Will my boyfriend ever want kids and marriage?

He recoils at the idea now, but he's only 26. Should I assume he'll change? Or move on?

Published June 10, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)


Today I am thinking about red flags. How does one determine if something is a red flag?

My boyfriend and I have been together for approximately a year now. He is funny and engaging, and our relationship is by far the healthiest one I have been involved with in a long time. I am in a good place in my life where things seem to be flowing with the appropriate amount of struggle/success. Things go so well, for the most part, that we haven't had many "defining" discussions on what we are or where this is all going. He hates that kind of stuff, and I find it exhausting usually. So we've avoided talking about the future (together) at all, which for the most part, I am fine with. I don't see any rush.

Except, he hates the concept of marriage and family.

I'm not looking to get married anytime in the near future, and children are an even more distant prospect, but I do want those things. I do want them eventually, and I don't think that will change. My boyfriend jokes disparagingly about marriage and children with such frequency and vehemence that it's started to get into my head. He says he never wants children. He describes marriage as "the end of life." To give a little context to his background, he was adopted by a single woman, has a very small family circle, and his construct of family is obviously different from someone with a more traditional background. It is entirely possible that he is being completely serious when he says he never wants marriage or a family. Especially the family part. His first experience with an infant was three months ago, and he was frightened beyond belief to hold such a tiny "alien-looking" thing. He fakes vomiting every time the subject of children is brought up.

To further confuse things, we have had a few instances where he's switched things on me. We went on a vacation a few months ago and a tiny little boy smiled and waved at him, and I watched his stalwart child-hating resolve melt with those fat little fingers. He told me it was children like that who made him think that maybe, just maybe, children weren't all bad and having one wouldn't be horrible. He occasionally refers to a future distant wife/family situation when talking about life plans.

The two times I've brought it up in any seriousness, his answers have been vague and sort of naive -- as if he had no idea what was actually involved in being married or having children. I suppose it makes sense if he hasn't really had any experience with either, but it was a little shocking.

He's 26 years old. I realize at this age, he doesn't even need to be thinking about settling down. I realize that a lot of this is probably the bravado and insecurity of a man who is still figuring out what adulthood looks like, who is still defining who he is and what he wants. I realize this. Things may change in the future, and it's probably best to simply focus on the "now" of the moment.

However, you, to my knowledge, do not have children. You may recognize the differences between immaturity and sincere personal ideology better than I do on this subject. I don't want to spend years with this man only to part in bitterness down the road when I realize that what I took for youth is actually something more and that he actually doesn't intend on having children or getting married ... ever. Should I take these jokes and comments and mock fear with a grain of salt and assume he's still in the decision-making process, or should I view them a little more seriously as I consider the possibility of a future with him? Are these red flags that will torture me in hindsight?

Many thanks for everything you write,


Dear R,

It's risky to trust that people will change. It is safer to assume that people will remain as they are. That may sound pessimistic. People do change. But change is the exception. That is why we prize it so. The forces against change are large and often insurmountable. It is a lot of work. It is expensive. It is painful. It is slow.

Right now he does not want to marry and have kids. This is in keeping with his background. He makes sense as he is. His experience of childhood does not recommend itself to the idea of marrying a woman and raising children together. That is not how his life happened. Such a life is probably "alien-looking" to him. To think that he would change is to assume a lot -- that he would have a vision of a two-parent family lovingly and thoughtfully raising children in a stable environment. Where is he supposed to acquire such a vision of the future? A happy, loving, two-parent family may be the kind of thing which, as a child, he glimpsed only fleetingly at a distance and only with great pain and which, as an adult, he glimpses only with loathing. It may also be that he found great reserves of strength in being raised by a single parent and, in a way, looks down on those raised in two-parent households. At any rate, it obviously is not his idea of a good time.

He may also have an emotional conflict born of a thwarted desire to have the kind of family that he saw around him as a child. In order to deal with his situation, he may have adopted an exaggerated, cartoonish contempt for what he wanted as a child and could not have.

