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Q: Dear Meredith,
I am having a moral dispute with a family member, "John," whose treatment of the women he dates I do not find decent or acceptable. He believes his behavior is normal and justified. Here goes: He spends most of his time in a country in South America where there is a high incidence of poverty and unemployment. Also, there is a lot of machismo in this culture. Women bear the brunt of the dire economic situation and the patriarchal values. John dates a lot women, a few at a time, and he is polite to them, takes them out, makes them feel special when they are together, so forth. When he is out of the country, he keeps in touch in a flirty manner via Skype and email.
Yes, he is sleeping with them -- which is what he is primarily after. He feels that because he tells them that he is not interested in a relationship, he is not leading them on or even using them. From what I understand, these women very much want a relationship with John. They don't have a lot of options in life, and having an American boyfriend who is handsome and charming (and has some money) would be a dream come true. John knows this, and I feel he is exploiting the situation. It seems to me that his charming manner is sending mixed signals to these vulnerable women, giving them a false hope that John might actually be interested in them as people, not just as sex objects.
Perhaps they are not used to being taken out to nice restaurants and clubs, and they interpret that kind of treatment as truly heart-felt and romantic. One woman went so far as to have his name tattooed on her arm. John revels in this attention, and feels that he is morally off the hook because he has verbally expressed his intentions (or lack thereof). He refuses to accept that he is doing anything wrong, and, in fact, believes he is being good to these women.
I have no problem with consensual adults having casual relationships as long as they are on equal footing -- which is not the case here. The women are putting out because they want a boyfriend in John, and he is well aware of this, and taking advantage. Yes, they are responsible for their decisions and they are running a risk by getting involved with such a man, but I don't think John is blameless, either. And, I don't see why he can't limit his dating pool to women who are likewise just looking for NSA fun. Please weigh in, and please consider the cultural and economic factors that are at play. Thank you.
– Indignada, Boston
A: You seem to be looking for an ethicist, but that's not what I do. I deal with relationships, so my question is: Why does John need to be worshiped? Why is he avoiding a real relationship? Why would he want to be with someone who tattoos his name on her arm?
I could spend all day debating John's behavior, but I'd rather talk about how you should deal with him. This letter is really about you, right? On some level you're asking how you can put up with a close family member/friend whose romantic choices have become offensive.
If I were you, I'd tell John that you can't talk about this stuff anymore. You don't find it entertaining. It makes you sad. We all have to hear from friends and family who do questionable things, but in this case, it's becoming a moral/political argument with no end. All it does is depress you. Sometimes we have to set boundaries with loved ones. You're not going to change John's mind, so you might as well give your brain a break.
For the record, if I were an ethicist, I'd probably come to few conclusions about John's behavior. I can't make assumptions about how these women perceive John (isn't it possible he's being used for nice dinners and entertainment?). I just don't know enough about his situation. I could also argue that many men -- and women -- keep a similar pool of potential, hopeful partners at bay here in Boston, and that serial dating can be gross and misleading, even without the socioeconomic and cultural questions at play.
The point is that all of this offends you and makes you feel bad about John. It's time to drop the subject and distance yourself from his behavior. Perhaps that's the most effective statement you can make about his actions.
Readers? Is John right? Wrong? Does it matter? How should she deal with a family member whose behavior offends her? Help.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith at www.meredithgoldstein.netand on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.