Consider the following (probably fictional) scenario, described in detail by pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman1 and paraphrased here: Jack and Jane are in a happy romantic relationship for 2 years. One day Jack receives an invitation from another woman living in his building to watch her masturbate in her apartment (with absolutely no physical contact and no emotional intimacy). Intrigued, he goes to her apartment to watch her masturbate, then returns to his room and goes to sleep. Jack believes this episode to be weird/strange, but not unethical. He innocently mentions it to Jane, who upon hearing this, becomes extremely upset and ends the relationship, cutting off all contact with Jack.
What do you think about this situation? Did Jack do anything unethical? Is accepting an invitation to watch someone masturbate (while in a relationship with someone else) a moral violation?
This was the focus of a newly published study I ran with my friend and colleague Sena Koleva.2 We wanted to assess people’s attitudes toward a variety of potential moral violations that did not have a clear “right” or “wrong” answer. We administered a 31-item questionnaire, surveying what people thought about the scenario depicted above, as well as others like these (all on 1-5 scales, 1 = always wrong/never OK, 3 = sometimes OK, 5 = always OK/never wrong):
- If you are in a serious relationship, is it OK for you to save romantic memorabilia (e.g., gifts/letters) from an ex-partner? What about sexual memorabilia (e.g., pictures and videos)?
- While in a serious relationship, is it OK for you to remain very close friends with a recent ex (e.g., you hang out one-on-one, confide in each other, etc.)?
- Is it OK for you to have sex with your best friend’s ex-partner? What about dating this person?
- If you are in a serious relationship, is it OK for you to engage in cybersex (overtly sexual and explicit discussions/behaviors with someone over the Internet) with another person, assuming no physical contact or emotional intimacy?
- If you are in a serious relationship, is it OK for you to send/receive nude pictures with another person (sexting)?
- Is it OK to borrow some cash from a partner’s wallet without their explicit permission if you intend to return the money soon?
- Is it OK for you to break off plans with a romantic partner in order to be with a friend?
We found that the 31 items fell somewhat neatly into distinct categories: 1) sexual threats (e.g., watching others masturbate), 2) emotional threats (e.g., keeping romantic memorabilia from past relationships), 3) friendship boundaries (e.g., dating a best friend’s ex), 4) privacy violations (e.g., taking money from a partner’s wallet), and 5) digital infidelity (e.g., cybersex, sexting).
We found that people varied considerably in their responses, which is what we expected. Who was more likely to say these behaviors were OK or wrong?
People higher on (who are preoccupied with thoughts of abandonment or betrayal) were more likely to say that emotional threats, friendship boundaries, and digital infidelity behaviors were wrong. This is consistent with what we know from previous research.3,4 Anxious folks are more likely to perceive these types of behaviors as potentially damaging to relationships, and thus, morally wrong to do (“if my partner keeps romantic memorabilia from exes, it means he/she still has feelings for them and might abandon me!”). People higher on (who dislike closeness/intimacy and prefer to keep distance from their partners) showed exactly the opposite pattern. They were more likely to say these behaviors were OK (in other words, not unethical)—all except for privacy violations (they thought those behaviors were wrong). Again, this is consistent with previous research, which shows that avoidant people are more likely to seek romantic or sexual contact with other partners (while in a committed relationship), and also have more permissive, accepting attitudes toward potential moral violations. [Side note: my roommate from grad school fits this pattern perfectly. He’s very avoidant in relationships, and once described himself as a “libertine of love” and an “anarchist in relationships” (meaning, anything goes!), except for privacy rules, which definitely need to be enforced.]
We also found that independent of attachment style, women were more likely to judge these behaviors as wrong, compared to men (except for privacy, in which men and women did not differ). We’re not exactly sure why (we didn’t have strong predictions about gender), but it could be because women are traditionally more sensitive to moral violations that could involve causing harm to others (women typically score higher on empathy),5 and that women are more sensitive to disgusting things,6 which would include sexual norm violations.7 We suggest that future research further investigate gender differences in moral reasoning.
In summary, if you’re wondering whether these behaviors are morally wrong or OK, the answer is, it’s in the eye of the beholder. People’s moral judgments about relationship behaviors depend greatly on their own personality profiles, especially their attachment styles. Future research might explore whether disagreements about these moral concerns matter for relationship quality. Try asking your friends or significant others what they think about these behaviors—you might find that they provide engaging food for thought as you navigate your close relationships.
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3Mikulincer,M., & Shaver, P. R. (2003). The attachment behavioral system in adulthood: Activation, psychodynamics, and interpersonal processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 53–152). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
4Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
5Jaffee, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2000). Gender differences in moral orientation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 703-726. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0033-2909.126.5.703
6Druschel, B. A., & Sherman, M. F. (1999). Disgust sensitivity as a function of the Big Five and gender. Personality and Individual Differences, 26, 739-748.
7Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling 7 domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16, 701-713.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.