Romantic reality

I'm in love with a man whose lack of ambition is a problem, but it didn't come to a crisis point until "the ring incident."

By Cary Tennis
Published March 5, 2004 8:17PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've always been the type of liberal girl who didn't care about money or the salary of her partner. I've never discriminated, having seriously dated a lawyer, a doctor, a pizza delivery guy and now my current boyfriend, who I believe is the proverbial "One." We have an intense passion and respect for one another and a sense of humor only we understand in each other. He is the man of my dreams and very intelligent.

However, he is a former repeatedly laid-off IT manager who is now doing PC desktop support for a small company and earning less than 30K a year. Since he has been laid off several times from his "dream jobs" in the past few years, he is now overcome by fear of stepping out and looking for a job and a salary worthy of his abilities. He constantly complains about how he can barely afford his living expenses and can never take me out. The look of embarrassment and regret he has on his face when I pay for our dinners and outings is truly painful to watch. Most of the time we just stay in with a video, although I've never been the homebody type. I constantly console him and attempt to build his confidence, even helping him rework his résumé for a few job openings, all for which he ultimately didn't even apply.

My conflict culminates in "the ring incident." We've been talking about getting married for a few months now -- mind you, not paying for a wedding, but just marriage in general. I've never wanted an elaborate wedding, or a large ring for that matter, partly since family help is out of the question. I've always accepted I would have to pay for it by myself. After some searching, I finally found a ring that was perfect: tasteful, beautiful and only $500 (yes, there are only two zeros). I was so excited to show him that he willingly came with me to see it. His reaction was particularly painful: "It's OK, but I expected it to be prettier. How much is it? Five hundred? Oh, don't even think about it, it will take me two years to save for it." And, after a short pause that I attribute to shock, I burst into tears right at the jewelry counter with the realization that I'm going to seal my nuptials with a cubic zirconia ring from Wal-Mart. (Much to my horror, he has on two occasions dragged me over to the Wal-Mart jewelry counter extolling the virtues of CZ and how much it looks like the real thing.)

What's a girl to do? Accept, contrary to what she has believed all her life, that money does matter? Give in to the superficial desires and demand he get a better job to buy me a $500 ring? Or, as he suggests, agree that our love is our most expensive yet valuable asset, not a ring or a Kodak wedding? What about providing for the six children he fantasizes about having -- who is going to pay for them? Is his lack of ambition worth giving him an ultimatum, which I dread?

Polyester Bride

Dear Polyester Bride,

I love it that you say your love is your "most expensive yet valuable asset, not a ring or a Kodak wedding." Knowing that will help you through rough times. But your feelings about money are just as deep and important as your feelings about each other; your love will not magically erase your conflicts over money.

My heart goes out to you for crying there at the counter. I think your boyfriend blew it. While it's not necessarily a good idea to saddle yourselves with a marriage debt that takes years to pay off, there are moments when you've got to forget about money and rise to the occasion. That was your moment. He could have played along. It wouldn't have hurt. He didn't have to agree to buy the ring, but he could have responded to your joy with optimism, hope and good humor. Instead, he couldn't rise above his own concern about money. I imagine your feelings were pretty hurt.

So he's got troubling feelings about money and that's understandable. He had some bad experiences that were beyond his control. Nevertheless, he's got to find a way to rise above it. But he can't rise above it without understanding the context. There was an economic boom, remember? It created wholesale distortions in the economy and thus in the hopes and expectations of young people. It fed unrealistic dreams; it rewarded arrogance and punished caution.

The boom of the '90s introduced a lot of strange, anomalous conditions into the lives of smart young people. For the first time in human history, writers did not work as bike messengers and graduate students did not drive cabs. It was weird. You're supposed to suffer and starve and work as a lackey for gruff, intolerant mentors for years, wishing they would die or get fired so you could advance. Out of this experience grows the next generation of gruff, intolerant mentors. Instead, talented people got jobs with enormous responsibilities and enormous salaries right out of the gate.

It couldn't last, and of course it didn't.

Had your boyfriend not risen so fast and been rewarded so extravagantly, he would not feel so wounded now. But perhaps he thinks if he had only had enough moxy and determination and grit, he would have triumphed. If so, he needs to see that he's been had. He was swindled.

But to see that he's been swindled, he's got to admit that he bought into it. He allowed his sense of self-worth and entitlement to be falsely inflated. To put it bluntly, he was a sucker. We were all suckers.

As long as he still believes that his fall was a personal failure, he's going to feel shame and misplaced anger. His anger should be at the people who victimized him, not at himself. If he had some basic working-class values, he might find it easier to see this.

But that's what we lost in the boom, along with all that money. Before the '80s Wall Street greed thing and then the '90s tech boom, before the decimation of manufacturing, when unions were still strong, a guy's fortunes could rise and fall, but it seems to me there was less shame about just getting by. San Francisco in the 1970s had a proud working-class ethos.

The importance of a working-class ethos is to realize that your fate is not entirely in your hands, that there are powerful people working against your interests. In fact, as recent scandals illustrate, honest workers have been the victims of enormous, unprecedented white-collar crimes. So it might help your boyfriend to think through all this. True, he's been had. But we've all been had. He needn't feel ashamed. He should feel like calling the police.

The bright side of the relationship between your relationship and money is that solid marriages and personal economic improvement go together. Things are going to get better if you stick with it. So I say stick with it. Don't give him an ultimatum. Struggle through this together. It's bigger than both of you.

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Cary Tennis

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