unintended consequence might be that she grows to appreciate them more.
If Carla’s mother refuses to contact Carla’s partner directly for help because she doesn’t like them and doesn’t want to talk to them, then perhaps the right thing is for her to find someone else she can ask for help when she needs it.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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