Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Milking the Cow?: I have been dating a wonderful, handsome, caring man for almost three years. The first two years we enjoyed a wonderful life, but lived separately. About three months ago we decided to move in with each other, and two weeks after we moved in together, his son’s mother fell into a near coma due to drinking. My boyfriend’s son (who is 8) is now with us permanently and will probably be for a long time. My issue here is that I am now a mom and wife without the badge. My boyfriend has said he’s “just not there yet” when it comes to marriage and that he would only marry me at this point to make me happy. I feel kinda duped and stuck now that I am living with him and his child and he doesn’t see us getting married. Meanwhile, I am very successful professionally, still quite young (30), and a complete catch! How can he not want to marry me!? What should I do?
A: Your situation raises general and (heartbreakingly) specific issues. On the general front, I know that living together has become an almost standard precursor for marriage, but my concern about it is reflected in the many letters I get such as yours. That is, women (yes, it’s almost always a woman) write in that it just seemed like the right time to move in together—living apart was time consuming and expensive—but then the years go by and the young woman is wondering when the question will be popped and the ring proffered. She reluctantly brings up questions of the future, which get deflected with an “I’m not ready.” “Stop pressuring me.” “You’ll ruin the surprise.” It’s discouraging to see young women who are world-beaters finding their personal lives stuck in some 1950s dynamic where all the power goes to the guy. Situations such as yours are why I advise that couples have very clear, agreed-upon mutual goals and timelines before moving in. That way neither person feels that they are in some kind of permanent probation.
As for your specific situation, you are in love with a man with a young child, and it couldn’t have been a secret that this boy’s mother had a serious drinking problem. So you two needed to have some serious talks about your expectations for your involvement in this child’s life. I can understand that your boyfriend feels burned by marriage, but his reluctance has huge implications for your future. I would hate to see more disruption in a vulnerable child’s life. But you are only a few months into the role of sort of stepmother in his life. You sound ambivalent about it. Additionally, if you want marriage and children of your own, and your boyfriend just doesn’t see that, better to get out now, than years down the road as your fertility becomes an ever bigger issue. This child needs love, security, consistency, and special handling. He doesn’t need a pissed-off pseudo-mother in his life. You don’t necessarily have to break up with your boyfriend, but get some distance on the situation by re-establishing your own domicile.
Dear Prudence: Lesbian on the Brink
Q. Jealous of Boyfriend and Best Friend: Lately my boyfriend has taken to texting and calling my best friend for advice about me when we get in arguments. I know there is nothing suspicious going on, and their conversations are mostly brief, but I can’t help but be hurt by the idea of them talking about me in such a context. I love both of them but am jealous that he feels so comfortable talking to her when we have so many communication issues ourselves. We have a son together and lots of financial stressors, so communicating is not always easy. I’m especially upset because now the person that I vent to is coming back at me with her own opinion, when it used to be nice to just have someone who’d listen. I told my boyfriend how I felt and he took it badly, saying that he had no one else to talk to who understands me. He basically threw his hands up and said, “Fine! I’ll keep everything inside then. I won’t talk to her since it’s obviously a problem.” This just made me feel worse. I’m happy that my boyfriend and best friend get along so well, but I wish he’d find his own friends to talk to. Am I right or should I just be grateful that he is seeking out advice about how to better our relationship?
A: You need a couple of professionals in your life. First a gynecologist who can get you on a very reliable form of birth control, because you don’t want to be bringing any more children into such a volatile situation. Next, you need short-term couple’s counseling. I know you’ve got financial stress, but I’m hoping one of you has insurance that might cover say four sessions with a counselor. Someone with a master’s in social work often charges less than a psychologist and can be just as helpful. Think of it as investment in your future together as a family. You two need ways to talk things out together and to respect each other’s boundaries. I agree he is violating yours and playing with some pretty volatile substances here. You also need to tell your friend that for the sake of your friendship she needs to stop being referee for your relationship because it’s hurting everyone’s trust.
Q. Fiancé and Fanatical Giving: My boyfriend of three years and I are getting married in December. I am so excited! He is perfect many in many ways. There is one thing; however, that bothers me to the point of tears the times we have discussed it. He gives 10 percent of his income to his church. Yes, it is a good church, hardly a cult. And, we have agreed on a “mine, yours, ours” method of family financing. So, his 10 percent to his church, over $8,000 a year, will come out of his sole funds. This seems so foolish to me! When I ask him about it, he simply explains it as his way of thanking God. God is for free, right? I don’t get it. And I really need to get some advice on how to get him to tone down his giving to a more sensible donation.
