Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Why Can’t I Clean My Boyfriend’s House for Pay?

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post,”Why Can’t I Clean My Boyfriend’s House for Pay?

About a year ago, I moved into my boyfriend’s house in a new city. I’m renting out my old house for income as I look for work. I pay my partner $100 each month to cover my utility expenses. He pays his cleaning person $160 a month to clean the house twice a month. I am not convinced that the house gets cleaned well, and I have plenty of free time anyway. I offered to clean the house in lieu of the money I pay him, which would save him $60 and me $100. He refuses, claiming that it would be as if he were paying me to clean the house. Would that be so wrong? NAME WITHHELD, SANTA FE

My answer: Our society seems to associate the word negotiate with used-car salespeople, souvenir sellers in foreign lands, and high-stakes hostage situations, all one-shot deals where you don’t see the person you work with again, you have to live with the consequences yourself forever, and they know more than you. The word comes from the latin negotiari, meaning “to carry on business”, from negotium, meaning “business,” which comes from nec (“not”) and otium (“leisure, ease”). I agree negotiation is not easy and can take work, but negotiation involves a lot more than one-shot high-stakes deals.

Since so many people associate negotiation with used cars and hostages, I usually substitute the phrase “create a deal” for “negotiate,” but they mean the same thing. My mental model for negotiate is that negotiation builds relationships.

I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but I love the subtitle of his book “The Art of the Deal.” Working out a great deal can make you feel great, like you’ve created a work of art. I view negotiation as a part of human interaction with awesome potential for developing relationships. This came from negotiation, sales, and leadership classes in business school, experience creating some great mutually beneficial deals in business and out, reading the book Getting To Yes, and teaching and mentoring many on negotiation.

Experience has taught me to look forward to negotiating. At least to stay calm while negotiating. It would seem you haven’t learned that lesson.

You are exchanging time, labor, money, living space, and such with someone and you want to negotiate the terms of the interchange. Instead of looking at and treating it like a negotiation or, as I put it, a chance to further build your relationship by understanding each other more, you’re treating it as a matter of right and wrong. You don’t even seem to understand the concepts of right and wrong since you seem to be looking for a definitive answer. If a definition that gave you a definitive answer existed, you’d use it, but there isn’t, so you can’t, so you write some third-party writer to support your cause instead of improving your relationship with the one other person relevant to this situation, the guy you live with. You ask “would that be so wrong” in a leading way to get the answer you want, implying you aren’t looking to build a relationship but to support your feeling right.

Yes, negotiation takes work, it’s not leisure, but it builds relationships. If you work with your boyfriend to understand each other and find a solution you both agree with, I predict you’ll improve your relationship. If nothing else, you’ll understand yourself and him better. I would start by focusing on the consequences of your actions instead of an abstract concept of wrongness, which generally leads you to feelings of self-righteousness, which rarely improve relationships. Then I’d read Getting To Yes. I doubt you’ll regret it.

The New York Times Answer: It’s not wrong. It’s a shrewd request on your behalf. But I think you’re overlooking the real reason your boyfriend doesn’t want to do this: It would make him feel uncomfortable in his own home. It’s strange to pay someone you’re romantically involved with to do work for you, even if the compensation is somewhat indirect. Furthermore, giving you this responsibility would place him in an awkward position should you end up doing a subpar job — he can fire a cleaning person, but he can’t fire his girlfriend.

This is an ethics column, so — ethically — I’m on your side. But ethics can’t be the only consideration in a dispute that combines the personal with the professional. This really has nothing to do with morality. Your boyfriend simply doesn’t want to add an unnecessary power dynamic to your relationship.


I’ve been using the same landscaper for a few years now. On a recent morning, he and I happened to be at the gas station at the same time. He was filling up one of his trucks. As he started the engine, I noticed that he had a Breathalyzer device attached to the ignition — similar to the kind issued to indivuduals who have been convicted of D.W.I. I am starting to have concerns about my safety and my property. Should I ask the landscaper about this? Is it grounds enough to dismiss him? NAME WITHHELD, WHITE PLAINS

My answer: Why wouldn’t you talk to him about it? What are the consequences to your actions? If it’s important to you, why wouldn’t you bring it up? If it’s not important to you, why would you bring it up? If you don’t know if it’s important enough to you to bring up, you could use this occasion to ask yourself if it’s important enough to you (I appreciate your pun, intended or not, asking if it was “grounds” to dismiss him). Another way of putting it is for you to learn your values. Asking other people, like a journalist, to tell you your values deprives you of learning yours for yourself.

For many people, their issue is not ignorance of their values but not knowing how to act on them. They don’t know how to assert themselves, often confusing assertiveness with aggression out of ignorance, since they are as different as envy and jealousy, which is to say, very different though in the same domain. The same solution to not having skills as to not knowing your values applies. You can use this occasion to develop them.

As for the grounds to dismiss him, read your contract with him. If you don’t have one, talk to a lawyer if you’re worried about the legality.

One of my highest principles in business and relationships is what I call “No surprises.” Except for business competitors and people on their birthdays, I try to avoid surprising people, especially people I work with, especially people I’ve worked with for years. If you want to fire someone, no matter how justified you feel, if you do it without warning, I expect some people who hear about how you surprised a multiple-year business partner would avoid doing business with you. They’ll wonder when you’ll feel unilaterally justified in dismissing them from your life. If instead you talk to this guy and figure things out with him, you can reach an understanding about something important to him too with him instead of without him.

The New York Times Answer: First of all, I have no idea why you think a D.W.I. arrest would make this person unfit to tend to your garden. Are you afraid he will get loaded and overprune the petunias? Second, he seems to have the Breathalyzer device attached to the same vehicle he uses for work, so he can’t even show up unless he’s legally sober (I suppose he could theoretically bring a six-pack in his lunchbox and get drunk while he worked — but then he wouldn’t be able to start the truck and drive home). If you want to ask him about his arrest record, that is your right as a person. And if you both had signed a contract when he was hired, and its language included some kind of morality clause, you would be legally justified in firing him. But I see no reason that you would fire a man you’ve employed “for a few years” over a crime that has no relationship to what you’ve hired him to do and only surfaced because you were peeping inside the cab of his vehicle.

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