A reader we’re calling Sammie wrote in search of an answer to a question that has been plaguing her about her current relationship.
Apparently, Sammie’s boyfriend made a promise to his former girlfriend’s father when he was on his death bed. The boyfriend agreed he would take care of the father’s daughter and family. Since making the promise, the boyfriend has broken up with the daughter, and the father’s wife has died as well.
Nevertheless, Sammie wrote that her boyfriend wants to honor his promise.
“It is ruining our relationship,” wrote Sammie. His ex-girlfriend will not go away, and he feels a sense of obligation to keep in contact with her daily by phone and text in spite of how he has told Sammie he doesn’t really like her anymore. Sometimes the “taking care of” involves the boyfriend giving his ex-girlfriend money.
“When can he feel like he’s done enough?” asked Sammie. “When can he move on? When can his obligation be fulfilled? There is no way this can be a lifetime promise, can it?”
Sammie has asked me if I might have any insight, and if I did, if I could tell her what I thought.
Let me make two things clear. First, I have no idea what Sammie’s boyfriend actually promised to his ex-girlfriend’s father. Second, I am not a relationship counselor. If Sammie believes her relationship with her boyfriend is in trouble because of past relationships and she is committed to making this relationship work, meeting with a relationship counselor to sort out the particulars seems wise.
But it seems unlikely that the boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s father expected Sammie’s boyfriend to continue to take care of his daughter in the event they ended their relationship. Again, I have no idea since I was not there. But if the father was hoping for what was best for his daughter, a compelling argument could be made that taking care of her might involve encouraging her to move on after her relationship with Sammie’s boyfriend ended. By continuing to act as if he were still involved with the ex-girlfriend when he is not could be construed as either misleading her or keeping her from finding a new healthy relationship. If this is the case, then is this really honoring the promise to “take care” of her?
Sammie’s boyfriend has some choices to make. Does he want to honor the spirit of his commitment to his ex’s father? Doing so might prove tough, but encouraging her to move on might be exactly the thing needed.
He also needs to decide how important his relationship to Sammie is. If refusing to let go of a past relationship even if his behavior is proving to impede his ex’s ability to move on and toxic to the possibility of developing a strong bond with Sammie, the boyfriend needs to ask himself what he really wants.
The right thing for Sammie to do is to let the boyfriend know how strongly she feels about his inability to let go of the past relationship and then to decide if she might be better off becoming another ex until he’s able to let the first ex go.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of “The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice,” is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.