One of the five Buddhist precepts is “Do not take anything not freely given”. The same commandment appears as “Do not steal” in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 20:15 and Leviticus 19:11) and the Western religions that grew from it. One way of thinking about that commandment is to realize that taking what is rightfully in one person’s domain is theft unless done with that person’s explicit permission.
Showing love means to avoid hurting another if at all possible. One way in which a person can hurt another is to transgress their “boundaries” — that is, violate what should be in their domain, protected by their autonomy.
What can be stolen
- Time. Once again, one of our most precious resources is our time. One of my favorite clergy persons precedes each service with his own personal prayer, “Please, God, let me not waste their time.” Holding someone hostage to hear a story or bear witness when he or she has not volunteered is stealing their time.
- Attention. Similarly, kidnapping their attention is stealing. We once watched a child observe a mobile sculpture at the Sausalito Art Fair with rapt curiosity and awe. His father insisted that his son shift his attention to something that interested the father. We labeled that “A Sausalito Moment” and ever since use the phrase if one of us begins to hijack the attention of the other when it is engaged.
- Property. When one thinks of theft, a first reference point is often property. “You used my toothbrush without asking me?” “You took the car without permission?” “That bagel was mine. I was saving it for tomorrow!” Whenever distinctions between personal and community property are unclear, the possibility of property theft looms large.
- Space. Another important resource we have as individuals and in relationships is space. Like property or time, it can be stolen if boundaries are not negotiated. Assuming it is okay to sleep in someone else’s bed — without asking their permission — or to eat their uneaten dinner off their plate (again, without permission) — violates space.
- Decisions. One of the most precious ethical mandates for psychologists (General Principle E) is to respect people’s autonomy. That means that their decisions must be honored unless there is reason to believe that the person is gravely disabled or otherwise cannot make responsible decisions. When a person makes a decision and expresses it and their voice is ignored, theft is occurring.
How stealing can happen
Failing to ask. The easiest way to avoid stealing is simply to ask. Would you like…? Do you want…? May I…? I would like…. is that okay with you? You get the idea.
- Disregarding a request. Once a loved one has announced a request — especially entreating you to do or not do something specific — ignoring that request is stealing. It is treating the person as invisible or, perhaps worse, less entitled to identify what they want than you are.
- Intruding. Intrusive parents who respond to babies based on their own needs rather than those of the infant breed children with insecure attachments. The outcome can look preoccupied, dismissive or disorganized, but it is not going to support the child learning to trust adults and through them, themselves. Barging in on some else’s private space, thoughts, attention, or choices is stealing.
- Pretending what you want is okay. Sometimes a need is so strong that a person is unable to see the wants and needs of the loved one. We are sometimes so invested in our own image of “being a good person” or doing what is “helpful” or “loving” — read what we ourselves might want or what we were exposed to as a child — that we override messages from the other person to act in their interest, and instead we act in ours.
- An abstract idea of “being good”. A common motivation for this kind of stealing is simply to be “good” or “do the right thing”. The motivation is so rooted in personal conviction that there is no room to look at the situation from multiple perspectives, including that of the loved one. Of course your rules are “right”!
- Making assumptions about what the other wants or needs. Similarly, you may be convinced that you know the other person’s wants and needs better than he or she does. Unless there is agreement about who gets to define whose needs when for what purposes, these assumptions are bound to end up in thievery.
- Wanting what you want and taking it. This explanation can emerge from two pathways. You might assume that there is only one worldview and therefore everyone shares your perspective and a desire to provide you with what you want. Alternately, a narcissistic entitlement may kick in and you cannot imagine that anyone could disagree with you having what you want: “what is yours is yours and what is anyone else’s is also yours.”
- Disagreeing with boundaries that have been set. Finally, boundaries may have been stated and even agreed to. However, a passive aggressive way to resist accepting those decisions is to just ignore them, perhaps quietly responding, “Oh, I forgot” or “I didn’t think you really meant that.” This one is tricky because it can masquerade as occurring with the most honorable intentions. Nonetheless, it is perhaps the most destructive to managing a love relationship using open communication along with exploration and negotiation when there are differences or conflicts.
Have you had a loved one steal from you? How did that feel? How did you respond? What was the impact on the relationship? Have you stolen from a loved one? What motivated you? Were you able to repair the transgression?
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