by Amy Alkon
Q: I just moved in with the love of my life. Her former boyfriend from years ago lives in her downstairs “granny unit.” My girlfriend recently revealed that along with financially subsidizing him, she’s still doing his laundry because “it’s just easier.” He is 50 and previously earned a lot of money repairing computers and being a handyman, but he is not “into” working. My girlfriend is a therapist and sees a therapist, who has advised a proper separation. Amazingly, my girlfriend would rather she and I move out than insist he leave (though the home and loan are hers!). I’m worried that this will be one long, frustrating ride.—Dumbfounded
A: Kids these days grow up so fast. Before you know it, they’re 50 and back home doing bong hits in the basement.
Though you see your girlfriend as the preyed-upon one here, consider that she’s getting something out of this, too, like feeling needed and conflict avoidance. Being conflict-avoidant means refusing to experience legitimate adult discomfort—like the ouchiepoo of telling a full-grown able-bodied man that he needs to go get a job, an apartment, and a roll of quarters to do his own damn laundry.
We evolved to be a social species and to care about how others see us. However, we can take this too far, as your girlfriend has, probably out of an overvaluing of relationships (over self) and an ensuing desperate need to be liked. This leads her to shove away her needs, making her the perfect mark for an aging and manipulative slacker—to the point where she stops just short of cradling her adult baby in her lap and feeding him a bottle of pale ale.
Life involves making trade-offs. On the one hand, you call her the love of your life. On the other hand, she comes with a man-sized tumor that she seems unwilling to excise from her life and yours. Whatever you decide, avoid telling her what to do (which generally provokes defensiveness, not change). Instead, you can tell her where your “nuh-uh, can’t do” point is—like if you ultimately can’t live with a woman who is in a relationship with you but has one foot (and her wallet and a couple of laundry baskets) squarely in the life of her ex.
It’s possible that a real likelihood of losing you could do for her what having a therapist and being a therapist could not—compel her to act assertively. However, you do take a risk in drawing the line. You may decide to just suck it up to keep her, even if it means keeping him. If so, try to focus on the positives of having an adult toddler around—like how he should only need to be taken to the emergency room for the occasional cardiac event and not because he’s put yet another bean or LEGO up his nose.
Q: I started dating a female co-worker. I’ve seen many office romances go bad and be fodder for gossip, so I act very professional at work so nobody knows. She’s hurt that I’m keeping her a “secret.”—Stressed
A: It’s a bit of a disconnect to get the office hello from a guy who, just the night before, was undressing you with his teeth.
But the real problem here isn’t conflicting ideas on whether to put out an all-office memo: “The softball team will meet at 5:30pm behind the building, and oh, yeah, Amber and I are doing it.” Differences of opinion are part of every relationship. What helps your partner feel OK about them—even when she goes along with what you want—is acting like you’re in a relationship, not a dictatorship. This means figuring out policy together instead of your single-handedly deciding it and then—surprise!—greeting her like you aren’t quite sure whether she’s Amber who just helped you break your headboard or what’s-her-face from sales.
Had you made this a discussion instead of a decree, she might’ve told you she’s worried you’re ashamed of her—allowing you to reassure her (assuming you’re not). Well, there’s no time like now to have that policy discussion—including worst-case scenarios, like how you two would handle it if things went south. It does seem prudent to wait to alert your co-workers until you’re reasonably sure your relationship has legs. However, sooner or later, somebody from the office is likely to run into the two of you out on the town. The story of a Saturday night strategy session in the parking lot of a romantic French restaurant is unlikely to fly—especially when it appears to have ended with both of you wearing her lipstick.