BACKGROUND: Theoretical literature in the intellectual disability (ID) field identified a mismatch between professional codes of practice (which assume clients to be 'autonomous') and the reality of fostering autonomy for people with ID (who at times are completely dependent on others). This research aimed to understand how professionals bridged this disjunction and actually provided ethical services with this client group. METHOD: Nine professionals from adult ID services who had consulted with local Ethical Advisory Groups were interviewed about their experience of addressing an ethical issue within their work. Accounts were subjected to narrative analysis. RESULTS: Professionals' narratives featured the following themes: differing sources of conflict, professional vulnerability and seeking validation around resolution, centrality of relationships, fragility of resolutions and maintaining moral integrity. CONCLUSIONS: Findings revealed systemic pressure on professionals to find 'definitive' solutions to ethical dilemmas when the issues were not open to such resolution. Findings were reviewed in light of ethical literature that shows how professionals' work inevitably features close and enduring relationships with people with ID. We suggest professionals need to draw on ethical frameworks that can accommodate relational aspects of their practice.