Dear Dr. Tobin,

I am a 44-year-old woman engaged to a 31-year-old man. We have been dating for almost four years and engaged for three years now and have had a great relationship. However, within the last four months our relationship has become very difficult.

Recently, I found out that my fiance had moved and did not tell me. I had to force the truth from him and he still denied it. To find out I had to send a card to his old address and it came back "addressee unknown", then he finally was forced to tell me the truth. He told me that his mother has moved in with him because she separated from his father, and his place was too small for her to stay and he was forced to get a bigger place at moment's notice. However, he then told me that he could not invite me to his home since his mother does not approve of our relationship.

Marc started a new job working nights and since I live about 40 miles from him, I hardly ever see him anymore. During the last four to five weeks, I have seen him for three to four times for a couple hours. He calls everyday and wants us to continue with our plans for marriage, but now there are so many unanswered questions and I feel so betrayed that I am uncertain. I trusted Marc, but since I found out that he has been hiding things from me, I have a lot of doubts, and have withdrawn into myself. This has put additional strain on the relationship. Marc feels that he apologized for his actions, came out and told me the truth and I should forgive him and move past these issues; however, I still have a lot of unanswered questions. He invited for a visit, but I can only visit if his mother is not there and I have refused to do that. I am very confused and not sure where to go from here. Any advice you could give, would be greatly appreciated.


Dear Confused,

The purpose of this column is to address the universal themes and common issues that affect many couples and families, and to assist you in clarifying the issues, recognizing your choices and suggesting solutions.

I am addressing your mind more than your heart. When it comes to questions of love and marriage, the heart can lead us into dangerous back alleys and wishful fantasies. Your mind, when temporarily freed from influence of the heart, can objectively assess your dilemma and point you in a healthy direction. In that light, feel free to question my advice, seek a second opinion if necessary and listen to yourself before deciding how you wish to proceed.

There are a number of concerns which you directly and indirectly refer to in your letter. According to my reading of your letter, I identify the following issues in order of their appearance:

  1. You are 44 and your fiance is 31.
  2. You have been engaged for three years.
  3. You've had a great relationship.
  4. Your fiance moved without informing you and then lied about it and only confessed after you pressured him.
  5. His mother moved in with him after she separated from his father.
  6. His mother doesn't approve of your relationship therefore he can't invite you to his house.
  7. Marc has apologized and therefore he wants you to move on and let go of your doubts. You can't.

1. You are 44 and your fiance is 31.
The fact that you even mentioned the age difference, considering the fact that it is superseded by other, seemingly more serious problems, tells me that it may be a concern for either one or both of you.

I don't know if your age difference is something that the two of you have discussed and whether it has affected your relationship. Some of the potential problems are: a) different interests, b) different friends, c) health and age related challenges, d) lack of acceptance by friends and family, e) rigid role definitions based on age, i.e., the elder in the relationship takes on the role of being the responsible "grown up" and the younger becomes the "needy kid" (the opposite could also occur), f) child-bearing years.

I am not suggesting that this list of problems would definitely occur. I do know of couples in which the woman is significantly older than her partner and they appear to have an excellent relationship. I know that they have dealt with the age difference head on and appear to have worked it through.

2. You've been engaged for three years.
Excuse me for sounding so judgmental but when I hear that couples have been engaged for a long time, I become suspicious. I question whether they are really committed to marriage. There are always seemingly plausible reasons not to do anything, especially something as daunting as marriage.

The suspicious part of me wonders why it is that they two of you never married. Is it because Marc's mother has never approved of you and because Marc has never had the courage to stand up to his mother? Perhaps you've always had questions about Marc's character and his lack of integrity or perhaps, for one or both of you, the age difference is a factor.

Again, like with the age difference, the fact that you even mention your three year engagement is a bit like waving a red flag in front of a bull, especially this particularly, suspicious bull.

3. You've had a great relationship.
Your use of the past tense is telling. Rightfully so, you are questioning whether to end what once was a "great relationship."

