They don't seem right for each other

We've got our doubts about this couple. Should we say something?

By Cary Tennis

Published January 7, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend (Paul) and I are concerned about the future of a couple we know; we'll call them Bill and Jess. They have dated for two years and moved in together in October. They seem to be perfect for each other on paper -- each has the qualities the other wants in a mate, but they don't actually seem to like each other. They don't listen to each other and seem to be hoping (or assuming) the other person will change. They bicker frequently, and there seems to be a general lack of goodwill and respect in their opinions of each other. They also don't seem to appreciate each other's remarkable qualities.

I have known the couple for a year and have not noticed an improvement in their communication skills in that timeframe. Jess' biological clock is ticking away and she's pushing hard for a ring. Bill agreed when they moved in together that he would propose within a year. He talked with Paul and me in September about proposing, but his excitement seemed to be focused on gaining approval and planning an impressive event, rather than on spending his life with Jess. He does not speak of her with reverence. Since that time, he has not moved forward with the proposal, which was originally slated to occur before Thanksgiving. He still talks about doing it, but I fear he is hesitant for a good reason. (And it's not due to financial instability!) My thought is that if he really wanted to do it, he would've done it by now.

Both Paul and I have been through unhappy marriages, and we are very concerned about Bill's relationship with Jess. We think they are both great people, but just not great for each other. We worry about the potential consequences should they take their relationship to the next step.

So Paul is wondering if he should express his concerns to Bill. Paul said that after he got divorced, lots of people came out of the woodwork to say that they knew his marriage would never work from the beginning. He said he wished someone had told him that before he got married. He wants to be a good friend and warn Bill, but is not sure if he should. I know it's really not Paul's business, but he wants to look out for his friend.

Do you think it's appropriate for Paul to express his concerns about Jess to Bill? I think he could be doing Bill a great service, but I wouldn't want Bill to kill the messenger.

Thanks for your help!

Concerned Comrade

Dear Concerned Comrade,

I do not think there is any area of life about which two close friends cannot have a frank and confidential conversation, as long as it is carried on with due care and consideration. I do not think there is any true friendship that cannot survive a little doubt and disagreement, even about life's most fundamental decisions.

So, assuming that Paul and Bill are indeed close friends (you said you'd known this couple a year, which is not such a long time), here is what I think he should do. I think he should arrange to spend some time with Bill, perhaps take a long drive or a walk or a canoe trip, or go fishing or play video games or whatever they do together.

The best way to begin, I think, is for Bill to simply tell Paul the story of his first marriage. This will take some care. His goal is simply to communicate and to understand. It is not to persuade. He should tell him how he came to be married the first time, what he thought at the time, how he handled any doubts he had, what discussions he had with friends and family, what he thinks went wrong, and how he would do it differently the next time. Perhaps he has come to some insight in the intervening years. Perhaps at a certain point before his first marriage, he did feel it was the wrong decision but there was too much momentum at that point. Perhaps he was afraid to turn back. Perhaps he genuinely thought it would work, and wishes his friends had been more forthcoming. Whatever he can tell Bill I'm sure will be of interest.

Bill naturally will wonder why Paul is telling him these things. Paul might answer that, with the benefit of hindsight, it's the kind of conversation he wishes he had been able to have with a friend before he got married the first time. He could say that he realizes now that he was not actually ready to get married. He thought he was, but he was not.

After some reflection on this, Bill might ask him point-blank, "Do you think I'm ready?" That would be a pretty delicate point indeed. Paul might say that only Bill can know, but that would be a bit of a cop-out. Bill might say, "Why are we having this conversation, then, if you think everything is hunky-dory?"

It may be a cop-out, and it sounds very Cary Tennis-ish -- if I might nominate myself as an adjective -- but this is an opportunity to think through what we mean when we say that a couple appears to be ready to marry. It is very difficult to know when one is ready to do something one has never done before. How can one possibly know? Basically, we expect to see certain behaviors. We expect to see kindness, respect, love -- you used the word "reverence." We expect to see a kind of elevated demeanor, a courtliness. We expect somehow that when they are together the couple will seem to bring out the best in each other.

Clearly you and Paul believe that these two would behave toward each other in certain ways if they were truly ready for marriage. But one of the reasons we generally hesitate to raise doubts about someone's marriage plans is that we also recognize the presence of the unknowable -- the private, intimate and inexplicable nature of love. Though we look for behaviors, there is always an element that is invisible.

So if asked directly, I think Paul would have to admit that yes, he has had doubts, but stress that he realizes he cannot know what is in other people's hearts. Perhaps he could point to specific instances in which the couple seemed to quarrel or to not appreciate each other -- but here one is on delicate ground, because one should be neither building a case against the marriage nor criticizing the couple's interactions. His goal is simply to reassure himself that his friend is doing the right thing, and to be of assistance if his friend needs to confide in him about any doubts he may have. He should stress that he's not trying to build a case one way or the other. He's just trying to understand, and to be sure.

As long as Paul can proceed carefully and thoughtfully, I think he can have this conversation with his friend without seeming to overstep the bounds of friendship. And I think he should, because it's the right thing to do. If Bill should express some doubts about his readiness to marry, Paul, having come this far, should be willing to help him arrange a postponement or a cancellation, if that is what seems to be required.

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