I’ve been in a long-term relationship with my partner, who is of Chinese descent. Not long after we began sharing a home, his parents began to come over on weekends; they indicated that their apartment, which is nearby, is noisy on the weekends and they needed relief. I didn’t say at the time that this bothered me. But now they stay with us every weekend, occasionally even during the week, and the frequency has worn me down.
Some specific intangibles make things worse. They speak no English, which makes sharing a home stressful. They have no friends and very little money. Visiting us is apparently their only hobby or life goal. They take over the kitchen, making delicious food but not cleaning up in a satisfactory manner. This has, as you might expect, become a sore subject and one that my partner, who said it is common for Chinese parents to visit their offspring, will no longer discuss. But I would like to reach some sort of compromise, even though it seems impossible now that they are a household fixture. Name Withheld
It sounds as if your partner’s parents are treating you the way they would treat a member of the family. Whether or not you and their son are actually married, you’re a quasi in-law to them. Certain features of the situation may relate to their cultural background, as your partner suggests, but in-law issues are pretty widespread around the world.
What has happened here is that you and your partner have settled into an arrangement that doesn’t take account of your feelings. Ethics, in the classical sense, concerns the well-lived life, but lives are lived with others. And so yes, compromise is called for, with adjustments on all sides.
How much, for starters, does the mess in the kitchen matter to you? Our feelings about domestic untidiness reflect both what we’re used to and our individual temperaments, and these feelings can cause stress. Responding to a partner’s taste in such matters requires consideration; it shouldn’t be lightly set aside. Perhaps your partner would be willing to clean up around his folks or even explain to them the way you would like the cleanup to go. It’s your home as well as his, after all.
It would also help if you had an easier time communicating with one another. You say your partner’s parents speak no English. But equally, from their point of view, you speak no Chinese. In a serious relationship, learning to communicate with your partner’s family is usually part of the deal. Language is only one kind of obstacle, but it’s one you could do some work to reduce. Do you have time for an online class? A funny thing about languages: Knowing a little is a lot better than knowing nothing. (You might encourage your guests, in turn, to take E.S.L. classes, which are available and free in many places)
But the most important conversation needed here is between you and your partner. If you’re no longer able to discuss the place of his parents in your shared home, you might want to propose using a couples’ counselor. The key to real progress, though, will be your deciding what you would accept as a solution. Maybe you would like to spend some weekends alone with your partner. Is there a frequency that you would be OK with? That’s one place to start.
Relations with parents-in-law, especially at close quarters and over extended periods, can be tricky to negotiate. (Around the holidays many people won’t need reminding of this.) But it shouldn’t be beyond you and your partner to figure out an arrangement that works for you both. And if the future of your relationship is at stake, you need to make that clear. His parents aren’t the only people your partner loves.
My husband and I have been married for 11 years and have a mostly harmonious relationship. We’re both emotionally literate and have great tools for resolving differences, but I’m stumped by one issue.
We split chores and are meant to clean our own bathrooms, but he doesn’t clean his. It’s really bad. I’m a germophobe, and just knowing he goes in there multiple times a day gives me the creeps. He thinks that my being a germophobe is my own issue, and while that’s certainly part of it, there’s also such a thing as basic standards of cleanliness.
But here’s the rub: I (understandably) can’t say anything about basic standards or about “what civilized people do” because he’s Native American. His dad was homeless and lived on a beach for a long time, and his grandmother lived in a house with a dirt floor. And, most important, so-called “civilized” people nearly wiped out his tribe (he’s one of only a few dozen left). I would be grateful for your thoughts on how to approach this issue in a way that’s culturally respectful. Name Withheld
As I say, standards of tidiness, though they can be shaped by our backgrounds and experiences, also vary from person to person in idiosyncratic ways. These preferences are asymmetric: messy people, as a rule, don’t prefer mess; they’re just indifferent to it. Neatniks, by contrast, require things to be neat. You call yourself a “germophobe,” and — if we take your invocation of a phobia literally — you’re saying that you harbor an irrational aversion to a situation that he finds acceptable. Although you don’t really think that his bathroom poses a health hazard, you imagine a kind of pollution transmitted from the area each time he is in contact with it. This is the psychology of taboos. You’re requesting a concession to what is, for you, a psychological challenge.
That you worry he’ll see your request as expressing disrespect for his people indicates that you haven’t been able to talk about what the issue really is. Perhaps you can help him by thinking about something that he has similar feelings toward. In plenty of marriages — both cross-cultural and intra-ethnic — the conjugal bond requires accommodating taboos we don’t share. (Sometimes literal ones: Because certain forms of meat were taboo to my father’s matriclan, in Ghana, my mother wouldn’t have served venison at home, even though she didn’t believe in the taboo.) You needn’t evoke “basic standards of cleanliness” or justify your preferences in civilizational terms. It isn’t as if untidiness is a virtue among poor people or among the tribal nations. Simply talk about what you personally find disturbing. A final, practical note: You each have your own bathroom — is it possible that you can afford regular visits from a house cleaner?
I work part time professionally and part time as a stay-at-home parent. I am married, and my wife is fully employed. Our respective fields are emotionally and intellectually rewarding but not lucrative. We have tried to buy a home but are struggling with down payments and higher mortgage rates. My parents are wealthy. We have had open discussions about how their estate will be divided after their deaths; each child will inherit a different percentage of the estate, but each will also receive the same fixed cash amount.
I have made decisions (professionally, choice of life partner) that were not geared toward acquiring more wealth. Is it ethical for me to ask them to give me the cash part of my inheritance now, to help with a down payment on a house, or should I live within the limits that are the consequences of my prior decisions? Name Withheld
I balk at the suggestion that your financial situation is entirely of your making. Though it reflects, in part, your decisions, it also reflects lots of things that aren’t under your control. You could have entrusted your modest nest egg to an adviser who then expanded it into an ostrich’s clutch — or shrank it into a hummingbird’s. Certainly, the increased cost of mortgages and the price of housing in your area are not your doing. Being poorer than your parents isn’t a kind of punishment you must bear for your choices in life. So you should feel free to ameliorate your situation through your parents’ good graces. To be sure, your parents may think that it’s unfair to give you the cash earlier than they give it to your siblings: Its current value is greater than its value a decade or two hence. Still, if your relationship with them won’t suffer were they to reject your request, you might as well see what they say.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)