He asked me to marry him in the gardens at Versailles

My Spanish boyfriend is nearly perfect in every way, so why am I balking?

Published November 29, 2005 12:35PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am 31 and have been dating a man of equal age from Spain for a little over two years. During that time I have lived in Paris and Seattle, with a few weeks and months splattered in between at his place in Barcelona. This kind of transcontinental relationship has been taxing on our emotions and bank accounts from the beginning.

Four months after we began dating, he asked me to marry him in the garden at Versaille. I wished that I felt like saying yes, but I was clearly feeling no. So I told him it was too soon for me and that I needed more time and more space. Now, two years later, he says he's happy to ask me again, but this time he needs a definitive answer.

I feel more confident of our relationship now, but I still have major doubts and hesitations. There are obvious doubts stemming from our language and cultural differences (I'm fairly Nordic and stoic, he's classically Mediterranean). There are also doubts related to his naiveté and manliness. The Spanish are supposed to have invented "macho," but my boyfriend doesn't even own a toolbox. He cries at more movies than I do and calls his mom about once a day. He has never lived outside his neighborhood. Never.

I love that he is so close to his family. They all live walking distance from each other. So I find myself walking to someone's name day celebration, birthday, or anniversary party at least once a week. The parties are a lot of fun. One uncle sings opera. The other screams politics. Everyone stumbles home drunk off gin-and-tonics at 3 in the morning on a weeknight, dawn on a weekend. But the cigarette consumption is incredible. Even the 80-year-old grandmother smokes. I am not used to all the smoke and the drama.

I left home at the age of 18, and have lived and studied on three continents. I have never smoked and am used to clean air, freedom and being in bed around midnight. My friends were all for marriage in the beginning; they said I needed a little sunshine up my ass (if I am allowed to say that). As I continue to hesitate, they are starting to switch camps and to send me messages like, "Remember what Oprah says, 'Doubt means don't!'" My successfully married friends innocently squeeze what remains of my marriage hopes out of me by saying things like, "When you know, you just know."

This last piece of advice so preoccupied my mind that I decided to go talk to a psychologist. The psychologist insisted that "not everybody just knows." I have felt that I have just known about other things in my life. Why not this? Is my indecision a giant red flag telling me he's not the one to settle down with? Or is it natural to have doubts about one of the most major decisions of your life?

My boyfriend insists that I need to stop thinking about this as being "forever." He takes marriage on a very practical level. "If it doesn't work, it doesn't work." But he assures me that he will "conquer" me. I put that in quotes because it highlights just one of his sometimes cute, sometimes horrific language blunders.

There is quite a bit that is lost in translation, but we seem to keep communicating and learning from each other. Is that reason enough to get married? Will I adapt further to the cultural differences over time or will they drive me insane?

I should mention a few more things about him and myself. He is the best boyfriend I have ever had. This is probably the first relationship I can say I've had where I am the problem. On paper and in person he is perfect. He treats me like a queen despite my incertitude.

Sometimes I wish he would just get angry and tell me to take the next flight back to the Yankees. But he is sure he loves me. I am the more worldly and the more intelligent, but he's the one who's got his life in order. I tend to change jobs, change countries, change partners at about the two-year mark. So I fear that fleeing this good relationship would just perpetuate this tiring cycle. Do I stick with this and see what happens, or is all this doubt and stalling just nature's way of saying adios amigo?

Doubt Means Don't?

Dear Doubt Means Don't,

I had not heard that expression from Oprah before now. "Doubt means don't," eh? While I can see the sense of entertaining such a thought before buying a house or asking for a divorce, I do not think that such an alliterated maxim should form the basis for all life's important decisions. If you are going to live an interesting life you must entertain a certain amount of risk and uncertainty. There will always be a certain amount of doubt. And I agree with the psychologist that not everybody just knows. In fact, I have my doubts about the whole business of "just knowing."

Nonetheless, if you want to know my gut feeling on the matter: For what it's worth (and I would think my opinion on a good day is worth about half as much as the opinion of a favorite aunt or best friend), I vote that you say yes.

Would it not be a good idea, however, before you say yes, to get a better idea of specifically and exactly what you are saying yes to? For instance, are you agreeing to live in Barcelona, in his neighborhood a few blocks from the family? Are you agreeing to take upon yourself the role of wife as defined by the wives in his family? What will be expected of you? And where does he get this notion that if the marriage doesn't work out it will be an easy thing to simply end it? I am not intimately acquainted with Spanish culture, but I was not under the impression that it's a culture in which marriage is casually entered into and casually dissolved.

So I think it would be a good idea to find these things out before you marry. And then, having found these things out, you must ask yourself very specific questions: Do I want to live in this little neighborhood for the rest of my life? Do I want his relatives defining how I live my life?

And if he professes a willingness to live with you in America, you must ask yourself a whole other set of questions: Would he be happy living in America? I rather think it's doubtful. America is in many ways a terrible place to live. You and I, we've lived here for a long time and so we are used to it. But for a longtime resident of Barcelona, who has long been in the warm embrace of his family, for him to come to this splintered, fractious, ignorant and superstitious land of bounders, sales associates and itchy prophets of doom, to ask him to live among this restless, rootless, warlike people: It might all be a little much. It might not work out so well. He might leave you and go back to Spain.

Still, all in all, I can't help but feel that saying yes is the thing to do. Find out what you are saying yes to, and then, unless what you face seems absolutely untenable, I would say yes and sort out the details as you go along.

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