The following letter appeared in a recent column of The Ethicist in The New York Times:
Although I was the anxious one before we left, I have found myself in a bit of a sticky situation. I am falling for a woman I met on my study-abroad program. I know that this is not just a casual affair and that I am developing real feelings for this woman. I feel as though I am betraying my boyfriend, and I am sure he would feel the same, despite the fact that I am not technically breaking the rules of our relationship. Communication is sketchy, and the prospect of talking to my boyfriend about this while the signal comes and goes is a little horrifying. I know that this information would hurt him deeply and that his ability to enjoy the remainder of his semester might be diminished. At the same time, I know that this is not what he had in mind when we agreed to an open relationship, and I feel as though I am deceiving him every time we talk. Should I tell him what is going on? — Name Withheld
You can read The Ethicist’s advice here. My advice, which differs, is below:
The Ethicist advises the LW to tell her boyfriend right away that she’s falling for someone else, but I disagree. They decided to open their relationship during their time apart because they wanted to “fully enjoy their respective experiences and take the opportunity to explore being with other people.” The LW’s keeping quiet about her feelings won’t change that at all — not for her and not for him. But her telling him about her feelings now probably will change her boyfriend’s experience — “diminishing his enjoyment,” as she puts it, so that he’s not able to “fully enjoy his experience,” which was the whole point of opening their relationship in the first place.
I can’t help but think of a friend of mine whose husband was away for business for a few months and decided while he was gone that he wanted a divorce. My friend had to wait over two months until he got home to actually talk to him about it in person and has confided that she would have preferred he waited until he got home to break the news. Like the LW and her boyfriend, my friend and her husband’s communication was intermittent while he was away, and so she felt it wouldn’t have been difficult for her husband to “play along” and act as if everything was status quo until he got home and they could really communicate rather than her waiting two agonizing months to discuss this sudden breakup in person.
There’s a big possibility that, upon hearing that his girlfriend is falling for someone else and wants to break up with him, the boyfriend will have questions — will want to talk to and process this news with his girlfriend — but, because of their intermittent communication, he won’t have that option. I see that as eating away at him more than finding out later that his girlfriend had begun moving on and wanted to wait until she could tell him in person.
It comes down to respect, and you could argue that it’s more respectful to share such news immediately. I happen to think, in this case, that it’s more respectful, especially considering they both agreed to open their relationship, to wait until feelings can be expressed and processed in person, even if that opportunity is still a few months away.
What do you think?
Illustration by Tomi Umi for the New York Times
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.