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Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction, Religion

Kiss And Dish: Abortion Lies

In my seven minutes of free time every week, I sometimes enjoy reading anonymous “confession” sites.  I’m currently a fan of Kiss and Dish, and today, one confession in particular has caught my attention.

When I first started dating my boyfriend, we got into a discussion about abortion, he asked if I ever had one. I lied and said no. 9 months later, we’re still dating and I’ve never told him my secret. Should I? I think he’d be so disappointed.

Without knowing anything about this woman other than this little blurb, I think there are a lot of things we can think about.   We must bear in mind that we don’t know if this woman is pro-choice, anti-choice, or somewhere in between.  We don’t know if she believes her abortion was the right decision or not.  We don’t know if she feels personal guilt for having had it.  Even so, I think there are a couple of things that are clear from this confession, and are not dependent on the woman’s feelings about her own abortion:

  • The woman has “voted with her feet” for nine months that she does not trust her boyfriend.   True, it’s her choice to talk about it or not, but by choosing not to, she admitted to anyone who cares to look that she doesn’t trust her boyfriend to accept her action and continue to care for her.  Whether this is actually true or not is somewhat inconsequential.  Maybe he will continue to love her, but she doesn’t believe he will.
  • She doesn’t believe her self-esteem can handle the worst things he might say to her if she told him.
  • In a nutshell, her fear is that one or both of her actions — having the abortion, lying about it, or both —  makes her a person he cannot or will not love.

In a bizarre sort of way, the original question misses a broad point.  Presumably, this discussion took place very early in a relationship, and let’s be honest — nobody owes anyone else their deep secrets on a third date.   The decision to have an abortion is often a deeply personal and life-changing one, and is not something any woman “owes it” to anyone else to mention before she’s sure that he is trustworthy, and a long-term candidate.

Perhaps this is a reflection of “hookup culture.”  Sometimes, we get things a little backwards when we start with sexual chemistry and work our way to emotional and intellectual intimacy.  Some things are not necessarily good to share early on, and sometimes we try to get intimacy by sharing things that would best be shared after intimacy was already established.

In any case, let’s get down to some actual psychology here:

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Any moral dilemma of this nature is really a cost benefit analysis.  This woman is weighing two fears, and fears always represent potential loss.  On the one hand, she feels guilt, which is the personal realization of a moral failing.  It’s unclear whether or not she believes the abortion itself was a moral failing, or just lying about it to her boyfriend.  In either case, she clearly feels guilt on one side of the analysis.

On the other side is shame and loss of master status.  Shame is the public version of guilt, when society recognizes a moral failing.   Master status is the very real social limitations imposed on individuals by society.  Though it can be ascribed (think India’s caste system) it can also be achieved.  In this case, a woman can lower her social status irrevocably by having an abortion, if her peers believe that it is an irrevocable sign of moral depravity.   (Think of the “ex-con” label.  No matter how well someone does in a job interview, they are always moved down the list of potential hires if they have spent time in jail.)

So, what’s really going on here is that this woman is deciding which of two things is worse for her to lose:  Would she rather continue to feel guilt and the loss of self-respect for an ongoing personal (and private) moral failing, or would she prefer to risk the loss of master status and the experience of shame when her abortion becomes public knowledge — even if her boyfriend is the only “public” in question?  If she chooses to remain silent, her loss of self-respect will be offset by maintaining her current master status, and by being viewed as the kind of woman who “wouldn’t do that sort of thing.”  If she chooses to out herself, she will gain a clear conscience and feel self-respect for “doing the right thing” according to her own internal moral code, but she will possibly be unloved or unlovable to her boyfriend, and might be viewed for the rest of her time in this social group as a “murderer of babies,” which can be a significant loss of status.

Bear in mind that everything I’m discussing is perception, and may or may not reflect reality.  Her boyfriend might shrug off an abortion, or he might even think it’s a good thing!  (Perhaps he was testing her to see if she might have an abortion if he accidentally gets her pregnant.  He might not want to father a child with her.)  Even so, the moral dilemma she’s experiencing is a very real thing, and the principles are real, regardless of the external reality of her beliefs.

So, unfortunately, it’s impossible for me or anyone else to advise her based on the little bit of information we are given.  We simply can’t guess what the true consequences of silence or confession would be, and for that matter, we can’t guess whether she’d be better off with or without this guy as a boyfriend.  Even so, I think it’s interesting to look at a real moral dilemma and break it down into an exercise in critical thinking instead of reacting emotionally.  From here, we realize that we (and presumably the woman who asked the question) need to answer more questions before reaching a decision, but at least we have a good place to start.

