I am about to tell my parents about my new boyfriend, “Tom,” and I could really use your help. I’ll cut to the chase: I’m 26 and he’s 48. We met online, and he lives in southern Maryland. We were just friends at first, but then things turned romantic and we have spent hours talking on the phone and IMing about the challenges that lay before us. He was in a long-term relationship when we first met, so our in-person meetings were more like once a month. But now he’s single and we are ready to tell our friends and family about our relationship.
My parents are kind of conservative. They live in Ohio and visit quite often. It’s been tough to hide my relationship from them, but now that Tom is free and I am planning to move closer to be near him, it’s time for them to know. My dad has never liked my boyfriends – no one’s good enough for his “little girl.” Can you help me formulate a plan? What’s the best way to give this kind of info – write a letter or just introduce him at dinner? I know if they were patient, they would like him. Tom and my dad even went to the same university, so they have that in common. I’d like to ease them into this – any ideas?
-Star-crossed in the Palisades*
Dear Palisades: You admit you have been hiding this relationship, so I’m going to skip over the obvious questions about your emotional maturity in choosing a cyber-based coupling with someone so much older and inaccessible. While the truth probably lies somewhere between you having daddy issues and him being your cosmic soul mate, I’m not going to judge and am sure you already have your defenses about those issues well-established. So let’s spend our time with the hiding question instead. Unless you are completely upfront about the reasons you kept the Parents in the dark, this will continue to be a dramatic interpretation of a relationship, and never the real thing.
We hide things from our families when we aren’t comfortable with the consequences of others’ knowing. We also hide things when we are ashamed of what we’re doing. Where does this relationship fall on that continuum? It sounds like your parents visit often because they love and care about you (unless you aren’t mentioning their habit of regularly rebuking their child in a booth at Clyde’s because they just can’t get crab cakes in Ohio). Have you been embarrassed by the choices you’ve made in your relationship? Then owning up to those feelings might be the best place to start the conversation.
I am talking about agreeing to some level of vulnerability here. Open self-assessment can feel like a relief when we’ve been under so much pressure (you know, like hiding a nearly six-month relationship and a covert plan to move to another city), but it also has the benefit of disarming your “opponent.” If you and Tom want to take this pairing public, it’s better to start from a place of openness, or at least make that the norm from now on.
At the same time, online relationships don’t always have the best track record for translating into face-to-face romances, so please be sure before you bring your parents into the equation – and definitely before you break a local lease and hire Mayflower. Has Tom met your friends? What are your expectations in moving closer to him? Have you found a job there? Maybe take some time to make this a more reality-based relationship before you invite the whole family (and their opinions) to the party.
I am a person who has a very hard time making decisions. I ask a lot of people for advice, hoping something will resonate, but then end up even more confused than I was in the first place. I wish this was limited to big issues, like dating and career, but sometimes I can’t even make a choice about a restaurant or whether to buy a pair of shoes. I just keep thinking about what might come along instead, and how my life could be impacted if I make the wrong choice. It’s starting to drive me crazy, not to mention the friends and family I’m constantly bombarding with questions. I need someone to set me straight.
-Compass-less in Kalorama*
So you want to work on your over-questioning nature, by asking another person a question.
While I hate to play into this regularly scheduled drama, this is an advice column, so I suppose questions are the starting point. What do you get when you ask others for their opinions? Do you get the counsel you say you need, or do you get something more basic, like the opportunity to finally have someone else’s full attention? I’d guess that you are not too comfortable asking for what you need from others, and that playing 20 Questions has been the quickest route to some coveted one-on-one time.
Please don’t be embarrassed. Many of us have come to believe we don’t deserve to be the center of someone else’s attention unless we’re in a crisis. Who can blame you for creating that crisis every now and then? But shoes are not a crisis. Chipotle v. Pizzeria Paradiso is not a crisis. And you aren’t going to lose everything by making a single choice. I’d imagine that you have built up a tolerance for your own gut instinct, to the point that you may not even notice when it’s giving you direction anymore. It’s time to learn to start trusting yourself again.
This is not to suggest that you should go it alone on everything. A personal “panel of experts” is an important tool – I usually run this column by my own consortium including The Sister, The College Roommate, and The Trusted Colleague. But the truth of adulthood is that every other person in the world is less qualified than YOU are to make a decision for YOU.
Start small: plan a date with your significant other, take charge of the Thanksgiving Day festivities – but make sure to build in the opportunity to pause and review your choices, noting the less-than-catastrophic outcomes. Make a list of your successes and check it often. Retraining your brain to appreciate your own sense of direction is going to be a process, but it’s going to be worth it, especially when someone – gasp! – asks you for some advice.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is www.therapygeorgetown.com. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.