The house that ate my relationship

My boyfriend and I nearly went broke on a remodeling.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 11, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My problem seems so small but it's big enough for me that I'm writing this to you. I am a well-adjusted person and a successful writer. For the past seven years I've been with the same guy. He seems perfect. He's generous and funny, smart and well-read, and he's a really great cook. We have a lot in common and do things together all the time, though we have our own friends and interests. I know he loves me and I love him.

Here's the problem: We bought a house together several years ago. It was a smart purchase when we were both raking in money and had a pretty sizable nest egg. My boyfriend wanted to renovate the place, and I agreed. We set a budget that soared out of control before I realized what was happening. It would have been fine if we had both kept earning gobs of money, but I suddenly lost a gig and his business went south.

The last three years have been hell. We almost lost the house. I would have gladly sold against my own desires -- my boyfriend turned it into an architectural marvel -- but he wouldn't budge. I'm pretty sure he's depressed, and it's exacerbated the few qualities I don't like about him -- he can be amazingly self-absorbed. And while our financial contributions to the house have been roughly equal, he has convinced himself that he has spent more than me and therefore harbors a resentment that comes up in the way he treats me. He is always bugging me about my work and why I'm not doing better. At the same time, he's stuck in place in his career and he has a million excuses why he can't do it anymore. On top of this, he's drinking more and he's awful to me when he does. I've found a place to write away from the house now, and it's the only peace I get these days.

Cary, I'm an optimistic person. I'm a cancer survivor and to me, getting news of a serious illness is a lot worse than the fact that our credit is shot and we may lose our house. My boyfriend always expects the worst, and every late bill is a reason for him to make it into a new crisis. It's tiring. I'm willing to put the house on the market and see what happens and maybe start over again. Clearly, my boyfriend is capable of creating something beautiful out of something ordinary. But it's also clear he thinks selling the house would be the end of the world. We might make a nice chunk of change -- mid six figures -- but he says it's not enough to get back into the market, and he doesn't want to rent. His business requires that he have clients over to the house, and it's important that he make a good impression. The rub? Part of me is glad. I love this house as much as he does.

Having said this, I never thought I'd put up with emotional abuse from a man and, in the past, when I've been unhappy in a relationship, I got my shit together and left. This time it's harder, I think because he really does make me weak in the knees.

We've talked about having him go see a therapist, something he is loath to consider. I went away for three weeks and when I came back, I told him I was thinking of moving out this spring if he didn't get his act together. I gave him a date and I plan to stick to it.

He's agreed to come with me to my therapist for starters. We have an appointment, but I can't honestly say if he'll go. I don't like ultimatums and I don't want to leave my boyfriend when he's at such a low point in his life and with a house he can't afford. A complication is that it's a three-unit building and his mother lives here and has sunk the last of her money into it to help us. But the longer I stay, the more I lose respect for myself.

On top of everything, my Hollywood "buzz" is up again and 2005 holds much promise for the resurrection of my career. This is my last big shot and I don't want to blow it. Yet a rough breakup might do it more harm than keeping the status quo for a while longer. Talk about being conflicted! If I land a big job, I'll have enough money to move out, and if things don't change, I'm committed to following through on that. I know I'll do it even though I can easily grow old with this man and I will miss him awful. But he's going to be 50 next year. Is my demand that he get help asking too much of him?

Hollywood Blues

Dear Hollywood,

I'm fascinated by your story, but I'm not coming up with any immediate answers; I'm transfixed like a moviegoer, fascinated by the period detail, wondering about the financing options should you sell, wondering if he went modern or Craftsman. You wave your hands in front of my face and say, Hey! You! Mister Advice Dude! What should I do? And I say, What? Huh? I dunno, this is really interesting, let's see how it ends.

Which isn't much help. The ending is what you want help on.

Maybe I don't see how it ends yet because I'm not sure if it's comedy or tragedy. If it's comedy, if you're strangely mismatched but inseparable, like Nick and Nora, you go to counseling and he claims it's nonsense but he does change a little, or you move out and he woos you back -- or actually his mother woos you back; he doesn't have enough sense to know what to do, but his mother intervenes with ageless cunning. Maybe you come back and maybe you don't, but you're not stuck. If it's a tragedy, though, then you and he are stuck there in the darkness like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

In order to get a handle on which way it's going, it's important to ask who you are -- you and your voice, your prose voice: Who are you, what kind of woman? You sound sensible; you say you're well-adjusted and successful; you don't sound tragic. You sound ill used but strangely sunny. You're a survivor.

So I guess this is a comedy. You're not bound by fate to live out your days in this altar to hubris. You can skip out. But if it's a comedy, you do need to reach some kind of crisis where maybe the both of you are out on the street, sitting on crates in the hot sun and the mover calls and says your check bounced and he's not coming, and a stray dog is peeing on the antique Craftsman floor lamp that's sitting on the sidewalk, symbolic beacon of your sullied dreams, and you look at each other in this moment of shared despair and you finally get it: You belong together. You screwed up but you screwed up together. He may have gone overboard on the remodel but he's an artist at heart -- besides, you let him go overboard because you like to see him swinging for the fences. You could have been more of a hardass about cost control but you didn't want to pay the price, emotionally speaking, and besides, you were swept up in the boom dream too.

I don't think you and he have reached this point of recognition yet -- where you realize the hopelessness of your situation and at the darkest moment his mother drives up in a borrowed truck and you spend the night in a motel. The point is not whether you leave him. The point is the recognition. It doesn't sound as though either one of you has yet had a good laugh about the fix you're in. Maybe there's still too much pride involved. Too much pride and blaming each other. Maybe you're still fighting.

About the emotional abuse you referred to: I want to suggest a distinction. Admittedly I'm guessing. But I suspect that what's coming out of his mouth when he's been drinking is vile and insulting and mean, and is abusive in that sense, but not in the sense of the willful degradation and poisoning of another human soul. Forgive me if I seem to be minimizing what you are enduring from him; but I do mean to make a distinction between ugly, dirty, old-fashioned fighting between intimate adults and genuine, insidious abuse. The reason I make the distinction is that if you are truly being abused, then there's no comedy, and you have to leave, and there's no second act. The movie is over. You liquidate your assets and put him out of your life. So consider carefully if that's the case. Consider if he is actually abusing you or simply being a drunken, angry jerk. If you are truly abused, for instance, you might not be thinking straight. You might not be able to make up your mind whether to leave. You might be making excuses for him.

I don't hear you making excuses for him. I hear you taking care of yourself in a very adult way.

He, on the other hand, may be in a deeper kind of personal crisis, because whereas you can see clearly what is happening and are making plans to deal with it, he genuinely may not know what he is doing. He's drinking too much, he's saying nasty things to you, he seems depressed, and he's being uncooperative. I suspect that his self-absorption is contributing to his business difficulties.

Wouldn't it be great if he suddenly saw how self-absorbed he's being? That's what all of us watching the movie would wish for. But there has to be some precipitating event. For him it might be losing you and the house. But we don't really know what will happen. That's what keeps us in our seats. We just keep hoping for the best.

So if you have to leave, you have my blessing. Maybe he'll come after you. Maybe he'll change. That still doesn't mean it's going to work, now does it? Maybe there's a second act. Maybe not. I just can't see that far ahead in the rain.

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