I recently enrolled in a matchmaking service and went through a long interview process. During that process, I did not disclose the fact that I survived cancer, an experience that left me with a stoma (basically, a small opening in the abdomen). There is no bag, though; I use a catheter to empty my bladder. Having had radiation therapy, I also have problems with penetration during sex.
I’m a 58-year-old woman who is otherwise healthy and in good shape. The men I will be introduced to will have paid, as I did, a hefty amount for a limited number of introductions. I feel I would need to mention being a cancer survivor as soon as possible so as to not lead anyone on. I consider this an extremely private matter, but I don’t want to anger or upset any potential date. Should I have mentioned this in my interview with the dating service? Should I disclose it now? Name Withheld
Normally, in the development of a relationship, you wouldn’t lead with the aftermath of your cancer treatment; you would discuss it only once the two of you established a rapport and decided you wanted to go further. People may be poor judges of how they will feel about dating someone with physical challenges or anomalies; if you laid everything out from the start, they might, owing to ableist prejudices, miss out on getting to know you. So there can be reasons for managing the disclosure. That’s especially true if the contemplated relationship is sexual and the condition constrains what sexual acts you can comfortably perform.
But how to manage the disclosure within the somewhat artificial context of a matchmaking service? First, a bit of background for readers unacquainted with services of this sort. Typically, their clients pay thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, to be introduced to others who have done the same. Clients are screened; not all are accepted. And as you say, there’s a substantial fee for a set number of introductions.
There are two ways the people who run the service could use the information. They could pass it on to candidates before a meeting was arranged. Some might then choose not to meet you. Alternatively, the matchmaking service might use your disclosure to filter candidates by feeling out their concerns without passing on the information. The advantage in either case is that it would most likely spare you from meeting people who decided that they didn’t want to deal with any physical complications. The disadvantage is that it would rule out meeting people who, once they got to know you, would reconsider their prejudices.
So far, the issue has been what would be best for you. But your prospective dates have expectations of their own. And so you can ask yourself whether, if the situation were reversed, you would think a potential partner should have revealed, in advance, that he had a stoma, used a catheter and had, say, erectile dysfunction.
No doubt many people would, in fact, expect to be told. But that doesn’t mean they would be entitled to expect it. This matchmaking service is not meant for casual sexual encounters. My judgment is that any decent partner should understand why you didn’t tell the service but wanted to manage the disclosure yourself.
Some years ago, a married couple who are dear friends to me and my husband got into serious financial trouble. Significant medical bills and months without jobs caused these friends to get behind on their house payment and other bills. When my husband learned that their house was about to go into foreclosure, he had me deliver a check for a few thousand dollars to them. I later asked my husband if this was a loan or a gift. My husband said that issue wasn’t discussed. They just needed financial help, and we were willing to give it. These are wonderful people. Over the next year, we gave them more money. Each time I delivered these additional checks, I stated, “Just pay us back when you can.”
Fortunately, their financial situation improved not long after, with the husband getting a new job that pays handsomely and includes substantial health benefits. In the ensuing years, they made improvements to their home, bought new furniture and appliances and took vacations. Yet they have not repaid us one cent or mentioned any repayment plans.
I am loath to ask for repayment; I feel it is incumbent upon them to begin paying us back without our asking for it. While I am willing to consider the first money a gift (although I’d rather not), I clearly noted that the other money should be paid back to us. As my husband and I are nearing retirement, that money would be useful for our retirement account. Do we ask for repayment, or do we consider this a lesson learned the hard way? Name Withheld
The moral matter is straightforward: They’re spending money on things that aren’t among life’s necessities, and you indicated that the money — or at least some of it — was a loan. On their part, I agree, the decent thing would have been to assume that all the money was a loan and not leave it to you to collect on it. There are reasons that recipients of generosity can respond poorly to it; they can feel humiliated, and therefore resentful. But nothing like this, it seems, has tinctured their relationship with you — in your book, they’re still wonderful people.
Seneca, the first-century Stoic, wrote that givers, ideally, should forget that they have given (it was obnoxious, he warned, to keep telling people what you did for them), while receivers should never forget having received. In fact, he thought that forgetting a benefit made you “the worst and most ungrateful” of beneficiaries. Had your friends mentally filed away your largess as a gift? In certain respects, it was one: The money was what financial professionals might call a “gift loan” — the sort of loan meant for tiding over friends in distress.
And you were doing so with some sensitivity. When you said, “Pay us back when you can,” you may have been looking after your welfare, but you were also affirming that yours was a relationship of equality and that you didn’t see yourself as a patron. (Among Romans of Seneca’s day, a central social relationship was a hierarchical one between the patronus and his cliens, the benefactor and his beneficiaries.) In our interpersonal dealings, emotional generosity often requires that we disguise financial generosity. Even if a rich friend doesn’t care whether you pay back the money she gave you, she might salve your ego by assuring you that it’s just a loan. But the system works best if one really does make the effort to repay the debt. In this case, the money you provided was plainly significant to you. These good friends of yours are, in at least this respect, bad friends.
So try to think of a tactful and affectionate way of asking them about repayment. Doing so carries a risk: It could embarrass them and take a toll on a relationship you value. But a friendship involves the good will of two parties, and this unpaid debt is preying on your mind. Your refraining from mentioning it, I fear, could also cause your friendship to suffer. Possibly it already has?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)