Friday, January 25, 2019

The Case of the Dawdling Boyfriend

It’s like damning with faint praise. A couple has been together for years. They have been living together for more than a year. The female member expects to hear a marriage proposal… perhaps for Christmas. The male member offers her a ring for Christmas… only it’s not an engagement ring. He emphasizes the point.

She feels insulted. Or some such. She is profoundly disappointed and keeps the friendship ring as a sign of rejection. Or some such. The couple has had the marriage conversation before. Boyfriend has said that the couple still has some work to do before that momentous event. Meaning what exactly? We do not know.

She feels that something is wrong, so she writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb. Naturally, we know nothing beyond her feelings. We do not know about friends and family. We do not know who pursues which career. We do not know who supports the family. We do not know how they divide their chores and define their roles. We do not even know how old they are. We do know that her biological clock is running out, fact that does not seem to register on the boyfriend’s radar.

In short, we know nothing about this couple, beyond the fact that she wants to be engaged and that the ring she received for Christmas tells her that she is not yet marriageable.

Here is the letter, from Anna in Seattle:

For Christmas this year, my boyfriend surprised me with a ring. It’s sapphire and silver—beautiful. But it’s not an engagement ring. Without saying so outright, he made clear that it was just a ring. After dating for a few years, and living together for the past year and a half, I can’t help but be disappointed. To make matters worse, when I went to the store to get the ring resized, the clerk kept congratulating me and asking me all about my fiancé.

I wasn’t expecting to get engaged over the holidays—my boyfriend has also said he doesn’t want to propose on a holiday, or my birthday, or some other occasion so that he won’t “ruin it” if the marriage goes badly. We’ve talked about marriage and getting engaged, but he also says he thinks we still have some things to work on in our relationship. I’ve tried to advocate for myself and tell him that I have my own timeline and expectations, but that I’m willing to give him the time he needs.

But now, with this ring, I wonder whether that’s still in the cards. I can’t imagine him getting me two rings in the same year, given that this is the first piece of jewelry he’s ever bought me. I’m worried he’s finding new ways of putting off our engagement without having to talk to me about it.

So this is my question: Is my disappointment unreasonable? I definitely feel the pull of marriage while I am still young enough to have children. I also know that I love my boyfriend and am dedicated to making our relationship work long-term. Am I disappointed because he hasn’t picked me yet, or because I have real fears about the longevity of our relationship?

She is asking the right questions. She does not ask how best to let him know that she is disappointed, and Gottlieb will address that issue. For now, I agree with Gottlieb on a point that Anna herself raises: what is the feeling trying to tell her? Is it saying that he has offended her by sending what seems to be more a friendship ring than an engagement ring? Is it saying that she is having doubts about the relationship? If she is fast approaching infertility, his dawdling is simply not defensible. It does not speak well of him.

Now, Gottlieb will begin by advising either couples therapy or yet another conversation. As noted in the letter, the couple has already discussed the marriage question. More discussion will feel to the man like more pressure. For all we know he does not like to feel pressured and will only propose when he can feel as though he is taking the initiative.

Gottlieb also counsels against laying down an ultimatum. She is quite correct. Ultimata never work, even when they seem to produce the right outcome. She recommends that the woman decide for herself how long she is going to put up with this. Again, a very good idea. At that point, the solution is to walk away, to walk out on her dawdling boyfriend.

In Gottlieb’s words:

Instead, the person you need to set boundaries with is yourself. How long are you willing to tolerate his ambivalence? At what point will you tell the part of you that’s willing to wait that waiting is taking too long—that you need to move forward and free yourself up to meet someone who wants what you do? The more open you are to this internal dialogue, the more likely you’ll be to do more than simply wait and see what your boyfriend does.

Don’t make threats. Don’t lean in. Don’t exercise your will to power. But, tell yourself how long you are willing to wait, and if boyfriend does not propose, you should move out and move on.  A consequential action is worth far more than a series of conversations, even, or should I say, especially with a couples therapist.

Regrettably, she is in very deep now, so it will not feel very good to walk away... because that will either involve walking out of her home or telling him to leave. It might have been better to have received a firmer commitment before setting up house together.


Anonymous said...

Speaking from experience: she should walk out now. He could have given her any piece of jewelry, a necklace, a bracelet, a set of earrings or even a tiara, and she would have been happy with it without second thoughts. Instead he chose a not-an-engagement-ring, in the wrong size on top of that. If she wears the ring, people will assume that she is finally engaged and congratulate her like the clerk in the store did. Her dream is marriage and children, yet the gift he gave her will force her to deny openly that she has taken the first step towards fulfilling that dream. The boyfriend may of course have done all this without thinking, and that would be bad enough, but given their conversations he cannot have been unaware. There is something twisted about this person, and like a piece of fruit, he may taste sweet on the outside and rotten around the core. Walk out now. I doubt he'll come after her once she is gone.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a plot of a Sophie Kinsella romance novel. In which case our heroine needs to ditch the guy, wherein she will meet her fabulously rich soulmate. They will jet to a tropical resort, he’ll turn out to be a douche. Misery and map cap mayhem will ensue. Meanwhile, friendship ring guy will come to his senses, realize he lost the love of his life, fly to the ends of the world to retrieve her and give her an engagement ring the size of the Hope Diamond. Next stop, wedding bells and wedded bliss. Easy peasy.


Sam L. said...

" boyfriend has also said he doesn’t want to propose on a holiday, or my birthday, or some other occasion so that he won’t “ruin it” if the marriage goes badly." I read this as HE is NOT going to propose. And I think that's how SHE reads it.

"But, tell yourself how long you are willing to wait, and if boyfriend does not propose, you should move out and move on." Depends on whose house/apartment it was when the other moved in.

/Esther, how long have you been writing romance novels?

Anonymous said...

After dating for a few years, and living together for the past year and a half...

If he "doesn't know" after that, then she is mis-reading him. As in many cases of living together, he's getting what he wants, and she's freely giving it to him.