01.03.2004

Understand Your Own Ethics - by Cheryl Morris

When we talk about ethics and relationships, a lotof people realise they don't really understand whatthat means. It's often not until a partner violatesthe other's moral standard that the question of ethicseven arises. And then, it is often too late, or at thevery least, much pain and anguish has been caused.

In our culture, monogamy is one of the standards mostpeople assume is a 'given'. That is to say many couplesdo not discuss this issue at all, or if indeed theydo, give it cursory attention. They assume monogamyis automatically promised when they get into any sortof committed relationship. And even when the issue ofmonogamy is discussed, couples usually can't and don'tconceive of any future situations where they or theirpartner might betray that standard.

But we all know that people break their promise ofmonogamy, whether a conscious promise or an assumedone, all the time. Perhaps you have been betrayed orindeed have committed that betrayal yourself. It's oftennot until the betrayal actually occurs (and we get caughtout!) that we consider the ethics of the situation,but then it's often complicated by extreme emotions.

Perhaps it is worthwhile considering the issue ofmonogamy a little more closely. Remember, you need tocome up with your own ethical standards, standards youare willing to live your life by. Don't simply takeon other people's standards or the standards inherentin our culture, or religion or myth.

Is monogamy necessary at all? Some people have 'openmarriages' for example, where it is perfectly all rightfor either partner to have other sexual partners. Insome cultures, a 'sexual free-for-all' occurs at certaintimes of the year. In other cultures, husbands are ableto take multiple wives, or to have many concubines.There is no right or wrong in the matter - only whatis right or wrong for you and your partner. So spellit out together.

Next, consider whether there will be, or could be,circumstances where it might be acceptable to breakyour promise. For example, if one of you were to becomean invalid, or to become sexually dysfunctional in someway through paralysis or illness, would that constituteacceptable grounds for not remaining monogamous? Ifyou needed to live apart for long periods of time, sayat war, or overseas transfer, would it then be OK tosleep with someone else? So decide what circumstances,if any, are agreed exceptions to the rule.

Then you need to consider what you really mean bymonogamy, and what constitutes betrayal of that. Forexample, does monogamy mean having sexual intercoursewith someone else, or does it mean something else? Doesit include any sexual act? Remember President Clintonsaid categorically that he did not have a sexual relationshipwith Monica Lewinski. Decide what you both really meanwhen you promise fidelity.

Then consider whether only physical sex is involvedin monogamy, or whether other forms of intimacy areinvolved. Does it include emotional intimacy? Is emotionalintimacy acceptable with members of the same sex butnot if it's with the opposite sex? Does cyber sex constitutea breach of fidelity?

Once you are clear where you stand on the matter,it's probably worthwhile considering what the consequencesmight be if either one of you betrays your agreement.

As you can probably imagine, clients often come tosee me when 'a betrayal' has occurred. For a great many,the betrayal is compounded because so many people denyany betrayal has occurred and construct huge webs oflies to cover up their behaviour. For some clients,a breach of trust of this magnitude ends their relationship.For others, though, it is a 'wake-up call' that theywill later speak of "as the best thing that ever happened".

Clearly, any breach of ethics that has been agreedand promised, constitutes a breach of trust and hasconsequences. And trust is an essential ingredient forsuccessful relationship. If you act in an untrustworthymanner, can you reasonably expect your partner to trustyou? It's perfectly natural they will feel insecure.Natural, too, that they will feel hurt and angry. Thesefeelings often take considerable time to process, tosay nothing of the highly emotive state that accompaniesthe healing process. The 'guilty' partner often findsit incredibly difficult to deal with this aftermath.All in all, it is a very difficult and painful time,as anyone who has been through it will attest.

So the question of ethics in relationship is an importantone. Each of us should consciously address it with ourloved one and, more importantly still, live our livesby it.

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