Since he was adopted, his infancy may have been more troubled than we know. We cannot know in what hours or days he lay in virtual abandonment, unable to voice his needs, out of touch with his mother, being cared for by professionals who, no matter how loving, may have been overworked, in understaffed facilities. His infancy may contain memories of almost unbearable psychic pain. That may be why he fake-vomits whenever the subject of children is brought up: There may be so much pain associated with infancy that he literally feels sick at the sight of an infant; perhaps he can only respond to infants as though they were monsters because that is how he conceived of himself as an infant -- unwanted, unloved, repugnant: a monster. This could all be possible without any outward signs of abuse or trauma, because silent institutional neglect, for an infant who cannot adapt to the passage of time by constructing a future rescue, can be existentially traumatic. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

He may change. You never know. But some of these infant things, lord, they are hard to get to. There are certain kinds of psychic pain that are so strange and deep, overwhelming ... rooted in infancy, baffling, resistant to change ... imprinted before language, before the infant can conceive of a future. Looking back with a developed intellect, we can hardly conceive of the kinds of pain an infant experiences. We must almost literally become children again, relearn the emotional landscape of childhood, learn to feel the global hopelessness and existential fear, the self undifferentiated and powerless, with no refuge in ego, no refuge in a future, adrift in a turbulent, threatening and overwhelming now. Words cannot really do this notion justice. It is a preverbal notion trying to find traction in a verbal world.

But here is how difficult it can be in later life. Just for perspective: My first glimmer of infantile existential pain and fear came as intense stomach pains and emotional dissociation some 20 years ago; when that happened I was lucky to be in the company of some wise and compassionate people who intuited what was happening. I quit drinking soon after these phenomena began to surface and began feeling things that I had masked for many years. It has been a very slow process. It has been layer after layer, rationalization after rationalization, illusion after illusion peeling away toward the existential. So if your boyfriend does have a similar psychological makeup to mine -- jokingly abhorring the idea of children and family -- you have to ask if you are interested in accompanying him on such a slow, difficult journey. More importantly, you have to ask if it is likely that he is even interested in taking such a trip. It may be that for some years to come he will prefer to stay in the safety of his adaptations and will develop the typical suite of maladaptive compensations people like us come up with: our impulsiveness, our trouble with intimacy, our dependency, depression, drug abuse and addiction.

I had conflicts similar to his. And I can say that in spite of many changes I have undergone, my lack of keen interest in children did not change much. As I discovered some of the painful roots of my troubled feelings about parenthood, and separated my past from my present, I became willing and open to the idea of having kids. But my feelings did not change much. I did not become highly motivated to have kids. I just became more neutral, less tortured.

Furthermore -- and I don't mean to be such a downer, but I don't want you to make needless trouble for yourself -- you must ask if you yourself have some elements of the rescuer, and if you may be committing yourself to a project marriage, taking him on as a fixer-upper. You may not be conscious of this, but part of you may be responding to his wounded person, with a desire to heal him and possibly also find some measure of power and redemption through this activity.

So this is a lot to think about! You could be letting yourself in for a lot of unhappiness if you take on a relationship with a man who so evidently has early-childhood issues. And remember, when it comes to marriage and family, your choices affect not just you and him but your respective families. And also -- here we pile irony upon irony -- such early-childhood issues, if not addressed, may find fertile ground for their replication in a new family, setting in motion generation after generation of unresolved pain and buried conflict!

However -- and this is my final thought in what has turned out to be another in a long tradition of lengthy replies! -- it might be worth exploring this with him, though, whether you plan to stay with him or not. Opening a conversation with him about this might constitute a significant turning point in his life -- as it was for me, although in my case it happened in my early 30s after years of compensatory drinking and drug abuse. It might be the first time someone has talked honestly and compassionately with him about his early childhood and his true feelings of sadness and deprivation. It might also end the sweet, easy phase of your relationship. It might get very uncomfortable. He might resist any such talk. He may find it preferable to continue in the safety of this sweet relationship, with all its lingering and unresolved questions held safely at bay.

So, after all this, what, if anything, is on the "change" side of the scale? Well, some of the evidence for change lies in the vehemence of his aversion, as we are sometimes most vehemently opposed to the things we most vehemently desire. Underneath may be deep longing. But can you bet on that? Can you bet on his doing the difficult work of reconciling this conflict, if it exists? Right now he doesn't want to have kids. And it's probably safe to say that even if he should decide that he wants kids, it will be hard for him. He has great conflict.

Finally -- man, this does sound like a downer! Sorry! -- if you are trying to make one of the biggest decisions of your life, you are more likely to make the right decision if you base it on the observable facts. If he says he never wants kids and never wants to get married, you have to give that more weight than the possibility that he may change.

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