A: This is more than a financial question. It goes to his deepest feelings and essential values. As you say, he is not giving $8,000 to a cult or spending it on pornography. He makes a good income and tithing is one of the things that is, to him, a necessary expense in order to be a decent person. Let’s say his hobby was motorcycles and he spent $8,000 on maintenance, travel, etc. You might be sobbing over the waste or you might say, “Hey, it makes him happy.” It’s important for couples to talk over financial issues, and good that you two are doing it. But his contribution is not putting him in debt or threatening your financial stability. Your harping on and crying about it is emotionally manipulative. He surely thinks that you are perfect in many ways, but not in one big one: You want to interfere with his relationship with God. Tread lightly lest you bring down unwanted wrath.
Q. Re: Milking the cow: This question breaks my heart for the boyfriend’s child. This boy’s mother has a serious medical trauma, and his dad’s girlfriend is complaining about the living vs. marriage arrangements? Original LW, please, please try to approach this with compassion. Your opportunity to provide a loving stable home for this boy should be looked at as a gift. Also, I would hope for everyone’s sake (yours, your boyfriend’s, and his son’s) that you are making decisions about this relationship and cohabitation based on whether you are happy now and not “counting on” some future happiness. If you only see living together as a dress rehearsal for marriage, and not as a wonderful opportunity on its own merits, you have moved in together for the wrong reasons.
A: Yes this boy needs to be the focus of his father’s life. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for a child who has suffered so much trauma. But I disagree that the letter writer should see this as an opportunity to provide a stable home for the child apart from her long-term needs. If her long-term needs conflict with those of her boyfriend’s, there goes the stability for the child. I think it’s better for her to bow out now than disappear in a year or two.
Q. Dividing Up Parents’ Home: My parents both passed away after lengthy illnesses. I have three siblings and toward the end of my parents’ lives, we were fortunate enough to share the responsibility of caring for them and making important decisions amicably. That being said, this is still an emotional drain on us and we are all feeling raw. My sister “Anna” is a very nostalgic person in general and has been taking this process harder than the rest of us. This weekend we have to go through my parents’ house and sort items to keep, sell, donate, or toss. Here is the problem: Anna will attach a meaning and a story to every. single. thing. Then she will want to talk about the item and reminisce about our parents. Of course I expect us to do this about some sentimental items. But there is nothing sentimental about our parents’ toaster. Everybody grieves differently, and I do not want to hurt Anna further by snapping at her or looking cold and indifferent to her emotions. But I’m also not sure I can spend the entire time with Anna without getting frustrated, not to mention it will take us a long time to go through a household at that pace. Is this something I should just suck up or is it worth a conversation with Anna? If so, how would that conversation go?
A: You can respect her process of grieving by asking her to respect yours. As you all are getting ready to tackle this task, you can say to her that you know talking about the memories attached to the objects helps her, but for you it’s more painful than cathartic. You can say that to get through the house-emptying, you just need to put a lid on your emotions and methodically, objectively, focus on the task at hand. Tell her that when you’ve sorted the objects you’re keeping from the ones you’re giving away, you’d be happy to discuss the memories they evoke. But when you have that conversation, you should feel free to say, “Anna, I have to stop here. I need to limit how much time I spend thinking about the past because it makes getting through the present harder.”
Q. Re: Fiancé and Fanatical Giving: I think you missed a broader point. This couple needs to have some serious pre-marriage counseling to address their clearly different religious views. Most people who tithe (which literally means to give one-tenth) do so based upon strongly held religious beliefs. The LW evidently believes those beliefs are “foolish.” This seems like a recipe for disaster.
A: An excellent point. You’re right, this is not just a financial issue but a matter of belief, and her dismissal of his deeply held views is concerning.
Q. Rebound Whiplash: Our daughter split from her beau of three years and within two months was engaged to a new guy who baffles us. He barely speaks, has stayed in our home on two occasions for days at a time and never offers to help out (setting table, cooking, clearing or heaven forbid, treating us to a hostess gift, meal out or even a thank you note). Our daughter gets very defensive about him, saying he’s her soul mate, so we have stopped trying to talk her out of it. But what advice can you give us when this oddball mooch visits again? Our tongues are raw from being bitten!
A: It certainly sounds as if in order to cut short the mourning over a relationship that fell short, she decided to marry a guy who falls short. I should say that I met my husband right after ending a relationship of several years and that we got engaged after knowing each other for six weeks. The clear difference is that my husband is great! Let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt and say he’s an extreme introvert. However, not having the gift of gab is different from not being able to clear your plate. But your issue is not how to get the guy to set the table, it’s your concern that your daughter is making a huge life decision from a position of weakness. Since you say she gets defensive about him, you’ve obviously been rebuffed in your efforts to discuss this. So I suggest shifting from your concerns over his character to the timing of their engagement. Talk to her privately when they aren’t both staying at your house. Say of course she’s an adult and free to make her own decisions, but since you love her more than anyone, you just want to counsel her to take her time before rushing into marriage. Then when he shows up with him next, don’t wait for him to help, just assign him some tasks, preferably in front of your daughter. “Damien, would you mind setting the table—the dishes are there and flatware in that drawer.” If he refuses let it hang in the air without further commentary.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
Our commenting guidelines can be found here.