Why loyalty is not always a virtue

We think of loyalty and fidelity as virtues and they can be.

But like any qualities they can turn on you. The terms are also frequently misapplied.

We need to ask – 

  • Is this the right word for what I am dealing with?
  • To whom or what am I loyal?  

Relationships in any arena bring the complexity of these questions into sharp relief.

Many bullies at work are not exposed because victims do not come forward, fearing retribution. This is not an unrealistic fear but anchored in real concern for job security and sometimes safety.

But it is not loyalty.

Those in abusive relationships can experience a bizarre loyalty to their persecutors. Although these dynamics are highly complex traumatic bonding is a well-documented survival technique. Many wo/men stay with abusive partners too long.

But is this loyalty?

No. It’s denial, or fear.

As Leslie Morgan Steiner says in her compelling talk on why people put up with abuse the consequences can be dire, even death.

Either way, we need to call it what it is.

Naming is just a start. We don’t know something because we name it, it just provides a starting point to untangle what is going on.

Fidelity is similar and I am not just talking about the sexual variety, although that gets a lot of attention. That is because an affair requires intention and secrecy.

There’s also the insidious infidelity we go along with in daily life.

  1. Do you accept someone’s beliefs at the cost of your own?
  2. Study a profession you hate because of pressure?
  3. Stay in an unhealthy situation because you’re invested in what things look like to the outside world?
  4. Do you go along, tag along, or keep quiet when others ask you to buy into something you’re not uncomfortable with because you want to be liked, accepted, included? Gossip? Prejudice?

There are many people who aren’t sexist, for example, but aren’t strong enough to hold this position in a pack that thinks differently.

What is the cost of fidelity to another, if it is rooted in self-betrayal?

To whom or what do I owe my fidelity?

You have to ask the question.

And I am not saying there are simple answers.

People may not like it if you disagree with them but you can’t put their views wholly above yours. This is not the same as recognising the need for compromise. Without being self-centred, make fidelity to yourself a higher calling than pleasing other people. Include your needs in a considered way that incorporates respect for but not deference to others.

Being faithful to ourselves can be equally problematic when we don’t examine our ideology.

We can confuse conviction with doggedness. Hang onto ideas, failing to recognize that they were never ours to begin with, that we inherited or acquiesced to them or didn’t question if what we believed at 16 was still relevant at 60. As Julian Baggini says, the self is not fixed; but endlessly created.

Ever heard a cheat shrug off accountability by saying ‘It’s just the way I am’, followed by s/he made me, tempted me, we weren’t getting along so well at the time, it was your fault, it didn’t mean anything. That’s not true. They made a decision. Better to rephrase it as such. ‘I made a decision.’ Then the talking can begin.

People make complex agreements in relationships. What one couple accepts another may consider intolerable. There are no single or simple answers to how we should behave.

Having faith in an idea can be as good as it can be bad.

Look at the hatred people inherit, hurting those they’ve never met because of events they’ve never experienced that have nothing to do with people alive today.

Are you faithful only to only your idea of what the right structures are? Of what a perfect job, relationship or family should look like? Is it more important to you that a ‘happy family’ fits your blueprint of 1 married woman + 1 married man with 2 kids? Or is your real interest in wellbeing? That people are nurtured?

To whom or what are you loyal?

Questioning loyalty is not an excuse to bow out of difficult situations because you’re bored or at the first sign of trouble. Disagreements are natural and critical for growth.

Good relationships are not about agreeing with each other. Having shared values can be but isn’t automatically a good thing. We need to hold values up to the light and examine them. You can share the same values as someone else and together use them destructively.

It’s powerful to have an underlying philosophy that guides you. For example, being kind is a wonderful focusing principle. You can live it and recognise that being kind is not a synonym for saying ‘yes’ or being nice. Kindness can be brutal.

Remember that:

  • Loyalty can be misguided.
  • Fidelity can come at the cost of self-betrayal.
  • Being faithful can mask self-righteousness.

Any virtue can be a vice. Question everything.



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