The ethics of sparing feelings

Has Chuck Klosterman ever met a sick person?

His answer to a woman’s question — Should I wait until my sick boyfriend gets better before I break up with him? — was so completely off the mark it made me miss Randy Cohen even more.

In a nutshell (in case you didn’t read the column), his advice is that she should wait until her boyfriend is better.

The last thing a person who is ill wants is to feel like they are a burden to their romantic partner, or feel like they are locking their partner in a relationship they don’t want to be in because they pity the person who is ill. Speaking as someone who spent a good portion of a relationship beating herself up because it was obvious my partner didn’t want to be with me but wouldn’t break up with me because I was ill, it would be far better to be dumped while sick than feel even more guilty about your illness than you already do. Not to mention the devastating feeling of sleeping in a bed with someone so far on the other side of it that you could fit a cadaver between the two of you. There is little in this world more upsetting than feeling like you are physically repulsive because of your illness.

Dating as someone who is ill is complicated. I have been offered more than once explanations for breaking things off or keeping things from starting that have centered around my illness. I have been told things are too complicated for me right now. Yes, for me. Not for the other person. I have been told (during a period of remission) that dating wasn’t possible because what if the cancer came back and the person wanted to break up with me but couldn’t because they felt…bad? Most recently, I was hanging out with a guy who was so adamant that my situation wasn’t an issue that I knew things would never actually take off. Protesting too much, and the like.

These situations where someone else gets to decide what would be too hard for me to deal with, or where they decide how complicated I find my own life and whether or not that means I’m emotionally capable of dating or not are frustrating. There is a scenario created where my disease is considered first, and I’m considered second. I’m not given the opportunity to decide what I am or am not emotionally capable of dealing with, and that makes me feel like a child.

To be fair, I know people who have been ill and broken up with healthy partners because they didn’t want to burden them with the illness.That’s just as fucked up. If you are dating adults — and if you are grown-up, you should be — you need to trust them to make decisions that are right for their own emotional health.

At the end of the day, I think Klosterman offered the advice he did not to spare the feelings of the sick boyfriend, but to save the girlfriend from feeling like an asshole for breaking up with him while he’s sick. Guess what, she’s going to look like an asshole either way. At least the dude won’t feel embarrassed and like he wasted his time with someone who only stayed with him out of pity.

ETA: Based on the other comments on this week’s column, everyone seemed to think Klosterman’s advice was totally cuckoo.

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About Alicia Louise

I'm a writer, editor, fact checker, storyteller, events organizer, chronically busy yet endlessly lazy, mildly neurotic (though I keep the neuroses well-hidden, one hopes) 32-year-old with recurrent ovarian cancer. I like people and good writing and straight talk. I have a hard time feeling sorry for people, including myself, but the people that I love, I love passionately; one may even say creepily. I try to keep that mostly to myself. I'd like to be charming, but I'm usually just a mess. I'm like a gull slamming into your windshield.
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4 Responses to The ethics of sparing feelings

  1. Amanda says:

    I think this sounds totally reasonable, Alicia. No one wants to be dated out of obligation. In any situation, if the person you’re with isn’t 100% into the relationship, you’re better off on your own.

  2. Alicia says:

    Amen. This doesn’t magically change just because a person is sick (or lost their job, or failed a class, or any number of other shitty life things that happen). There may be ethical obligations around ending a relationship (for instance, if their are children together or the other person is financially dependent on the person ending the relationship) but there is no ethical obligation to stay with someone outing of pity.

  3. barismumyakmaz says:

    After my diagnosis, I took the first step to cool off before my girlfriend got frustrated or guilty about it. I think no reasonable person would leave a physically sick and emotionally fragile cancer patient, this is maybe why we need to do it. I experienced this makes one stronger.

  4. Totally frustrating. It’s plain maddening when others hide their insecurities behind ‘your’ issues.
    On our forum one women debated breaking up with her new boyfriend after she was diagnosed so that he wouldn’t be obligated to stay with her . . . this makes me wonder how that turned out.

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