As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that there is a prominent undercurrent of “other-centricity” about this.  Some people, upon reading the question, will exclaim, “But it’s not her boyfriend’s business to even ask!”  These are people who will tend towards independent assessment of their own self-worth, and the rejection of people who do not conform to their own ideals.  This woman, on the other hand, probably bases a great deal of her own self-perception on the perceptions of those around her.   In other words, she has chosen, either consciously or unconsciously, to let other people shape her image and her morality, as opposed to shaping them herself and then surrounding herself with those who accept her for who she is.  Both of these ways of forming identity work, but they each have their pitfalls, and either one can be quite dysfunctional if taken to an extreme.  The fact that this is such a big deal would probably be a red flag to any therapist that perhaps this woman is too far towards the passive end.

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Kiss And Dish: Abortion Lies

  1. …Well, at the very least, isn’t this a rather large sign of potential incompatibility? I mean, sure, we can play the game of pretending not to know whether or not the significant other in question will be alright with knowing that she had an abortion – but let’s keep it real: she wouldn’t be asking anyone if she should tell him the truth unless she was pretty sure that this would be seen as a Very Bad Thing to the guy.

    Personally, I think this is as easy as cake (well, not in practice, but from a perspective of taking the most logical course of action): Tell Dude @ Now.

    Attempting to maintain status with the fellow will be right next to impossible regardless of keeping her mouth shut on this one issue if his world view is that far out to lunch. Not only is it incredibly likely that someone is going to leak the information to him (if they haven’t already), but doubtlessly there will be future issues of political contention ahead… and what then? Barring being among the world’s best fraudsters, the lady isn’t going to be able to perpetually pretend to be on his side of the spectrum.

    People do this all of the time, and it never leads to anything good. They get engaged to someone with a completely different world view (*cough* Josh *cough*) and figure, “Meh. No biggie. I love him/her, so it’ll work itself out,” while utterly failing to realize how nonsensical that notion is and that they are simply caving to their genes. Be honest and up front, and if that capsizes your relationships, well, so it goes. Better for something to fizzle out right now than to catastrophically explode later on.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | October 11, 2009, 9:37 pm
  2. Hamby, thanks so much for the link!

    I agree with KRB that this woman knows enough about her bf to understand this could well be a dealbreaker, and that she needs to address this pronto. She’s clearly losing sleep over it, and the only remedy is to fess up. Either way, she’s better off.

    However, I also agree with the point you made about hookup culture. IMO, it’s totally inappropriate of him to ask such a personal question very early in the relationship. As you say, whether he was looking for reassurance that she never would have an abortion, or that she would hightail it down to Planned Parenthood if he should get her pregnant, it’s far too intimate a question for someone you’re just getting to know.

    Another popular question women get asked early on is “How many men have you slept with?” That’s the old double standard at work; he’s ready to have commitment-free sex for perhaps the hundredth time, but will balk if her “number” is too high for his liking.

    Although her self-esteem does seem dependent on the views of others, I wish she had had the presence of mind to at least ask him why he would ask such a question. Then perhaps they could have discussed what was really on his mind. An honest exhange would have either a) ended or b) strengthened the relationship.

    Posted by susanawalsh | October 12, 2009, 12:05 pm
  3. @KB: While I agree that [em]probably[/em] this is a sign of incompatibility, we really don’t know enough about this woman to say it for sure. Perhaps she is overly insecure about other people’s opinions, and she really is making a mountain out of a molehill.

    In all honesty, it should be a sign of Run Away Very Fast for the guy. Not because she had an abortion or lied about it, but because she apparently doesn’t have a very firm grasp on her own sense of morality. I still hold that her abortion is none of this guy’s business. He had absolutely no right to ask her the question in the first place, and she has no reason (in my moral framework) to worry about lying. The fact is, “No Comment” is an admission of guilt, so she can’t go that route. If she doesn’t want to tell him, all she can do is lie. In my book, such a lie is justified.

    Yet, she believes that her own value will change based on his assessment of her abortion or her lie about it. This suggests to me that we’re talking about a woman who will do what [em]other people believe best[/em] above what she believes is best. I’m not really interested in committing myself to such a person.

    @Susan: I think in advice column math, you’re right. If she goes ahead and tells him, things are relatively likely to work out better for her than if she doesn’t. If you give that advice to a hundred women, probably eighty of them will discover that they need to drop the guy for being a judgmental prick. So much the better.

    My point here was not to answer the question, though. Instead, I was trying to look at the psychology of the dilemma, and to give readers a template for examining their own moral dilemmas: Find the two things you’re afraid of losing. That’s the first step. Fear is always the expectation of loss. Also, understand the difference between guilt and shame, and recognize the potential for a change of status based on your choice. Pretty much all moral dilemmas will have these elements, and it’s neat to dissect questions this way, even if we don’t give a succinct answer.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 12, 2009, 3:07 pm

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