He has sort of moved in. How do I set some boundaries?

My new boyfriend says he doesn't want a serious relationship. Is he taking advantage?

By Cary Tennis
April 25, 2006 2:39PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I started a relationship with a man six months ago. He recently (a year ago) separated from the mother of his five children after 17 years (her choice -- she "met" someone). They were not married. He spends all the time he can with his kids and I can see how miserable this has been for him; however, he did choose to go forward with me. It's been a very satisfactory relationship thus far. Over these months, he has, for all practical purposes, moved into my house. He is storing some large items in my basement, has clothes in my room, sleeps here most nights, even gets some mail here. But if we get on the subject of our relationship (which is not very often, because I try not to be one of the "but where is this going" gals), he says he does not want to have a serious (I interpret that to mean a committed) relationship, because of what he's been through, etc.


It would seem to me it already is a serious relationship. The other day I said to him, "Well, I assume you won't mind if I see other people, because -- although I certainly care deeply for you -- I am interested in having a serious relationship with someone." He was not pleased. He finally said, a little angrily, "No I don't want you to go with someone else. Is that what you want to hear?"

Is this just a "wants to have his cake and eat it, too" situation? Or is it reasonable to give this man more time to heal or sort things out before chucking the whole thing? Should I care if this leads to marriage or not? At our age (mid-40s) I think it becomes unrealistic to set your sights on the "ideal" relationship. Should I be content with what I have, knowing he is a good person and that the relationship, while not ideal, meets many of my relationship needs?

There are also cultural concerns (we are both Caribbean, though I grew up here) that I have to take into account. I have had relationships and a marriage outside my culture, and have finally concluded that while it's possible for that to work out, it's unlikely; I'm more comfortable with a man from my culture, and that necessarily limits the pool of available men, if I stay here in the U.S. What to do, what to do. I don't want to issue an ultimatum -- that's so unattractive. But I would like to firmly but gently convey that it will soon be time to ...


Fish or Cut Bait

Dear Fish or Cut Bait,

You know that harsh, hectoring, rulebound voice of American moral justice that screeches from the speakers of the nation's AM radios day and night preaching a zero-tolerance adherence to the Judeo-capitalist principles of Birth, School, Work, Death? You know that one-size-fits-all public address system voice that sees your social role as not much more complicated than a tube sock bought 10 to the bag at Wal-Mart?


You know that voice I'm talking about? It's quick to judge and slow to comprehend and blind to all the ways that actual people live their actual lives, how actual people every day have to heroically defy America's monolithic moral code in order to follow instead the sacred rules of their own ineffable being? You know that voice, that voice that would send us all to the principal's office for disobeying rules so idiotic we can scarcely comprehend them in the first place?

You know that voice, the voice of hungry empire and frustrated bodies, the voice of hurt pride and Christian vengeance? That's the voice you might run into with this situation of yours. That's the voice maybe you even hear in your own head a little bit -- the impatient demanding voice of "fish or cut bait." That's the voice of straighten up and fly right, kick this malingerer out of your house, throw his stuff into the street, etc.


I suggest instead that you follow something that you mention in your letter but may not have sufficient faith in: the norms and expectations of your own culture. I suggest you examine your own culture in deep and rich detail -- your own past, the lives of your parents and grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles and friends -- and look there for the norms to guide you through this experience.

And also consider these things: This man has taken a blow. Seventeen years and then his common-law wife and mother of his children "meets someone" and he's out. Apparently since there was no legal marriage there was no legal divorce, no legal recognition of his status as father, no stipulations for visitation or child support. So he is getting along as best he can. That doesn't mean that he's helpless, nor does it mean he's not capable of taking more than he deserves, or being unfair or demanding or childish or anything else that most all of us are capable of. It just means that, as you recognize, he has had quite a blow and part of your relationship involves your helping him get back on his feet.

So I would ask, as far as your exploration of your own cultural beliefs that are going to guide you in this relationship goes: What can he reasonably expect from you? What feels right and appropriate and what feels like he's crossing the line? How do you tell him when you feel he's crossing the line? How do you communicate? For instance, how did you arrive at the decision for him to store his stuff in your house? Was that OK with you at the time? Did it strike you as an imposition? And what would be too much? At what point would his reliance on you be out of line? These are the kinds of questions I suggest you ask, in order to draw some lines.


Accept the situation but establish the limits; try to formulate and express the internal rules of the situation. And keep in mind that this situation is an expression of who you are. You are not Brie on "Desperate Housewives." Whatever being Caribbean means to you, let it be a source of strength. Look at the Caribbean women around you for models: How do they manage the demands of the men in their lives? Where do they draw the line? What do they ask of the men? And how do the men in their lives try to show their love and appreciation? Do the women in your culture complain bitterly about mistreatment by men? If so, what typical measures do they take? When we need personal answers, it's often helpful to listen to our own deeply ingrained cultural wisdom.

I'm not saying this situation is fine. I'm not saying there's no clear right and wrong. Lying, stealing, the breaking of promises: These things are wrong no matter what. I'm saying that to finely calibrate your particular expectations you need to look in your own heart, at your own experience and your own culture. Clarify your expectations, and give him a chance to meet them.

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