Should I stay in Ireland because my boyfriend's mother has lung cancer?

Things were getting rocky before this news, and now he says maybe I should go.

Published December 2, 2008 11:05AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I would really like to hear your thoughts on a fairly complex situation that I have been unsuccessfully struggling to reconcile for many weeks. It's a bit convoluted, so I will give you the short version, and hopefully it will make sense. I have been living in Ireland for the past two years, working quite unhappily as a financial manager in a big bank. I say "unhappily" as I have never enjoyed my career in accounting, and consequently, about a year ago I applied to several top public policy grad schools in the U.S. and I was thrilled to be accepted to all with full scholarships. Around the same time I accepted a place at one of the top schools, I met a wonderful, loving and kind Irish man who charmed me completely, and this made me want to stay in Ireland, so I gave up my spot in the class after we had been dating for a few months, and remained with him here in Dublin.

Things were fantastic for a while, but then I started to have passing regrets about remaining in Dublin, especially as times got tougher at work for both of us, and the rosy period of love began to fade. More recently, things have been made even tougher for us both, as his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and does not have much time left to live. My boyfriend is understandably devastated, and despite the more recent problems we've been having in our relationship (all normal adjustment problems, in my opinion), I want to be here for him and support him through these tough times, as I do love him tremendously.

My difficulty arises in that while I have conveyed many times how very much I want to support him during this period, he is unsure of his desire to continue the relationship in the context of such loss and devastation. He says that this isn't about me, as he loves me very much, but he is unsure of his capability to give me the support and care that he feels I deserve, and he also doesn't want me to remain in Ireland when I am unhappy in my current job, especially when I could be in grad school in the States. He has not said he wants to break up, he simply says that his head is a mess, and that he doesn't know what he wants. The problem is that I love this man so very much, and I know my heart would break to leave him and "give up" on the relationship just because we are in a difficult period. I feel that now is the time to truly support him, but he doesn't even know if he wants me, which is confusing to me, and hurts me. He has admitted that were his mother not sick, he would have no trouble giving the relationship a shot. I have not experienced the pain of losing a parent, so I am at a loss as to whether I should call it quits myself or try to hang in here while he clears his head. It is very tough to be in this state of limbo, not knowing that once his head clears whether he will want me, or he will break up with me, but I struggle with the idea of calling it quits myself, even if it would ease my own pain. We love each other and we are a very good match, and I am afraid that walking away from this will be one regret that stays with us forever.

All advice is appreciated,


Dear Torn,

When we men face a tough emotional blow, when we are weakened or stunned by grief, we need support. But to get support we must relinquish control. We don't want to relinquish control. We don't think we can just go and tell our girlfriend what we're feeling and have that be OK. We think we have to solve the problem.

So instead of accepting that our girlfriend loves us and wants to be there for us, instead of saying, Baby, I'm scared, I don't want my mother to die, we start thinking up ways to end the relationship in a nice way.

So we say, Baby, I just can't be here for you the way you deserve for me to be here for you. We say, I don't want to put you through this.

It's true that we don't want to put anybody through this. But most of all, we don't want to put ourselves through this.

We also say, Baby, I just don't know what I feel.

We do know what we feel. We just don't want to be feeling it. It is grief, confusion, fear, sadness, anger and a whole host of anticipatory feelings that we're not going to enjoy feeling when they happen any more than we're enjoying them now but we sure know they are coming down the track just like the grim reaper himself.

Another reason we say we don't know what we feel is that we feel conflicting emotions. We don't like the conflicting part. We're feeling more than one thing and that doesn't seem right. It's like if we're from Dallas but we live in San Francisco and the Cowboys won and the 49ers won too, or if the 49ers beat the Cowboys; we don't know what to do with that. We like to believe that one emotion is the right one and the other is the wrong one, or that one is true and the other is false. We're OK with feeling two good things at once, but not two bad things, or one good thing and one bad thing.

Also, we don't like a problem we can't solve.

So we definitely don't like lung cancer. We especially don't like our own mother getting lung cancer. But it would not occur to us to ask our girlfriend for help getting through it. Instead, we think, Maybe I need to be alone now. Maybe you should go do that grad school program in the States after all.

Jesus, we are morons. The last thing we're going to do is ask for help from the one person most willing and able to give it.

And here's another thing. We operate on a performance bonus plan. We don't believe that anybody really just loves us. The way we work things, any love we get is basically a loan.

Now here is one thing that I want to mention though I don't have anything witty and insightful to say about it. It's just about not being able to accept and receive love from other people. Now, the one person we ever did receive unconditional love from was our mother. So he is facing losing the one person who ever did give him unconditional love. So somewhere in there, at the same time that he is going to be trying to control everything and be the hero and take care of everyone else, there may come a moment when he needs to just be held, mothered, loved unconditionally. And damned if he is ever going to admit that to anyone. So it may come out in unexpected ways. You may need to cook for him or wrap him in a blanket. Don't be surprised.

He will probably reject your help at times. He may claim to need solitude when it seems clear to you that what he needs is support. There may be things that he cannot share. He may at this time be drawn closer to those he has known longer. There is also the danger that he will be drawn to new women. When one is in grief, it can be tempting to find someone one can shine for. He may look at you and know that you know and know that he can't be fake with you. So he may be tempted to try to be the person he was before his mother got lung cancer. Such an event, if he thinks for some reason he needs to tell you about it, could be pretty tough on the relationship. It could hurt a lot. It could occasion the throwing of things, and the making of ultimatums and new compound swear words and loan words of obscure but clearly obscene origin. It may even destroy the relationship, which, in fact, might be part of the motive: When one feels that one cannot rise to the occasion and be the person one was, then it can be tempting to sabotage the relationship.

This is how I think and I am a guy. But not all guys are like this. This is just a general overview. I'm exaggerating and generalizing to make a point.

Your boyfriend has gotten some devastating news, and is probably trying to solve this problem of terrible sadness and approaching grief by taking sensible action. So I would advise you to recognize that this is what he is doing, recognize that most of his emotional energy for the next few months or year is going to go to dealing with his mother's lung cancer, recognize that this may well make him act crazy at times, that he is not always going to know what he is doing, and just do the right thing anyway. Stay there. Be there for him. Stay in Ireland and help him get through this. And if, at the same time, you can possibly get out of this job you hate, you might try to do that. Maybe take something less demanding, and plan for grad school a year from now.

Someone you love got cancer? Read p. 35

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By Cary Tennis

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