Ending relationships ethically
A version of this article was first published: The Sunday Age - February 2008
With St Valentine’s Day just around the corner, there is a fair chance that by this time next week a host of nervous romantics will have declared their intentions. Some will have done so in vain. However, in at least a few cases, Cupid’s arrow will have scored a hit and a new relationship will have begun to bloom.
Unfortunately, it’s a reasonable bet that within the same period a number of relationships will wilt, giving rise to a fair amount of heartache. So what are the ethical considerations that should be borne in mind when ending a relationship – or, as my editor put it, how do you ‘dump’ someone ethically?
I am not writing here about the ending of long-standing relationships based on abiding commitments. At some point in the evolution of a relationship, dating may turn into ‘going out with’ and later on this may evolve into a deep, lifelong commitment (often recognised in marriage). In this article I am only looking at the earlier ‘pre-commitment’ phases in a relationship between ‘singles’. To indicate this, I will use the language of ‘dating and dumping’.
One other qualification … I am no expert on dating or dumping. Indeed my own past is one of serial incompetence – capped off by one amazing success. However, the opportunity to reflect on my own embarrassing past has led me to realise that there may be a few key points worth exploring.
Indeed, I think that an ethical approach to dating and dumping requires four elements to be present in equal measure: respect, honesty, compassion and courage.
Respect is the foundation; an acknowledgement of the fundamental dignity of the other person – even if they do things that upset and annoy. Respect for the other requires us to think not only of what we might do in a relationship (whether at its beginning, middle or end) but also how we do it.
The first demand of honesty may be to say ‘no’ to a relationship before it even starts. Having experienced, on one or two occasions, the disappointment of ‘false hope’, there is a certain kindness to be found in an unequivocal rejection. That said, I doubt that very many people start dating with an expectation of breaking up. The whole idea is to take the risk that some lasting good will emerge from the experiment. Yet, the reality is that while some people are lucky enough to find their ‘soul mate’ at first blush, the rest of us proceed by trial and (mostly) error. It is for this reason that the ‘dumping’ end of the spectrum is of such importance.
So, let’s suppose that a couple has been going out for a while and one or the other decides that the relationship has no future. Let’s also assume that both people have acted in good faith – no cheating, etc. So, how might things go from there?
Honesty demands that the underlying reality be named. Compassion requires that this be done in as least hurtful a way as is possible. And courage is required because causing pain and disappointment in others is incredibly hard to do – even when not complicated by issues of self-doubt, guilt and uncertainty.
An absence of respect, honesty, compassion and courage probably helps to explain the results of a British study published in 2006. Of the 1,000 men and women surveyed, 22% gave their partner the ‘silent treatment’ – death by omission. One man simply failed to turn up to his girlfriend’s birthday dinner, never contacting her again. And then there were the 15% of people who ended their relationship by email and the 14% who dumped their partner by SMS text message!
Whether it’s the ‘silent treatment’ or dismissal by text, there is something unusually cold about such an impersonal conclusion to a romance – every past intimacy is violated. Respect, honesty, compassion and courage require something more.