Drift into marriage? Or break up and start fresh?

My relationship doesn't feel completely right. But is there something better?

Published November 5, 2008 11:00AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have just entered my mid-20s and have begun to really organize and figure myself out. I know exactly who I am and feel happy with myself. Unfortunately, though, all this soul-searching has led me to find that my serious boyfriend of three years is not anything like me, that I cannot/don't want to change him, and that this is a problem. The differences go beyond simple things like tastes in movies or cuisine, and concern things like sex, our basic personality traits and emotional needs in a relationship. He's a great guy whom I love and care for and I know he loves me as well, but when is it time to decide that we're not fooling anyone and it's time to move on? Marriage feels somewhat imminent, but looking at it right now, I don't think I would say yes. He can sense that I'm unhappy, but again, it's not something that either of us can really change: We are who we are.

I often assume that it's impossible to find someone who really knocks you off your feet and that you should be happy when you find someone who is a decent human being who treats you wonderfully, that life is seldom the way we see it in art, movies and literature. But then I look at my parents, who embody passionate, romantic love, and I rethink things and wonder if I do have the chance for that kind of love, for that kind of deep understanding from another person. Having grown up with such a great example, it's hard not to want that. I'm not sure if I'm being unrealistic in my expectations or I'm cheating myself by not moving on. Should I wait it out? I don't want to ruin a good thing, but also don't want to limit my own happiness ... or his.

Torn 20-Something Dreamer

Dear 20-Something Dreamer,

If you do not feel fundamentally that this is the right person for you, then I think you should break it off. I do not think you are being unrealistic.

No one can guarantee that you will not look back on this decision with mixed emotions. But you are guaranteed to learn something by it. And you are in the period of life where you can learn much by making decisions based on your deepest feelings. You are in a period of life where you can, indeed, set a course for yourself, by courageously taking yourself at your word, and doing the things that are hard but true.

The point you describe having reached seems to be an authentic self, a vantage point from which you are no longer in doubt about what you want from life. This growth probably took place over the course of the last three years, while you have been with your boyfriend. You could not have known when you set out with him where you would end up. Your growth has been autonomous and separate from him, and you have ended up a somewhat different person. This is what happens in our 20s. It is not his fault. It does not mean he is not a good person. It is not about him at all, really. It is not about finding the ideal mate. It is about trusting that you have finally achieved an integrated, autonomous self and are ready to do its bidding.

So I think it is important for you now to begin setting your course based on this person that you have become. Trust this person. This person knows what is best. This person can make fine, subtle judgments about what will lead to happiness and what will lead to disappointment. This person needs you, in a sense, to take her at her word.

As to finding the perfect mate, I would suggest that it is quite possible to find "someone who really knocks you off your feet." The trouble is, the man who knocks you off your feet often fails to help you up off the floor. (Instead, you might say, though this is a bit of an aside, he drifts off in search of further entertainment until the room is littered with prostrate women. They dust themselves off, congratulate themselves on their good fortune and search their purses for cab fare!)

The finding of a suitable mate is of course part of it, but it is not the real issue here. The real issue here is the awakening of an autonomous and true being, empowered to make her own decisions, learn from her own mistakes and chart her own course. This is a lifelong thing. Acquiring the skills needed to navigate in these waters is only one of many things you will learn along the way. If we are to be autonomous we must learn to communicate well, and trust our deepest feelings and intuition.

So I suggest you begin breaking off this relationship by describing what has happened, and the necessity of clearing the way for what comes next. It may not make sense to him, or, again, it may make the most astounding sense possible. It may come as a revelation of such depth that he is, although hurt, also grateful for your naming of this thing, this stage of life, this awakening of the true adult spirit of autonomy.

For the alternative is to drift, and drifting requires one to shut one's eyes a bit, to ignore the calls of our deeper self, to pretend, in a way, that this is fine, that this is all we get, that to settle in and drift along for the ride is all that can be expected of us, and to ask for any more is to risk rocking the boat or hurting feelings or calling attention to ourselves or seeming to be uppity or better than the rest who are content to drift along.

Even if he is content to drift, you are not. So I think you are right to separate and try to live the life that seems to be calling to you.

Good luck on the journey.

Boyfriend troubles? Read pp. 47, 63, 104, 116, 149 ...

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By Cary Tennis

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