IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Questioning your partner’s moral compass?

TODAY contributing psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz says think twice before getting further involved.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. My boyfriend is a businessman making more than $250,000 a year. Despite his success, he takes towels from his health club to use at home, stretches the truth about his employment to his dentist so that insurance will cover his dental claims, watches two or three movies at a theater but pays for only one, has stolen a vase from a public place because he liked it, and on weekends uses the exercise room in the apartment building where he used to live. This dishonesty bothers me and goes against my values. My boyfriend says everybody does this type of thing. His mother is the same way, but his father is not into such “stealing.” This causes me great concern about our future together and has chipped away at the image I had of him. What should I do?

A. You should think long and hard about whether you want a man this dishonest as a permanent part of your future. Furthermore, you may find yourself at some point implicated in his dishonesty, possibly with legal consequences.

It sounds as though his underhanded behavior is not a one-shot deal. You have observed it on multiple occasions. No doubt there is more of this kind of behavior that isn’t visible to you. Some people have a strict moral compass; others have a lax one. It is difficult to be with a partner whose values are so different from your own.

While we don’t know how much of moral development comes from nature and how much from nurture, it’s likely some of both. So it’s not surprising that his mother is like this, too, and has conveyed her loose moral philosophy to him. Once a superego is formed, it takes much work to change it.

Therefore, it’s not likely he will change without a serious threat to his well-being — like losing his job or being thrown in jail, with the added insult of his name being published in the local papers.

His claim that everybody behaves like him is both untrue and defensive. In some cases, he is not just bending the rules — he is breaking the law.

This all leads to several problems for you if you further your involvement with him. You will always wonder whether you can trust him. It’s unlikely he feels any greater moral obligation to you than he does to the rest of the world. He clearly gets a thrill from breaking rules. This could easily extend to involvement with another woman or stealing from you.

If you have children, there will be further problems. Will they be taught that only idiots don’t take the so-called five-finger discount? This will only generate further conflict and cause you great pain if your children develop the same corrupt moral character.

You might be implicated in his crimes, as well. For example, if he cheats on taxes you file jointly or if he launders money using your bank account, you could be held criminally responsible.If you really feel set on trying to change his behavior, you could start by asking yourself whether you are enabling his shady behavior by looking the other way and giving him feedback that indicates you don’t feel it is all that terribly wrong. Still, I wouldn’t have high hopes for changing him.

The fact that your boyfriend doesn’t have financial problems is a real red flag. This man is not taking things he desperately needs or stealing food to feed starving children. He gets a thrill from flouting authority and pulling the wool over other people’s eyes, seemingly for very little reason. Who even wants to sit through three movies in a row?

It seems he is doing these things because he can. This is a man who gets his kicks from taking things that are not his. People like this often insist things go their way and have no empathy for others. You should reflect on whether he is truly a good boyfriend, or if you are taken in by the fact that he is a charming and manipulative type who does things only when they suit his interest.

The fact you are even asking about his behavior shows you are willing to examine his flaws. If this behavior sits badly with you now, it will almost certainly get worse down the line.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If you are bothered by indications that your partner’s moral compass is askew, think twice before getting further involved.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .