The majority of us could probably name at least one or two things that you would immediately recognize as hurting a relationship. And many of us would probably name most of the same things: once you are married, you aren’t supposed to have sex with anyone but your spouse, don’t abuse your partner, and don’t start dating someone else until you have actually ended another relationship.
But have you ever done something that you didn’t think would be a problem, or maybe even thought it would help the relationship, and your partner reacted like you had done one of the worst things possible?
When it comes to how we behave in a relationship, we may find that there are no clear social rules about what is or is not acceptable. In one relationship, giving someone of the opposite sex a ride to school or work would be just fine, but in another your partner may turn into a jealous monster who wrecks your car and threatens the other person. This lack of rules can often make relationships confusing and unpredictable.
According to a recent study by Dylan Selterman at the University of Maryland, however, there are some basic things we can learn about our partner that will help us avoid doing the wrong thing. It all has to do with what they consider the most important to making moral decisions.
Five Foundations of Morality
Whenever we have to decide if a behavior is right or wrong, we tend to address certain questions in making our decision. Each question comes from one of five concerns.
Purity is the concern for maintaining a sense of propriety in our actions. If the action in question might disgust someone or degrade another, we would label that action as wrong.
Care is the concern that drives our motivations to help others or relieve suffering. Giving a starving child some food would satisfy the concern of care, while pushing someone out of our way would violate that concern.
If you are familiar with the golden rule “do to others as you would have them do to you,” you are already aware of the concern for fairness. This is the concern that gives us a sense of inequality or injustice and drives us to change.
Loyalty is the concern for maintaining the rules or goals of some organization we belong to. We often are presented with opportunities to show loyalty to our community or relationships. Spreading rumors about someone or a group might be an example of a violation of the concern for loyalty.
Authority is the concern for following leaders and upholding the duties we are given. Following a law because it is a law established by some authority we adhere to would be one example of satisfying the concern for loyalty.
Each of us often bases our decisions on a combination of how we answer each of these concerns. However, some of us believe some concerns to be more important than others. In relationships, the concerns that are most important to our partner can help us predict how they might react to our behavior.
For example, if my partner is high in concern for fairness and care, but low in loyalty, they would likely see giving someone else a ride as an acceptable behavior. You are providing a service to someone who needs it. However, someone high in loyalty would likely get upset over the ride because they might see it as a threat to the rules of fidelity in the relationship.
Assessing Ambiguous Behavior
If you are unsure how your partner might react to a particular behavior, ask yourself the following questions:
- Which moral concerns are most important to my partner?
- Which moral concerns are most important to me?
- Will this behavior violate any of those concerns?
While asking those questions will help you decide on how to best behave in a single situation, recognize that a pattern of violation in any of the concerns may become a serious issue in relationships. If you start talking to an ex-partner every day, your current partner may question your loyalty, feel a sense of violation in purity, and may even start to see the time you are spending with the ex as unfair, even if such concerns were not initially high on their list.
And if you aren’t sure how your partner might react, it is always safer to treat each moral concern as important. Then take it as a sign that you need to get to know your partner a little better.
Try taking our RELATE assessment to find out more about how well you take your partner’s perspective.
Written by: Dallin