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Moral Licensing in Relationships

by Kayla McCullough

Photo by luiisrtz from Pexels

Moral licensing – the way that good people explain destructive behaviors.

Have you ever been on a diet, eaten healthy for a day, followed it up with a good sweaty workout later in the evening, and then rewarded yourself with a heaping pile of ice cream? Or maybe it's the extreme – you've stopped sleeping around and finally found someone you could commit to, only to turn around and run back to an ex when an argument broke out because you "don't deserve" anything less than the "perfect" relationship? Sound familiar? I know I'm not an innocent bystander to either theory.

Most of us like to think our moral compass is intact and always points due north. If we do something wrong, we feel guilty and say we won't do it again. However, we also tend to get into the habit of balancing out our good and bad decisions. It explains when people initially behave morally, they are more likely to display behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or problematic in other ways later. Life Coach Chantinique Langston describes moral licensing as "an area that a lot of people don't think about when it comes to their daily interactions with others and how they influence behavior." She explains that "Moral Licensing in itself, is something that we all should overcome. What does that mean? It simply means that moral licensing could sabotage what we are trying to achieve in our lives."


While there's nothing inherently wrong with rewarding yourself for good behavior, Langston is correct when she says that it can sabotage your success if done frequently – especially if it is emerging in your relationships. But why is it happening in the first place? Well, the answer is highlighted when you ask yourself who you are as a person.

We all have an image of ourselves in our minds. Generally, its a photo that includes things like physical, emotional, and social statures that we project into the world. When we're faced with a decision and ask ourselves, "am I the kind of person who…" that's our way of determining whether the behavior we are considering aligns with our self-image. So, the reason why we perform in moral licensing is to preserve our self-image. When things go array, we are influenced by how we see ourselves when our willpower and morality compete. But what's going on internally when this happens?

Before we begin, it's important to note that your brain doesn't seek perfection; it just makes sure that you stay in a specific range between positive and negative self-image. We do this because we expect our higher-selves to exercise better judgment and more self-control than what our current-self has. So, the next time we divulge in an impulse, we promise ourselves to make the right choice next time. This theory may seem confusing at first, but it's imperative to understand when it comes to a healthy relationship. Langston says it best, "When you incorporate some serious discipline, it will bring so much balance and peace into your mind, body and spirit. Moral Licensing would be obsolete regarding building healthy relationships."

So how do you avoid moral licensing? First, know that your brain will always look for an excuse to balance the self-image ledger, so don't set yourself up for failure and frame your behaviors in terms of morality and think about it in goals. Langston says, "When it comes to relationships, you want to overcome moral licensing by having goals and values in place to build healthy relationships. Building relationships takes time and determination for individuals to work on their goals together and hold each other accountable for their actions. The primary weapon you have is…mindfulness. It improves your awareness of what's going on within and around you and makes it much easier to recognize a moral licensing situation as it's happening."

Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic behaviors. Anyone can fall victim to giving themselves excuses. But when it comes to contradicting something or someone we love, these behaviors remind us that we can't excuse actions that we would otherwise avoid.

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