[This question is a bit on the long side, but a perfect example of hastily embarked upon relationships, dating when you want kids, and a bunch of other nuggets. Many thanks to the sender.]
I started dating someone about a month ago that I met online. We have a ton in common (he’s presently getting a degree that I also have) and when I met him I found him cuter in person than in his pictures. The first few dates were some serious “Whoa, You!” stuff and we kind of jumped in fast—he asked me to be exclusive very early, which made me uncomfortable but which I agreed to because I liked him so much, and we slept together soon afterward.
We’ve talked generally about some of the important “wants” and he mentioned in passing that he wants to have kids eventually, which made me feel like we were on the same page. For the record: I’m 35, freelance/self employed and still look and live like a younger person, but am getting tired of it. My last serious relationship lasted three years but ended two years ago—the ex and I were definitely on the track to marriage, etc. but got derailed and after a year of couples therapy, I left. This dude is 40 and was in a long relationship/marriage for most of his 20s and 30s. She wanted kids but he didn’t—with her, he says, because he knew the marriage couldn’t sustain it. He’s been divorced/out of the relationship for two years, during which time he sold his house, left his lucrative professional job and basically changed his whole life to enroll in a masters program that he’s serious about. He’s in his first year and making a stipend.
One night we had a date where I hear some things that make my ears perk up. I bring up the topic of whether we’re in the same place given that he was in a longterm committed relationship for so long and may want to sew his oats for a while, whereas I’ve been moving around the country more or less single for a long time and may be ready to settle down a bit more. I mention that I want to have a family and ideally would start within two or three years (again, I’m 35). He basically freaks out and says he “doesn’t know” whether he will be ready to have a family within my time frame, and that he doesn’t want to start down a road that will lead to my disappointment, my leaving him when I’m 38 to find someone who’s ready or staying with him and resenting him. He’s particularly worried about all of this because of guilt from his last relationship where he “ruined someone’s life” by not having kids with her.
As you can imagine, after hearing all this, I’m pretty convinced it’s not going to work, so I decide to throw in the towel and walk away. However, after a few days and talking to lots of people who tell me it’s perfectly appropriate and normal for him to “not know” about this stuff after two weeks of dating, I write him an email asking to see him again. He agrees and we start dating again, though non-exclusively and with no sex, since he doesn’t want to agree to be exclusive because of what that would mean re: the seriousness of our situation. It’s obvious that he is still really into me, but he says he needs time to think about what this all means. Meanwhile, I basically have completely changed my initial position (though not my basic desire to have a family) and decided to take things a day at a time, waiting and seeing if “I don’t know” solidifies or shifts and trusting that I’ll be OK regardless.
Am I pulling the wool over my own eyes? At this point I feel like someone I just met is seriously making a decision about whether or not he wants to father my children, which makes me pretty uncomfortable, but I can’t convince him to stop worrying about it or take it off the table now that it’s on there. What’s your take?
There are studies suggesting the neurological effects of “falling in love” are similar to madness. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I know this phenomenon well. It’s the “whoa you” effect you talk about. We find someone—who could just be some chick or dude we meet at a party—and something we didn’t know existed 5 minutes ago somehow becomes essential for our survival.
Under the spell of this madness we can’t see these prospective mates for who they are. They are not people, they are projections of our desires. If we want a family, they become mothers and fathers to our children. If we want sexpots, they become that. We overlook red flags. We assume things about them rather than ask, e.g. you assumed he was on the same page about a family rather than asking.
Based on these madness-fueled projections, we screw, forging emotional and physical connections that weren’t previously there. Remember, there’s no such thing as casual sex.
[Special note to ladies: men do and say shit at the behest of their libido that they wouldn’t otherwise. We forge connections that might not be so strong. We play into women’s fantasies because it serves our ends, which is to get our rocks off. We’re not lying—we are just acting under the influence of our own variety of madness.]
When our madness subsides—and it always does—we wake up next to people we don’t know as well as we thought we did. We think they changed, but it’s us that changed. We are no longer under the influence of our madness. We start seeing them as they are, with their red flags flapping in our faces. This is why I suggest not sleeping with people until we know them. Let the madness subside, and if we still like them when it does, if they still are what we want (or are close to it), then we can screw all we want.
But the deed is done. You guys screwed and you want to know, “what now?”
The first thing to ask yourself is, “are you willing to be in a relationship with this guy as he is—with his indecisiveness, fear of commitment, desire to keep his options open, etc.?” Don’t expect him to change. He probably won’t.
If you think you can, then you read on. If you’re sure you cannot, then drop him.
Since you’re still communicating with him, I’m assuming there’s the possibility of acceptance. Remember, just because this mess happened doesn’t mean there isn’t a genuine connection or possibility of a future; it just means there’s a bunch of things to untangle that would have been easier to deal with pre-coital.
One promise of this relationship is that you can grow and co-create a life together. It seems like neither of you know what you want. You can help each other get clearer about that. You might have said you wanted a family in the next few years, but because you chose someone who wasn’t on the same page, you weren’t committed to it. If you were, you wouldn’t have given him a chance. Now you are hopefully clearer about that desire.
He might get clearer as well. He says that he wants non-exclusivity and to look around, but from the sounds of it, that’s BS. He’s trying to max out his youth—playing the field as long as his looks will carry him—when in fact, he wants to build something. (he wouldn’t have mentioned family or date you sans sex if he didn’t). It sounds like he does want a family, but is afraid of replicating the past. Your relationships might help tease apart his fear from what he truly wants.
If I were speaking to him, I’d tell him to watch out for becoming the cliche of the 40-something grad student hooking up with younger chicks for a good time. Before long, he’s going to be that grey-haired guy reading Pinchon in the cafe smoking hand-rolled cigs—a sad picture of a withering, romantic ideal.
I’d also tell him to differentiate what happened with his ex and what’s happening with you. I’d warn him that until he gets straight about why he didn’t commit to his ex, he’s going to keep replicating this scenario of disappointing the women in his life.
But he didn’t ask me.
In terms of what to do now, for your own sanity, assuming you’re still game to pursue this, you need to find out if he’s open to the possibility of having a family with you in the next few years. Committing is premature. You guys don’t know each other that well. But if he’s open to it, then game on. Get to know each other and revisit the topic when it seems appropriate.
When asking, don’t worry about making him uncomfortable. A 40 year-old man that can’t handle family talk from the 35 year-old girl he’s dating shouldn’t even mention wanting a family in passing. He should just be straight-up: that he doesn’t want a family and is looking for a good time or whatever.
In my current situation, I wasn’t initially committed to having a family, which is what my girlfriend wanted. I was open to it however. I didn’t think she was being a ball-buster for asking. When our love deepened, something opened up in me where I could actually see a family. This vision led to commitment.
If he’s not open to it, you should move on…quickly. Assuming he’s open to it, you guys can build a foundation.
Don’t accept his non-exclusivity thing. It’s bullshit. He said he wanted it and reneged when things got serious. He’s just scared.
And the whole non-sex thing after you had sex is probably not that realistic or sustainable of a plan.
Establish the context for your relationship explicitly (no assumptions). For example, establish that you are dating exclusively; that you guys like each other and are getting to know one another better; that you are seeing if you could have a family and grow old together (not that either of you are that young right now). It may work out, but it may not. You may find yourself not as attracted to him without the madness. But at least it’ll be a sane choice—fueled neither by madness, fear, nor the past.
[Guys and girls, please send your dating and relationship questions to df at davidfriedlander dot com. Thanks.]