Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Relationship ultimatum: I am 53. My boyfriend is 40. We have been dating for 18 months, I spend most nights at his place, and we function well as a couple—with one exception. I was a complete secret from his mother. For reasons he refused to share, he would not tell his mother I existed. I refused to move in with him because of this. I met his dad and cooked dinner for the both of them at my house. I met his friends and went out frequently with them. But when his mother visited, I had to make sure all of my things were out of his place so that she didn’t suspect he was anything other than a confirmed bachelor.
Initially, he said that I should just trust him on his reasons. And I did not begrudge him a day here or there with his mom. But I finally tired of this “secret” after I wasn’t able to be included in his birthday, New Year’s Eve, and other special events. I told him that he must tell her, or else I wouldn’t keep dating him. I told him that the situation made me wonder if he might be concealing other things from me.
Long story short, because we generally communicate well and I am not given to being unreasonable or making idle threats, he told his mom. And her reaction was positive. But as is usually the case with ultimatums, I now feel like a very bad person for forcing his hand, and I still feel hesitant to move in together. What do you think? Is it ever appropriate to give such ultimatums?
A: I think the situation you were in called for an ultimatum, and I’m glad you gave your boyfriend one. An ultimatum isn’t always about forcing hands or demanding unreasonable things. You made it clear that, after a year and a half together, you weren’t interested in continuing the relationship if he continued to treat you like a dirty little secret. That was the right thing to do, and you should be proud of yourself for demanding to be treated like a partner instead of a shameful habit.
The reason you still feel hesitant to move in together isn’t because you were wrong to set a clear limit. I think it’s because you’re letting yourself really experience the full weight of your frustration and resentment now that you’ve realized your partner was unfairly claiming the secrecy and shame was necessary. He said his mother would freak out if she knew, when in fact she seems fine with it. That means he was clearing out your stuff and hustling you out the door every time she visited because he wanted to. What’s worse, he’s never been willing or able to tell you why he did it, and now he wants you to move in with him without ever discussing that year-and-a-half-long routine. The problem wasn’t that you offered him an ultimatum, the problem is that he wants to increase your intimacy and commitment by moving in together without first having an honest conversation about why he did something that hurt you for so long.