Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I am dating a man I have known since grade school. I really admire him for his sense of humor, charisma, intelligence, kindness and good heart. We have been friends for many years, but only decided to date each other a few years ago. Our first round lasted only a few months, because he felt he couldn't handle how fast things were moving and how strongly he felt about me. He worked with a therapist to help him overcome his anxiety and some other issues, and several months ago, he felt that he was ready to date seriously for marriage. So we started things up again and so far, it’s going well.
He’s 27, I’m 25, and we both come from tumultuous family backgrounds. We don't have a successful marriage at home to use as a model. We are both only children -- we both have selfish tendencies, so it's a bit tricky. We’re both working on trying to be more giving to the other. I’ve also been doing research -- reading articles on marriage and speaking to married couples, to learn more about what makes a good marriage. Based on what I’ve learned, I think we have many components of a good relationship -- excellent communication and problem-solving abilities, genuine caring for each other, and the ability to compromise for each other
I know that other men have built careers for themselves, have more responsibilities and are more grown up than him. Yes, he needs to grow in terms of career and independence, but I am willing to give that a bit more time and then reevaluate in six months.
In the meantime, many people -- like my parents and friends -- are telling me that he is wrong for me, and that he's holding me back. Why are all these people jumping to conclusions? Are they truly looking out for me? Maybe they have their own agenda? This intrusion is making it hard for me to give this courtship the chance I think it deserves. After all, this is the rest of my life we are talking about! Why should I give up on someone who I laugh so hard with, have so much fun with, care about so much, and communicate so well with? I have my eyes wide open, even though I know I am somewhat infatuated. What's wrong with at least giving this a chance?
We can understand your concern. You and this man have invested energy into your growth as individuals and as a couple, and are willing to continue to work to improve. You care deeply about each other and hope that you'll eventually feel prepared to build a life together. And yet at the same time, people who care about you, and whose judgment you usually trust, are expressing deep concerns about the future of this relationship.
It's been our experience that many times, friends and family who express concerns about a developing relationship have identified actual or potential problems that the dating couple either cannot see, rationalizes away, or chooses to ignore. It's true that nobody can be completely objective; they may only be seeing part of a situation and might feel differently if they knew more information, and their feelings may be colored by a clash of personalities or ideology. Nevertheless, when more than one or two people who are close to you express similar worries, we strongly recommend considering it seriously.
Let's look at each of the potentially problematic issues that you mentioned in your letter and discuss them.
You both come from difficult family background. Marriage can be a big challenge to anyone who was raised in a home that didn't provide a role model to emulate in their own marriage. That doesn't mean someone coming from such a home can't be a stable, loving, giving partner in a strong marriage -- in fact, many men and women whose parents did not have a harmonious home life go on to have successful marriages. But it requires effort, and usually outside help.
The research you’ve done is a good first step toward developing the skills and tools that can help each of you become a capable partner in a healthy marriage. You can read books about marriage and talk to happily married couples, to become aware of the issues and methods of a good relationship.
# With a less-than-ideal family background, you’ll need practical experience.
In our experience, when both dating partners come from less-than-ideal backgrounds, they also need experience putting the "theory" to practice. This can be done to a limited degree while you are dating. But since a dating situation typically involves acting on your best behavior without any serious challenges or points of disagreement, this may leave you unprepared for the interactions and approaches to challenges that married couples have to deal with.
So even though you believe that you and this man have excellent communication and problem-solving abilities and can compromise for each other, it's likely that you only have limited experience with these and that you could greatly benefit from continuing to strengthen these areas. That’s why we strongly recommend participating in a premarital and/or early marriage workshop, such as the six-part workshops in the Prepare and Enrich program -- prepare-enrich.com, and its counterpart in Israel -- choiceoftheheart.org. You could also meet one-on-one with a counselor or therapist specializing in relationship-building. (By the way, these workshops are helpful for all engaged couples to smooth their transition to married life.)
An important question for you to consider is whether your concerns about building “relationship skills” is an area that this man is similarly focused on. Does he recognize the challenges you face because of your respective backgrounds? If so, what has he done to address these challenges? Is he open to the idea of learning better ways than what he observed growing up? In your situation, it's important that this be a joint effort, not a one-sided one.
Another significant concern for us is your statement that this man needs more time to grow "in terms of career and independence." It sounds like he doesn't have a job and is being financially supported by someone else. Granted, the economy is pretty bad, and that may be the reason he isn't working right now. In addition, he may be receiving help because he only recently finished school and has been searching for work or, if he was working, couldn't make it on his entry-level salary.
But it could also be that he's not self-sufficient because he lacks motivation, capabilities, or the skills and temperament to keep a job. Here is where you have to be brutally honest with yourself: Is his situation primarily due to the economy, or is his own lack of maturity and motivation the real culprit? If it's the latter, then we can't see how your investing a few more months into this relationship will make much of a difference.
To get clarity on this issue, try pondering the following questions:
• Has he ever worked, even at something that isn't his ideal job?
• What did he do, what was his attitude toward his job, what kind of an employee was he, how long did the job last, what was the reason it ended?
• What about the rest of his job history?
• What is his attitude about finding work now? What does he do to try to find work?
• Is he a go-getter, or does he wait for things to come his way?
• Is he a team player?
• Does he ever show an inclination and ability to work hard for a goal or a project?
• While he is looking for a job, how does he fill his day? Does he engage in creative work, community projects, spiritual enrichment, learning new job skills?
• Does he have goals, and is he following a plan to accomplish them over the next six months, one year, and five years?
• Is he financially responsible -- i.e. meeting his financial obligations and living within his means?
We also suggest that you explore whether your answers to questions about this man’s job history also have a connection to your statement that he lacks independence. Is it possible that he has trouble making decisions on his own, or perhaps has a hard time acting independently of his parents? If this is still a problem for a 27-year-old man, he will need the help and support of a third party, such as a therapist, to take the steps to individuate and separate from his parents. It is crucial that this be accomplished before getting married, not after.
Friends & Family
Finally, after all that's been said, we would like you to bear in mind that you can't build a marriage only on a partner's sense of humor, charisma, intelligence, kindness and good heart. Sometimes, a person can have all of that, but not be emotionally ready for marriage, or mature enough, or even stable enough. And you haven't said anything about your respective life goals and values. If they're not compatible, they'll always be a source of conflict. It’s important that you take a good look at your relationship, and see if these key indicators are present.
In the final analysis, it may well be that your friends and relatives have a legitimate basis for their concerns. And it's important for you to explore them honestly. You may come to the conclusion that you've been overly optimistic and this man lacks the maturity or motivation to develop your relationship into one that can lead to marriage. But if you conclude that he also recognizes the challenges you both face and is working hard to meet them, it might be worthwhile for you to continue to work together to do so. You may benefit from a therapist or other third-party to help facilitate your progress.
We agree that you should set a time frame to accomplish some clearly-defined objectives. This will give you something concrete to work toward and will help you stay focused. At the end of the time period, evaluate the efforts and progress each of you has made. You may both feel that you are going in the right direction and are closer to where you need to be in order to become engaged. But if you don't feel that you've moved forward enough, or if you appear to be making considerably more of an effort than he has, we'd question whether it is worthwhile to continue.
We wish you success in navigating the dating maze.
Rosie & Sherry