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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #84, 4/27/2007

The Dilemma of Dependence

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

The Dilemma of Dependence is a fundamental and recurring problem of human relationships. Once we become involved in someone's life, they may become dependent on us, and we may feel an emotional sense of obligation to them. This "web of dependence" may make it difficult for us to disengage from them even when the relationship is not the best for ourselves, for them or for the mission we are both pursuing.

A simple case is the hiring and firing of employees. When selecting a new employee from a field of applicants, there is nothing to prevent us from choosing the best objective candidate. Since we have little emotional involvement with any one candidate, we can presumably make the decision dispassionately based only on their qualifications and personality traits.

Once we have hired someone, however, the burden tends to shift. When we have worked with this person for a while, they essentially become a member of our family, and we feel a natural obligation not to hurt them. As a result, we tend not to fire them unless we have "cause" — that is, when they have done something significantly and unquestionably wrong. We no longer demand that they live up to the higher expectations we had when we first hired them.

In large organizations, this tendency is often codified in a union contract. It is easy enough to hire someone, but firing a mediocre worker who belongs to the union can be extremely difficult. It can involve many warnings and second chances and lots of paperwork. The employer essentially has to prove that the employee isn't doing their job rather than the employee showing that they continue to be better than all the other candidates.

Where there is no union, then natural human loyalty tends to do the same thing. When an employee is "nice" and "is doing their best" and we learn that they are struggling to feed six children, we may be willing to accept a lot of mediocrity and unintentional incompetence before we fire them. The effects are the same as the union: We have to document some glaring defects and perhaps be facing an external crisis of our own before we are willing to make the hard choices.

Romantic relationships often turn out the same way. We can be very selective on the front end, but once we have engaged with someone emotionally, it can be extraordinarily difficult to disengage, even when we know that the relationship isn't the best for us or them. We need to have substantial grounds before we deliberately disengage, and absent this, we are likely to stick with the same dull relationship year after year.

There are plenty of valid reasons to hold onto a longtime employee or romantic partner. With all their years of experience, they may know the job (and you) better than anyone else and thus may truly be the best candidate year after year. If you had the chance to hire them again, without any obligations, you very well might do so.

Years of service, however, don't always guarantee the best employee. There are many psychological factors that can confound the benefits of experience. After working for you for a while and feeling secure in his position, the employee is likely to revert to his natural personality, which may not have been evident in the initial interview. Ideally, the relationship is an equal partnership where you each receive as much as you give, but over time the burdens can easily shift to one side, with one person doing most of the giving and the other doing most of the taking.

This isn't usually a deliberate decision, and it may not be anyone's "fault," but over time many close relationships degenerate into a parent-child dynamic, with one person becoming caregiver and the other requiring care. This is fine for real children, who will presumably grow out of it, but it is not a wholesome relationship for adults.

An ideal adult relationship is one of equal benefit — a mutual give-and-take that substantially improves the lives of both parties. In practice, however, this balance is difficult to maintain, especially when each partner has no discretion to pull away. Any inequality tends to get worse with time, and eventually obligation may be keeping you together more than reward.

These dependencies can sneak up on you. On the day you got married or hired your employee, it certainly seemed like things would be equal, but that assumption was based mostly on hypothesis, not actual data. Unfortunately, the longitudinal data in any social system doesn't always match the initial theory.

With experience, you may begin to see defects that you weren't aware of before the hiring. "No problem," you say. "I can work with that." You make accommodations, and then you make more accommodations, and eventually you are admitting to your therapist that this isn't the relationship you thought it would be. But will you take action? Probably not. Given your emotional investments, not to mention your financial ones, things must usually deteriorate even further before you are pushed into action.

You may say of your marriage partner, "Sure he's an alcoholic, but I understand why. He had a terrible childhood. He would be devastated without me. If I left him, he would probably drink even worse. When we got married, I said, 'For better or worse,' and 'Til death do you part,' and I intend to fulfill my obligations. Whatever problems he has, I can work with them. This isn't about me; the important thing is the health of our whole family."

Indeed, that is the most important issue: the health of the whole system. This requires a wider and longer view than ones emotional obligation to a single person.

In every human relationship, there is usually a bigger issue at stake than the relationship itself. You have joined with this person to pursue some higher goal, and in the end this mission must take priority.

In the case of employees, you are trying to get a job done. You are trying to produce a product or provide a service. This is the whole reason you are here. It is where the money comes from that allows you to hire anyone at all. Anything you may feel about one employee—positively or negatively—can't stand in the way of the job you have been given to do. If you don't believe in that job, then get out! If you do believe in it, then you have to give it priority over your perceived emotional obligations to individual players.

Romantic relationships also have purpose apart from just "love." Love alone doesn't carry you very far. A romantic relationship, in the long term, is primarily a tool of growth. If you are experiencing some kind of ongoing personal development that you would have not have had otherwise, then the relationship is probably working. If the relationship is static and going nowhere, then it is merely an obligation. Being "in love" is nice, but it isn't the main mission. There is also some product that you have to get out of it — at least a better you than when you went in.

Apart from this one person, there are also other people in your world who depend on you. This could include your other employees, your clients, your children and the potential partners and employees who you have had exclude to support this one. Your obligation to all of them is as great or greater than your obligation to the one employee.

If you have ten talented employees and one mediocre one, then you are inevitably damaging the ten by catering to the one. You are lowering your standards and turning resources away from support of the ten. Likewise, if you remain involved in a dysfunctional romantic relationship, it is not just you and them who are being hurt. There are also all your other friends and family members who are going to suffer whenever you do because they, too, are part of your "system."

This system includes your own productivity. You have an obligation, above all, to your own future. For the good of humanity, you need to become the most productive and effective instrument you can be. You need to be able to pursue your mission to the best of your ability. You may not know now what that mission will be, but it certainly doesn't involve dumping your resources down a black hole.

The Dilemma of Dependence is one of the most difficult challenges of life. There are no easy answers, and there are plenty of risks no matter what you choose. It's easy enough to fall in love or hire an employee. It is never easy to fire someone or get a divorce.

The one thing you shouldn't do is stick your head in the sand. If you do, then years are going to pass with little change. When you take your head out of the sand, the problem will still be there, but you will have lost all those years in the interim.

—G.C.




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