Asymmetrical Relationships

Former New York Times Ethicist Randy Cohen tackles the ethics of asymmetrical relationships.
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TRANSCRIPT

Randy Cohen: You know, many people think all genuinely loving relationships are asymmetrical.  One person loves more than the other.  And that may very well be true.  I believe that to be true.  It’s less than ideal.  But it’s often the case that two people love each other, but one person cares more.  One person has more at stake emotionally.  Does that make the relationship in some sense immoral?  No, I don’t think so.  There’s a duty to be honest, to treat another person’s heart with tenderness, but you can’t demand utter symmetry.

After that, the other person is, for all practical purposes, an adult.  And he gets to decide if, given the nature of the relationship, he wants to participate in it.  You know, even though Emmy Lou Harris never has me over for dinner, never returns my phone calls, and then there’s the damned court order.  That I still think it’s a valuable relationship to continue, so I still listen to her music.

You know, all’s fair in love and war is one of 50 different bits of jargon that we use to justify the incredible selfishness that can often go along with love.  But if it’s working really well, simply by pleasing yourself, you please the other person.  You know, it’s an impossible golden dream that it’s at least something aspirational in your erotic life that you’re not doing things, you yourself hate simply as a favor to the other person.  That in general, for the most part, by doing what you genuinely enjoy in bed, that gives a great deal of pleasure to the other person.  I’m not utopian about this.  There’s all sorts of things we do for one another as gifts, you know, sexual gifts, not things we despise, not things we detest, but things are… this isn’t my first choice of what we’d be doing now, but I do it because you like it.  And there’s pleasure in pleasing the beloved. 

So be generous spirited in bed and out of bed.  Be generous spirited in your erotic life and in your heart.  But the more, simply by being yourself you give pleasure to the other person, the greater the odds of you’re having a happy sex life and a happy emotional life.