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:
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.