My only sister and I never speak, except at funerals — we’re on opposite planets when it comes to politics and religion. And I think we’re both fine with that; we were never close as kids, either. A year ago, I got an email from her saying God had told her to pay me the $5,000 she had hidden from my inheritance when our mother died. I never would have known about it had she not spilled the beans. I know she’s not wealthy, so I was very nice and said to her: “Whoa! Who knew? Send it any way that works for you — the whole thing, monthly payments, I’m easy.” I didn’t see any point in shaming her for stealing it, given that she seemed to want to make things right. In anticipation, I bought an expensive laptop.
Now I wish I hadn’t. I never heard from her again. I don’t want to talk to her about it — her husband recently died (suddenly), and that’s sad, and in light of that and our estrangement, I’m not comfortable with cornering her. Should I just forget about it? Or should I pursue it some other way, legally or through her grown kids? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
Stealing from a sibling is, from the perspective of both secular and religious morality, obviously wrong. So is promising to return money that you’ve stolen and not doing so. Your sister’s conduct suggests that she has faltered in upholding the standards she endorses. That’s a normal part of the human condition. Thomas Jefferson thought slavery was wrong — and presumably he would have said that sex outside marriage was, too. But he had enslaved people working for him at Monticello, and we know he had children out of wedlock with one of them. It would have been perfectly reasonable for his friends to point out to him the inconsistency between his ideals and his actions.
And the same holds in the unglamorous terrain of our daily dealings. It would be equally reasonable of you to remind your sister that she’s letting herself down. The spirit moved her; she confessed and resolved to mend her ways. Yet the challenge of our quotidian existence is to behave decently even when the spirit isn’t moving us.
I agree that you shouldn’t insist on what you’re due while your sister is in mourning. But after a reasonable period has elapsed, you can remind her of her promise, letting her know that you actually spent money because you trusted her to make good on it. And yes, if you think it would be helpful to talk to her adult children, you should feel free to do this as well. Being shamed before their kin is one reason that people sometimes do the right thing.
A Bonus Question
I own rental properties, and the property-management company I’ve long used is under new ownership; I strongly suspect that it is now diverting money received as rent and security deposits into the hands of unscrupulous employees. I have discontinued the management services and directed the tenants to pay rent to me directly. I am now owed my tenants’ security deposits, amounting to a few thousand dollars. I imagine the property-management company can pay me these deposits out of ongoing rent payments from others.
May I delay reporting my suspicions along with the evidence I now have to the police until I get my money out? Is it ethical to take care of yourself first, even as you believe that others are being drawn into a fraudulent scheme? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
I don’t know the scale of the fraud here, but my guess is that the company’s other clients — presumably landlords like you — wouldn’t be significantly worse off were you to hold off for a beat on getting the police to investigate. If this is the case, you’re free to ask for the deposits you’re owed first. Still, that’s a big “if”: You’re entitled to put yourself first only insofar as doing so doesn’t cause serious harm to others.
Last week’s question was from a man whose wife had once agreed to an open relationship, but changed her mind once their children were born. He wrote, “My wife became pregnant soon after we met, when our relationship was ‘fluid’ and non-monogamous. We agreed to raise the child together and, at my urging, to have an open relationship. However, our relationship since has been monogamous. My wife was injured during the birth of our second child and now finds sex painful and avoids it. … When I broached the topic of having other partners and reminded her of our agreement to have an open relationship, she became irritated and said that having kids changed things. … Would it be ethical to take a mistress, given her earlier promise, and if so, can I do this discreetly so as to avoid tension and perhaps divorce? Or should I tell her I am planning to pursue this course of action? Or does the inherent risk of infidelity mean I should accept near-celibacy indefinitely?
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Proceeding, openly or otherwise, on the basis of an agreement she has repudiated would be disrespectful. Discretion doesn’t guarantee that your wife won’t discover what you’re doing, which could result in extensive damage to trust and intimacy. And especially if your liaisons are on the down-low, you may end up with an emotional investment in an outside relationship that diminishes or competes with your marital relationship. That’s a problem if your aim is to keep your marriage together and to preserve a nurturing family for your children. … Given your conversational stalemates, you and your wife could find counseling helpful. In the meantime, bear in mind that sex isn’t just about physiology, and a peremptory insistence that you’re owed a hall pass may not put her in a loving mood.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
I agree with the Ethicist. This couple needs counseling! The husband appears to only see his loss, and is not sufficiently reflecting on how his wife must feel about this traumatic change of her body. I am surprised that they did not seek medical help way before it came to this impasse, not to mention experiment with the many ways of having sex that don’t involve vaginal penetration.— Leah
As usual, an excellent response by the Ethicist. Painful penetrative sex, or the exhaustion that comes with caring for small children, will put a damper on any relationship. I’d urge the letter writer to talk honestly about both his and his wife’s present needs before torpedoing today’s relationship with yesterday’s expectations. — Deb
I’m a woman who has way more libido than the man she loves and I really don’t agree with the Ethicist’s answer. Living with a partner who is not interested in sex is incredibly difficult. In the case of the letter writer, while their relationship was monogamous, it was also sexual. And that has changed. His partner should be willing to explore how to meet him at least halfway. Talk about these issues openly. And recognize that a need to engage in sexual activity is just as much a need as monogamy. — Heidi
While I certainly agree that a conversation from years ago does not now give the letter writer permission to cheat on his wife (and this infidelity would be messy and damage trust), I dislike the way the Ethicist has downplayed the importance of sex in a relationship, especially if it is monogamous. The letter writer’s wife seems to want to have things both ways — a monogamous commitment that does not allow her husband to seek sex elsewhere, and a lack of desire or ability to have sex with him herself. To me, it isn’t fair of her to deny him any ability to have sexual satisfaction in his life, and they should explore options that can leave them both feeling fulfilled.— Kelsey
My husband of 45 years has prostate cancer. It is highly likely he will be unable to have intercourse after treatment. We both enjoy sex — a lot. One of my husband’s most endearing qualities is that he’s is always interested in sex, even after all these years. Sex is more than intercourse (ask anyone who is queer). The letter writer’s wife was injured and has been caring for two young children. Has the letter writer tried to seduce her? Held her hand? Rubbed her shoulders and kissed her and engaged in all of the many things that are part of the erotic life of many loving couples? Or has he just wanted the intercourse they always engaged in? Maybe he should work a little harder before he gives up on their sex life together. — Nellie