No amount of love or compatibility can offset a relationship lacking in trust and emotional security.
No doubt that this is a very painful process for you. It's very difficult to let go of the positive memories, feelings and images that you associate with this relationship. Ending a relationship is a form of death and you could expect to go through a period of deep pain and mourning if you decide to break up with your fiance.

As I see it, the underlying question embedded in the statement "we've had a great relationship" is the following: "Despite all of my real concerns now, does the past strength of our relationship demand that I try to work things out?"

I'll address that question in the remaining part of the letter.

4. Your fiance moved without informing you then lied about it and only confessed after you pressured him.
What I am about to write is already obvious to you and other readers: A healthy relationship is built on a foundation of honesty and integrity. No amount of passionate love or even friendly compatibility can offset a relationship lacking in trust and emotional security.

What was going on with your fiance that he felt compelled to deceive, deny and lie? How is it that after four years of a supposedly beautiful relationship, he didn't feel close enough or safe enough or honest enough to talk to you about his dilemma with his mother? Why is it that he felt compelled to act out like a little boy and then, when caught, continued to deny the obvious. Only when you played detective and cornered him did he finally confess.

Granted he has a rather complex relationship with his mother, granted that his mother doesn't like you, granted that he's scared to death about facing this problem, nevertheless his behavior or I should say his lack of integrity raises some serious questions about his potential as a life partner.

5. His mother moved in with him after she separated from his father.

In the story of Creation, the Bible commands that a man should leave his father and mother, join his wife and become "one flesh." In other words, the Bible is telling us that for a man to make a marriage he must first let go of his attachment to his parents. The Bible couldn't say it any more clearly: his primary relationship is with his wife, not his mother.

A man's primary relationship is with his wife, not his mother.
 Modern psychology didn't invent the concept of unhealthy attachments. It was known way before Sigmund Freud came on to the scene.

Marc can't have it both ways and neither can you. If he wants the relationship with you, then he'll have to be straight with his mother and tell her that he loves you, wants to spend his life with you and that he expects her to make every effort to be a loving mother-in-law. I am not suggesting that he sever his relationship with his mother, rather he should take charge of it. If it is too difficult for him, then I would recommend he go into therapy to work this through.

If he is unable or unwilling to do that, end the relationship. It's non-negotiable. If not, it will be pure torture from here on out.

6. His mother doesn't approve of your relationship therefore he can't invite you to his house.
Why is it that Marc is allowing his mother to dictate the terms of the relationship? The simple answer for Marc's unwillingness to invite you to the house is that he's either afraid of his mother and/or has an excessive sense of responsibility for her welfare. Perhaps, his mother holds him captive by threats of depression and he feels terribly guilty if he were to hurt her. This is a classic example of what is commonly knows as a "co-dependent" relationship. Neither Marc nor his mother is free to act in a healthy responsible manner out of fear of hurting the other.

However, there is another possible problem here which you might find to be even more disturbing. I am wondering if there's more than fear to Marc's problem with his mother. Perhaps Marc's unwillingness to oppose his mother is, in part, because he agrees with her. He doesn't have the courage to deal directly with you concerning his doubts and problems so he uses his mother as a convenient excuse. It's amazing what obstacles we humans can overcome when we want something badly enough or what excuses we can invent when we don't want to do something.

7. Marc has apologized and therefore he wants you to move on and let go of your doubts. You can't.
Marc's apology is meaningless. Unless these issues are addressed and changes are made, there is no chance for a healthy, long-term relationship. Your letter has raised serious questions about Marc's character, the problematic nature of his relationship with his mother and his true intentions. It is my recommendation that until he informs his mother that you are the primary woman in his life, you should have no contact with him. You know that a change has occurred when he is no longer afraid to invite you to his house.

If you follow my recommendations, then you will need to speak with him and be clear about your intentions. You will need to find the courage and discipline to avoid contact with him. It might be helpful for you to be in counseling in order to receive the support and guidance that you will need through this difficult process.

One thing that experience has taught me is that avoiding the truth creates significantly greater pain and suffering. It is better to confront these issues now before committing yourself to marriage. In the future your options might be significantly limited.