I am a retired but active woman in my 60s. I started dating a gentleman, also retired, some months ago after meeting him at a party. He said that he had just ended a long-distance relationship with someone but that she had told him to go ahead and start seeing other women.
He gave me a ride home and invited me to have coffee the next day. Given the pandemic, we started meeting in open air settings, socially distanced, but very much enjoying each other’s company and conversation. I found him fascinating, and we became very good friends.
When we became lovers, I believed we had found a deep connection, on many levels. I fell in love. And based on what he had said, I thought he had received permission from his prior girlfriend to start seeing other women.
Long after we had become intimate he told me he hadn’t been completely honest. He did have a long-distance relationship with a woman over several years; they were never married, but he never stopped loving her. And she never gave him permission to see other women.
They live in different places to be close to their grandchildren. They continue to see each other, a month at a time, but spend many months of the year apart from each other, staying in touch by phone and texting.
He admitted he likes but does not love me, that he cares for me deeply as a friend and loves our physical intimacy.
I let this affair go on for a while, because I was in love, and I thought that in time he would grow to love me in return. But when he went to visit this other woman, it was gut-wrenching for me.
When he returned, he wanted to resume our love affair. I asked if he had told his girlfriend about me, but he hadn’t.
By now I decided it hurt too much to feel like the “other woman,” and I felt guilty about participating in his duplicity with a woman he claimed to love. I finally broke up with him.
Then I discovered I have known his girlfriend all along — we are Facebook friends! We have never met, but we’re connected by mutual friends and shared interests. We have often commented on each other’s posts, and she seems like a lovely person.
She recently messaged me to tell me she is planning to visit my town and wants to meet me in person. I am so tempted to accept. A part of me would love to tell her that her boyfriend is unfaithful; in fact, he has already moved on to a new girlfriend in my town.
What should I do? Name Withheld
Two things are going on here. On the one hand, you want to punish your ex for the way he treated you. That’s not a noble motive, and it wouldn’t be sufficient reason if that was all there were to it. But there’s the other thing: He’s deceiving his long-term girlfriend, and she is someone you’re friendly with (digitally, yes, but still).
The word “wrong” can be an adjective, a noun and a verb. Which sometimes leads to confusion. Cheating on his girlfriend was, we can agree, wrong of him, but it wasn’t just a free-floating wrong, like failing to vote. He was wronging a particular person, who has a right to decide whether she wants to continue a relationship with someone who’s betraying her.
Sign up for The New York Times Magazine Newsletter The best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week, including exclusive feature stories, photography, columns and more.
Is it your business? Yes, for two reasons. First, he betrayed her with you. Second, she has a relationship with you. So you’d be minding your own business if you told her. In fact, I don’t see that there’s a neutral position that you can default to. The woman has sought you out. By holding back on her, or dodging her, you would be helping to cover up her boyfriend’s misdeeds.
But don’t expect her to be grateful to you. While you didn’t know the situation between them when your relationship began, you carried on with it after you did know. She may well choose to stay with him, even after she learns what he’s been up to. Or she may end up without a boyfriend whose company she enjoyed and who, though disloyal, genuinely cared for her, as she did for him. Still, these are issues for her to handle, not you. You’re simply providing her with information she needs to manage her life — information you are in a position to provide and that you have no reason to continue to conceal.
The word ‘wrong’ can be an adjective, a noun and a verb. Which sometimes leads to confusion.
Our son has been in a relationship for 12 years and married for seven of those years. A year ago, he called us, frantic. He had impregnated a young woman and was desperate that we keep this a secret. He was also worried that the woman wouldn’t get an abortion, which a few weeks later she agreed to do. (This, we later learned, was after he promised her that he would leave his wife and marry her.) Our son asked us to counsel this woman, who seemed childlike at 25.
Months later, this woman texted our family, including his wife, a photo of her with our son, in a bedroom, both of them partly unclothed. That’s how we learned he was seeing this woman romantically. My wife confronted the young woman, and she denied sending it, which we found out was a lie. Our son’s wife meanwhile began uncovering evidence that he had been cheating on her throughout their relationship, with numerous women, and videotaping their encounters. It was the end of his marriage.
Over the years their marriage had been troubled. They had seen therapists. She had asked him many times if he was seeing someone else, and each time he said no. When the girlfriend he impregnated found out that he was cheating on her as well, she became furious, called him a sexual predator and vowed never to see him again.
They reconciled, although she gave him a six-month free pass to see other women and decide if he wanted to be with her. When six months were over, she asked him about his whereabouts on two occasions when he was with another woman. He lied to her.
We let our son know that his behavior is totally unacceptable to us. We told him that we don’t want anything to do with the young woman (he’s back together with her now), that we consider her a liar and a cheat. We have begged our son to get counseling, to change his ways and have offered to go to counseling with him. We are ashamed of how he’s acted and are trying to keep word about his behavior from leaking to our extended family.
He is now furious that we are not accepting his relationship with this young woman and that we want nothing to do with her. We are still close to his soon-to-be ex-wife. We feel it would be a betrayal of our moral beliefs if we accept this relationship.
Our sense is that our son hasn’t really changed. He doesn’t seem very penitent and has a lousy relationship with his ex-wife, who is still emotionally distraught over all the years of betrayal and deceit.
We love our son and want to do the right thing. Have we made the correct decision, or should we accept this new relationship? Name Withheld
You value honesty and fidelity, and in keeping with these values, you’ve made it plain to your son what you think about his behavior. Repudiating him fully might appear to be an even more forceful expression of your values. Yet it isn’t as if your values are all on one side. Having a relationship with a son you love is also something you care about — you no doubt have moral beliefs about family obligations, commitment and caring. You hope he’ll get counseling, and if he were to agree to it, it’s possible this would help. Either way, why not stay in his life, doing whatever you can, through your approval and disapproval, to encourage him to be, well, less awful?
Refusing to accept this relationship won’t make it go away. In certain respects, it must be said, the two are well matched. You believe this young woman to be a liar and a cheat; you know that your son is. I’m put in mind of an observation that Samuel Butler, the Victorian man of letters, made about the pairing of another difficult couple: that it had the virtue of making only two people miserable rather than four. You can hope that your son reaches a happier state of affairs, but however helpful your promptings, he’ll have to find it for himself.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.) To submit a query: Send an email to email@example.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)