Time to choose: The stable guy or the fun guy?

I want kids. I want security. I want laughter.


Cary Tennis
February 3, 2009 4:25PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am writing to you from the very depths of desperation. I have spent the last six months obsessing, to the cost of my job and the grave annoyance of my friends and family. I would love to keep debating the issue, but I feel my time is almost up.

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I am torn between two wonderful men.

One is dependable, reliable, sweet and kind and loves me with the sort of conviction I hardly understand myself. We spent many years together, and although our relationship was sometimes tumultuous (mostly my fault, now largely under control), we did and still do love each other tremendously. I trust that he would be by my side if I needed him, without question. Life with him would be financially stable and easy. I am still attracted to him, but he is a very contemplative, somewhat humorless man who goes through life taking both himself and everything else much too seriously.

The other is funny. Really, really funny. He is generous and encouraging. Financially, this situation is not as good. Money would be tight between us, and it would likely not improve in the long term. This man's greatest attribute, to be honest, is that he makes me into a more positive, more lively person. His energy is positive and fun, so it's easy to feel the same around him.

The real issue is that this second man is over a decade my senior. I am at a point in my life when I would like to have children soon, and get married. I don't necessarily need to have the marriage part, but this second man's stance against marriage is so strong it only makes me want it more. Also, as he already has a daughter and he says that he is not particularly set on having more kids. He could go either way -- although recently I have gotten the impression from him that perhaps not having more children is the direction he is leaning toward.

I would love to wait around for this second man to see if he eventually decides that he would like to marry me and have children, but I feel like I may be wasting my time.

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In a way, I feel as though I am trying to decide between a lighthearted relationship that will eventually turn sour (but is very much fun for now), and a more serious and, dare I say slightly, more levelheaded situation that would likely remain steady and provide me with a very comfortable and nice life if only I commit myself to it wholly. Rationally, I want to pick the first man, because I have known him much longer, can depend on him and love him very much. I love this second man as well, but staying with him ... well, I would feel like a spoiled child looking to have some quick fun with dire long-term results.

Of course, I know that only I can make this decision, but I have made lists of pros and cons! I have spend countless nights going over the benefits and perils, and blah, blah, blah. And still, I cannot figure this out. I give up. Clearly, I need guidance.

A Very Lucky Woman

Dear Lucky Woman,

Well, that's pretty hard to decide, all right. But wanting kids is probably the deciding factor. It's not that marrying somebody who makes you happy is a bad idea. It's probably one of the few good ideas we're likely to have in a lifetime. But marrying somebody who makes you happy but is not going to give you what you ultimately want is asking for trouble.

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If you could just stick around until it's no longer fun and then leave, no strings attached, that would be great. But marriage is like joining the mafia. You can't just leave. You have to have sit-downs. It can get ugly.

As a consequence, generally speaking, you stay in too long. You stick around thinking he'll change his mind about the kids. You grow resentful at his attempts to cheer you up. He becomes not the guy who entertains you, but the guy who is withholding the very thing you want more than anything else in the world. His cheerfulness starts to look like denial. While you're gnashing your teeth in the night and talking to all your girlfriends and writing to advice columnists wondering what to do, your happiness is slipping away. You're starting to despise this wonderful, wonderful man.

So what we've got here is two possible trajectories, one that starts out happy but is headed toward greater conflict and contradiction, and one that starts out so-so but is headed steadily toward greater happiness and comfort. One is clearly superior.

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You could graph it. One graph shows greater initial happiness, but as your long-term needs grow in urgency, the marriage offers less and less satisfaction of those needs. The other shows less initial happiness but as the long-term needs become more urgent, the marriage offers more and more satisfaction of them. You also have divergent divorce scenarios, should divorce, God forbid, become necessary. On the one hand you have the high cost of starting over -- as you probably will have acquired fewer assets -- plus the low likelihood of a good monetary settlement and continued support. On the other hand you have a lower likelihood of divorce (as the marriage is trending toward greater security and satisfaction) plus a higher likelihood that, should you divorce, you would be better off financially, not only because of the settlement but because the financially stable guy probably has a more financially stable social network, which you could call upon for help. In times of crisis, it's good to know bankers.

This may sound awfully coldhearted. Is there some third way? Could you have an open marriage with the stable guy, and see that fun guy on the side? It's a long shot, and if you try to do it on the sly, you're headed for trouble. But you might consider it.

Let's look at it in a more general way, in terms of needs. You have a high need for fun -- probably higher than Mister Reliable's need for fun. So maybe you spell it out for him -- not that you're going to sleep around, but that you're going to build into your life a good deal of independent fun, including, perhaps, some platonic friendships with men who really crack you up. Could you handle that? Could he? Is he controlling? Is he overly jealous? If so, you might be introducing some intolerable stress into the relationship. He might retaliate financially, as he appears to have the upper hand in that regard. But if he's stable and unthreatened, maybe you could swing it. You could have the kids and the security but also a higher-than-average fun quotient.

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I figure it's worth trying.


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Cary Tennis

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