We often tell our partners, "If you ever find someone you’ll be happier with, I want you to be with that person—I only want you to be happy." And we may be perfectly sincere when we say it, but that doesn’t mean it hurts any less when our partners do leave us for someone they like more. How can we reconcile the selfless intent of a statement like this with the agony of being dumped for someone else? And what in the world does it have to do with contract law
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Here’s an example to get us started: let’s say Amy agrees to sell her car to Bill for $3,000, which is the most Bill is willing to pay. (Amy’s a great negotiator.) While Bill’s getting the money together, along comes Carlos, who offers Amy $4,000 for her car. What should Amy do?
There are two ways to look at Amy’s situation, corresponding to two approaches to contract law. (For our purposes, we can consider the verbal agreement between Amy and Bill to be a contract.) One view is that a contract is a promise, a view that implies a moral obligation on Amy’s part to honor her agreement with Bill despite the better offer from Carlos. The other view is that contracts are meant merely to enable people to maximize total value through mutually beneficial transactions. This will happen only if Amy breaks the agreement with Bill and sells the car to Carlos, who places a higher value on the car than Bill does.
At the risk of oversimplifying, the first approach leans toward ethics, and the second toward economics. One maintains that commitments should be honored even if a better offer comes along, while the other denies any moral aspect to contract, viewing it merely as a tool for maximizing value. Nonetheless, the two approaches can sometimes result in the same outcome. If Amy sells the car to Bill, Carlos can make the same offer to Bill, who may accept if he truly values the car at only $3,000. But that assumes that Bill doesn’t value the car more after taking possession of it—which is likely to happen, according to the endowment effect—and that he’s willing to bargain with Carlos, whom he may resent for trying to get Amy to break the deal with him in the first place!
This dispute really comes down to the question of whether contracts should be treated like promises with moral weight. In my opinion, they should, and I think common intuition supports this too. You may disagree—many do, after all, including the Honorable Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in his classic 1897 article "The Path of the Law" that "the duty to keep a contract...means a prediction that you must pay damages if you do not keep it—and nothing else." But I’m going to assume we all agree there’s at least some moral importance to a contract, and that we are uncomfortable with Amy’s decision to sell the car to Carlos instead of Bill (even if we wouldn’t stand in its way as a matter of law).
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Now let’s see if we can apply this logic to relationships. Don’t worry, I’m not going to draw a literal connection between automotive sales and romantic relationships. But there is something to be gained from changing the nature of the situation between Amy, Bill, and Carlos from a commercial one to a romantic one. (By the way, feel free to change the names any way you like—make them Amy, Barbara, and Carla, or Al, Betty, and Cameron—whatever you choose.)
They might have a thing or two to say about this.
Let’s say instead that Amy and Bill are in a committed relationship, in which both are happy, but then Amy meets Carlos. She discovers she likes Carlos even more than she likes Bill, for whatever reason; maybe she discovers she has more in common with Carlos, or maybe she simply finds Carlos more attractive. Amy is determined not to cheat on Bill, so she has to make a decision: should she stay with Bill, or leave him to be with Carlos? If she left Bill, she would be breaking an agreement with Bill in favor of Carlos, who’s making a “better offer.”
First off, did Amy ever make a promise to stay with Bill “forever”? Most likely not; even if they were married, they may not have taken the “til death do you part” aspect of their vows literally. We can imagine that Bill and Amy did tell each other, however, that either should leave if she or he found someone better, and that they meant it, although they both hoped it would never be invoked. And certainly neither one wants the other to stay in the relationship if he or she doesn’t want to, for whatever reason. (It will still hurt tremendously, though—more on that in the second part of this post.)
We can debate whether Amy has good reasons to leave Bill for Carlos—we may not be sympathetic if she is momentarily infatuated with Carlos, but it might be a different thing if she finds a deeper connection with Carlos than with Bill. One benefit of commitment—the “for better or for worse” part, whether or not a couple is married—is that it helps the partners keep a long-run perspective when tempted to stray. If Amy’s attraction to Carlos is purely physical, her commitment to Bill will help her resist Carlos’ charms. But if the attraction is deeper, not just physical but emotional as well, then the prospect of a better relationship—not just a short-term fling—may lead her to question her current relationship with Bill. In effect, she’ll “trade up,” leaving Bill to be with Carlos, similar to breaking the agreement to sell the car to Bill in the contract example above.
But how much is this situation similar to the contract example? They both deal with a commitment that is broken in favor of a better alternative, but the nature of the commitment is different in each case. A traditional contract is meant to bind both parties to the terms they originally agreed upon even when—especially when—circumstances change. If both parties want out, they just rip up the contract, but if one wants out while the other wants to uphold the original agreement, the party that wants out has either to try to buy the other party out of the contract or to break it (or breach it) altogether. While (ideally) both parties enter the contract voluntarily, once the contract is signed, compliance is less than voluntary—even if we don’t assign any moral value to upholding one’s side of the contract, there will be consequences from breach (such as the damages that will have to be paid).
But a romantic relationship is not like this (except in the case of marriage in cultures or traditions that make divorce very difficult). Both partners stay in the relationship at their own pleasure, and neither is obligated to stay if he or she wants out. Again, one of the purposes of commitment, whether formal or informal, is to provide a buffer so that partners will not leave at the first sign of discord, in the form of aggravation from within the relationship or temptation from without. But this buffer cannot withstand everything, and many little things—or one big thing—can end up breaking the relationship. Furthermore, the person who decides to leave does not “owe” anything to the other person, except courtesy, respect, and sympathy. (There isn’t much of that in cases of contract breach, surprisingly.)
One thing that makes relationships valuable is that they don’t depend on outside enforcement to keep them together. No one is forcing a couple to stay together—even if divorce is not possible or practical, it is difficult to force a couple to live together as true partners. And the fact that either partner is free to leave at any time makes it more meaningful when he or she stays. No one praises the parties to a contract for “sticking with it” or “going the distance,” because they have economic and legal incentives to do so. Partners that can
leave but choose
not to, however, demonstrate the strength of their relationship. (This is sometimes used as an argument against marriage as an institution, but ironically, as that institution has weakened over the years, so has the need for that argument!)
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Should Amy leave Bill for Carlos? In the end, no one can answer that but Amy. We can hope that she compares what she gives up by leaving Bill and what she has to gain with Carlos. We also hope that she considers Bill’s feelings, but realizes that she has to make the decision that is best for her. No one wants her to sacrifice her own happiness and well-being for Bill—least of all Bill.
Speaking of Bill, in the second part of this post, we discuss his side of the picture, why the breakup hurts so much, and how he can look at it positively—using more contract law.
A categorized list of some of my other PT posts can be found at my personal website here.
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