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Judging Satisfaction

How does one measure satisfaction? And where does satisfaction end and selfishness begin?

This is a very adult question, as people in romantic and business relationships can relate to the negotiation of “Am I doing this because I’m unhappy or because I just want this?” Even if the line between the two is especially blurred, does it matter? Why should we begrudge ourselves what is at the fingertips of change?

It’s a complicated catch-22 that seems to be popping up more and more in media and real life. The New York Times Magazine‘s repeatedly uneven and slightly judgmental The Ethicist finds itself addressing this question and did so in a strange way last week. Kwame Anthony Appiah was asked a very complicated, long question from a woman who is happy with her husband and family but missing a piece in her life: sexual satisfaction. The question she tosses to Appiah is if she should abandon her family and feel guilty for the rest of her life, suck it up and long forever, have an affair, or seek an agreement with her husband. There’s a lot going on here.

The core of the trouble—and what Appiah hones in on—isn’t an answer but more an observation based on respectability politics. Here is what he responds to, at the center of her long inquiry.

I am no longer content to simply accept being less than satisfied in any area of my life, including sexually, and I know that this other man is able and willing to provide that for me. He and my husband do not know each other; he lives very far away from us, and I am in his area only once or twice a year. My husband appears to be both unwilling and unable to provide what I need sexually. However, our family functions well as a unit, and he is a good, involved father, and a generally decent husband, so the thought of breaking up our family is heartbreaking to me and seems very selfish. In addition, extramarital affairs are something I have never believed to be ethically sound decisions.

See? Catch-22.

Yes, the question also includes a storyline of her husband being moderately verbally abusive—but that’s beside the point. She claims happiness otherwise and we’re not here to judge that (although many do). Here’s Appiah’s unsatisfying short answer though.

You suggest that you’re reluctant to try to repair the emotional damage you describe, perhaps through counseling, because you don’t trust your husband and you think he’d be resistant. But wouldn’t it be better to find out how he would respond, rather than speculating? Suppose he knew what I know now. Are you sure he wouldn’t want to work to make things better? If that conversation really does go badly, however, you’ll know more clearly where you stand. And so, by the way, will he.

What’s missing here is her agency. Yes, she is in a relationship but this answers pins her to her husband and feels backhandedly sexist in a “You are defined by each other.” sense instead of two people capable of living life with and of each other.

The comments paint the picture more clearly, actually hearing the question and suggesting answers while illustrating the fundamental cultural differences we see with relationship. Some readers applaud the inquiry (“Her letter demonstrates an understanding of the complexities and nuances of the relationships within her most intimate orbit.”) while others scold (“Get the two of them into counseling pronto – and, if that does not work, walk away. This is not mainly about sex.”). The majority go with the scolding but no one seems to settle on what “ethical” is. And no one considers the satisfaction. There’s quick pointing that she needs help and not much else.

It’s a fascinating question that seems to be a recurring theme in recent media, from Amy Landecker’s character in Transparent to Issa Rae in Insecure. Perhaps time softens these questions and yields answers to what satisfaction can be. Like so many issues of our time, this too will evolve.

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