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Ethical Dilemmas: When It May Be Time To Leave Your Partner

Welcome to Ethical Dilemmas, where we hope to give you clear-cut answers for complicated problems. While “Jude” is keeping her identity a secret, we can assure you that with a PhD in Ethics, she’s a pro at carefully examining two sides of a story and weighing each move with a cautious code of morality. See past columns here.

Hey Jude,

I live with my partner and we got engaged a few months ago. When I was out with friends last week, I kissed one of them (Sarah). She and I had been flirting for a long time, and (after drinking a bit at the bar) there was just a quick kiss, but still—I feel like an asshole. I love my partner—she’s funny and creative, and I’ve invested so much in our relationship—but we also fight quite a bit. And the fights are intense. Should I tell her that I kissed someone else, or leave it?

[female, 30, Toronto]

There are two issues here: the kiss, and the fighting.

If it was just a quick peck and was neither here nor there, then I’d stay don’t tell your partner, and stop drinking so much around this person because drinking leads to bad decision-making. And a quick kiss plus alcohol can lead to a quick hop into bed. But the problem isn’t necessarily the fact that you kissed someone else. I think the real problem is the longer story you’re hinting at. There’s a person in your life that you flirt with all the time, and you like them so much that you actually kissed them, and that person isn’t your fiancée.

Sure, most people in big relationships see people from time to time that they’d like to hook up with. Humans are just intelligent animals, and animals like pleasure and physicality. But I think momentary lust becomes a problem when we search for ways to extend that moment. We know it’s wrong, but we “can’t help ourselves.” We edge closer and closer to the abyss, and then we jump.

Is it true that we can’t help ourselves? No. It isn’t. But we do it anyway. And if you look a bit deeper here, the questions shift from: “Why did I do that” to “Why did I WANT to do that,” and from “Should I tell?” to “How did I get here?” (“Here” being drunk in a bar kissing a girl that you’ve been flirting with forever while engaged to someone else.)

So…how DID you get here? Why do you have this friend who you flirt with all the time, who you are so into that you felt the need to kiss them? Why have you created that situation for yourself? Take responsibility for it. My guess is that the answer lies with issue #2: the fighting. You say that you and your fiancée fight “quite a bit” and that the fights are “intense.” There are different kinds of fighting. Some is healthy and gets you somewhere productive. The other kind, though, is torture. Prolonged torture.

Drs. Julie and John Gottman are renowned family therapists, and together they founded the (surprise…) Gottman Institute. They claim to have found a method of determining which marriages will last and which will end in divorce. One of their most interesting (in my opinion) and astute findings has to do with how couples fight. ALL couples fight, but the difference between survival and catastrophe lies in the “repair attempts” that couples make. They define “repair attempt” as “any statement or action – verbal, physical, or otherwise – meant to diffuse negativity and keep a conflict from escalating out of control. Knowing how your partner receives love and what they need to repair from conflict is like having a secret weapon tailored just to them and their happiness.” These attempts allow partners to turn towards each other rather than away from each other during conflict, and that is one of the secrets to maintaining a strong bond, according to the Gottmans.

Speaking from experience, constant conflict without repair attempts will eat away at a relationship and destroy it. And if one person continually makes repair attempts and is rebuffed, the damage is deep and long-lasting. My ex-partner and I used to fight terribly, and I’ll never forget the feeling of trying to lean on him on the couch (a repair attempt) as we watched TV, only to have him get up and walk away. He claimed he didn’t do it on purpose, but still…the feeling of loneliness and hopelessness is profound, and it destroys the loving bond. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Gottmans’ work allowed me to put my finger on it.

So, I’d ask you: When you and your partner fight, does one of you try to diffuse the conflict with a gentle touch, a joke, or some other method breaking the ice, or are you left feeling isolated and distant? Do you feel like a team, even when fighting, or is it every woman for herself? Does the conflict get you anywhere good? Does it help you progress towards something healthy, or is it just cruelty?

Ask yourself these things, and see if there’s a way to talk to your partner about your answers. You’re drawn to this flirty friend because she gives you something that your fiancée does not. What is missing? What do you need? What did you get from this friend that you’re not getting from your partner? If you can’t learn to fight “well” and re-establish your bond, then it might be time to leave.

Do you have an ethical dilemma you need help with? Send your question to heyjudeadvice@gmail.com.

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