Ethical Issues in Dating
Responsibilities and obligations.
Recently, I heard about a woman who had complained bitterly of being treated “very badly” by men. Immediately– perhaps because I had been reading a thriller– my mind conjured up images of her having been thrown out of a moving vehicle, such as a car or a train. But such was not the case. She was referring merely to the fact that her last two boyfriends had broken up with her. I don’t think that adds up to being treated badly. The entire process of dating is marked by interruption and rejection. That is everyone’s experience at one time or another. But the story made me stop and think about just what constituted “proper treatment” throughout dating.
I think (others might disagree) that ethical issues always come down to being kind or unkind—behaving in ways that are likely to injure others or likely to avoid such injury. Sexual behavior is not inherently good or evil except that it may hurt someone or not. Similarly, dating behavior in general should be measured by that standard. The rules of proper dating reflect that underlying concern. Because times change, the specific expectations young men and women have when they date and enter, perhaps, into a more formal courtship are not the same now as they were in the past and as they are, still, in other areas of the world. These are some of the current, usually unspoken, rules.
- Right from the beginning of a relationship, both men and women are expected to be truthful (more or less.) It is definitely wrong on a dating site bio to lie about marital status, for instance. On the other hand, anyone who reads these capsule descriptions might reasonably suspect that the author may be exaggerating personal income (somewhat) or height (an inch or two.) Photographs that are three or four years old are intended to deceive but are forgivable usually because they are not likely to be hurtful. (Soon enough the truth comes out.) Interests, such as sky-diving, should also be taken with a grain of salt.
Throughout a relationship, one person should not purposely mislead the other either by outright lying or by not mentioning things a partner would want to know and have the right to know. Certainly, that includes simultaneously dating others. Most couples today expect that if they are sleeping with each other, neither of them will be sleeping with someone else. Even early in the relationship such a discovery will be experienced as a deceit and, later on, as a betrayal.
- Once upon a time, young men and women could not properly date—and certainly not marry– without the consent of their parents. No longer. Anyone can date anyone else who is willing. Some people think it is not proper to date someone who previously dated a close friend, but those considerations largely relate to the responsibilities of friendship, rather than dating. If dating involves sneaking around, the couple is probably violating some rule or other.
- At certain points in a relationship, there are different expectations as to the proper role of the man and woman. (I am speaking here of heterosexual relationships, but things are not much different with same-sex couples.) These are more rules of propriety, rather than ethical statements—although at some points they overlap.
- On a first date, the man is expected to pay for the drinks or if it is a dinner date, he will be expected to pay for that. The woman will be expected to offer to pay for something on the third or fourth date and every once in a while after that. If she makes more money than he does, she should pick up more of the expenses.
- If a date is arranged, the woman (and man) will be expected to stay together throughout the date and not wander off with someone else they meet who seems more appealing.
- Because the man may pay for dinner, the woman is not obligated to see him a second time or to engage in sexual behavior with him. If at some point in their relationship, she chooses to kiss him, she in not obligated to go further. If she participates in more intimate behavior, she is not obligated to go further still. If the man thinks she is “a tease,” he does not have to see her again. But she has an absolute right to say, “No.”
A problem enters at this point: men know that when a woman says “no,” she does not always mean it. She may only be trying to say that she is “not that kind of woman.” Once she has made that point, she may agree to what she wanted to do all long. However, if a woman makes clear that she really means “no,” it is incumbent on the man to stop. If there is any doubt at all, dating partners should be regarded as stating exactly how they really feel.
In fact, in general, the person who says “no” about any matter should have the last word: where to go to a particular place for dinner, whether to travel a distance to meet, whether or not to meet with friends, and so on. Especially, each partner has the absolute right not to meet again, however long their relationship has lasted. If a woman agrees to have sexual intercourse with a date, she should not consider that she has made him a gift which obligates him to see her again. On the other hand, if he does not call the next day, he is behaving boorishly, and that should constitute a warning to her.
- It is no longer necessary, if it ever was, for the man to open the car door for his date. He does not have to buy flowers. But the ordinary courtesies that apply to all other social interactions apply here also. It is a matter of respect. For example, someone who is not courteous to a waiter is not likely to behave better, sooner or later, to a date.
I will only mention in passing that criminal behavior including violence and rape should never happen even if one or both are intoxicated. In fact, simply being drunk is perceived usually as improper behavior.
Promises vs. Daydreams
I think the sense of being treated badly described by the young woman mentioned above comes from something other than actually being treated badly. It comes simply from being rejected. And other disenchanted lovers feel the same way. During the course of any relatively long-term relationship, one person or the other might say something like, “Next Christmas we should go to…” or “Wouldn’t it be nice if someday we lived in a house like this one?” or “I’d like you to meet my best friend who lives in Ireland…” These remarks are taken reasonably to mean that the person speaking has future plans for the both of them. But they are not promises. They are daydreams only; and they cannot be relied on. Someone wishing that they were a prelude to a formal proposal of marriage is likely to interpret them in that way and then feel disappointed and even betrayed when the other person chooses to leave later on.
In particular, “I love you,” may be construed, by someone so inclined, to mean that the speaker expects to be around forever. But it does not often mean that. And when it does, the person declaring love can still be in error. Rather, it means, “Right this minute I feel very, very strongly about you.” If the person being addressed wants to know if that affirmation means the two of them will still be together a few months from now, he/she will have to wait a few months to find out! I’m afraid people fall in and out of love all the time.
I have some patients who are unusually scrupulous and hesitate to get into any relationship lest in the future, they might hurt the other person inadvertently in such a way. So the issue comes up, how responsible should someone be for the feelings of a romantic partner? What I tell everyone is they have a responsibility not to make explicit promises they do not intend to keep. If their partner imagines a commitment where there is none, it is not their fault. Certainly, they should not stay in a relationship to assuage those feelings. In the long run everyone will feel worse.
Still, nice people feel bad when they hurt someone else, even if that pain could not be avoided. Their pain also cannot be avoided. I tell them to be kind, if they can. But no one should prejudge a relationship. No one should back away from a long-term relationship just because it may not work out this time around. Every successful relationship has been preceded by failures, as is true for many other human endeavors. Nothing comes with a guarantee.
Also, making up one’s mind not to fall in love because it is likely on any particular occasion to end badly is not going to work. People reach out for love whether they want to or not. And that is the way it should be. (c) Fredric Neuman