Navigating the Waters of Friendship, Attraction, and Ethical Boundaries
The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on what to do when a short but powerful connection attempts to be rekindled
August 19 2023
Three months ago, I forged a fast and profound connection with a new friend, whom we'll refer to as "Pearly," during a retreat. Our bond was instant and intense, marked by shared activities, heartfelt conversations, and even the blossoming of mutual romantic feelings. Just as I was grappling with the thrill and complexity of this newfound attraction, circumstances led me to abruptly end the friendship, leaving Pearly puzzled and without much explanation.
The catalyst for this abrupt termination was my decision to confide in my ex-partner about my feelings for Pearly. In the midst of our couples' counseling, my ex-partner expressed discomfort and established boundaries that ultimately led me to cut ties with Pearly in an attempt to prioritize salvaging the relationship and preventing any emotional complications. Since then, I crossed paths with Pearly again at a camping festival, rekindling the emotions and connections that were so abruptly severed.
In light of these circumstances, I'm left with a moral dilemma that raises essential questions about friendship, forgiveness, and ethical boundaries. As I consider penning a meta-ethicist post, I am haunted by two central inquiries:
1. Can Pearly forgive me for the sudden ending of our friendship? Can we reignite our bond, and should I revisit the feelings we once shared?
2. Can two individuals who experienced such a whirlwind connection pick up where they left off, not only as friends but also as potentialy more?
The path forward feels uncertain. Is it reasonable to hope for forgiveness from Pearly for my hasty decision to prioritize my previous relationship? Can two individuals who experienced such a whirlwind connection pick up where they left off, not only as friends but also as potentialy more? Moreover, in the wake of my recent breakup, is it morally sound to introduce a romantic element into our renewed connection, considering the inevitable complexities and potential for unintentional emotional repercussions?
From the Ethicist:
Being mortal, people seek ways to feel significant. Institutions that last beyond our lives are one way we’ve devised to counter this discomfort. We do this by honoring the contracts we make to one another, and using words like “always” and “never.” By this principle, you did wrong by spontaneously bonding outside your relationship and also by discontinuing a friendship. It’s worth noting that this sense of purity is a dogma in most religious institutions, and guilt is the glue holding them together.
John Stuart Mill, widely credited as the founder of liberalism, takes a different approach. Humans are free to do as we wish on this mortal coil - with the exception of doing harm. As I personally prefer to paraphrase it: we owe each other nothing but honesty and kindness. In ending the friendship with Pearly, however abruptly, you acted honestly and kindly. It minimized harm to your partner (to whom you owed more consideration). Though it resulted in hurt feelings, it was still partially communicated at the time; partial and belated communication is better than none at all. You had more to lose than she did and it was the right move to act to protect it. A person with a heart would feel bad about being dropped, but a reasonable person with a heart would pursue understanding and accept repair attempts (especially ones crafted to appeal directly to her). You wonder whether something new can grow from wreckage. In this ethicist’s opinion, it’s the only place from which anything does.
So much for the friendship. In pursuing something more, what harms may arise? All relationships, whether familial, friendly, or romantic, have “complications”, which can be painful but are ultimately an unavoidable part of the deal. Mill stipulates that his definition of harm does not include hurt feelings, so the potential (or even inevitability) for this is not a good enough ethical reason on its own to avoid building connection. This bargain is ultimately up to no one but you.
We’ve addressed harms done to others, but it’s important to consider harms to oneself. Would you be doing harm to yourself by seeking this connection? Or maybe by not seeking it, you’d be doing harm to yourself, perhaps out of the aforementioned gluey guilt. I’d note that after considering your ex partner and your friend’s needs, you may feel refreshed by focusing on your own.
You’re right to want mutual trust as a foundation for a connection - but trust to do what? To be honest and kind to ourselves and to others, in that order. If you both at least attempt this, perhaps mortality really can be bested.
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