Relationships and Contract Negotiations

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Dear David,

I am a young professional living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan. I am dating a wonderful guy who happens to be 15 years my senior (he’s 40), for a little over a year and a half now. We started dating casually but eventually fell pretty hard for each other.  After a few ups-and-downs, we moved in together last September.

Things have been going wonderfully, and we have spoken about marriage and having kids and he was on board, especially because he is older than me. Because our building is going condo and offering buyouts, the idea of buying a place of our own together seemed great. We were looking at properties and discussing options; and yes marriage was only a step after that.  Then things cooled down after we decided to take our time and not rush anything because of a buyout. Then one day I was joking about just getting married at city hall and it got very serious and he said he was scared to get married again (he dated a woman for 4 years, got married to her to keep her in the country and she left him for another man 6 months after). He’s afraid of me leaving him. After all the talks we had about getting married and how he was so excited to have kids, I was shocked.  After 3 days of flipping out in my own head, I told him straight out: I expected us to be engaged by the end of this year. He said he was being silly and I caught him at a bad time and he promised me we would be engaged by the end of the year.

Only now, he discusses things like kids and our wedding whenever he wants, but when I ask legitimate questions about our future like when he is thinking of really making an effort to get a new job (because without a new job, he won’t be able to afford an engagement ring), or if we can move into a new apartment together (I love our place but it’s small) or anything concrete, he freezes. He starts getting annoyed and blames my need to over-plan things and just says we’ll see. He is very independent and doesn’t like me “checking in” on him but I feel like these are normal questions to ask for a woman who is going to spend her life with another person. I want to know what his plan is, and it seems he has no plan.  Although this doesn’t stop him from seeing a beautiful cake and saying how nice a cake like that would be at our wedding, or randomly saying on a walk “lets have babies”.

I’m not quite sure what to do at this point.  I cant really get a straight answer out of him when I talk to him (one minute its babies, the next he is scared to get married again, and a minute after that he is sure I’m the one). Any advice?

K

Dear K,

It appears as though your guy wants to marry you and have kids, but I think he’s scared that he’s not good enough—for you, for the woman who left him, etc.  That’s why he spazzed out after the City Hall suggestion.  This fear of not being good enough makes him reticent to commit to you.

The first suggestion I have is assuage some of his fear.  Let him know that he is good enough (if you mean it, of course).  Tell him that you love him no matter what type of ring he gets you, no matter what type of dwelling you reside in.

By you writing about those details in your email to me, I suspect some of your love might be conditional on those things (however small an amount) and he might be buckling under the weight of that conditionality.  People fall in love with people, not their circumstances.  Let him know you love him for who he is.  When the love is established, you can get into the nuts-and-bolts.

First off, it’s not ridiculous to discuss conditions of a marriage and family.  Marriage isn’t merely a matter of loving someone.  It’s a contract.  And like all contracts, the terms must be laid out from the outset.  I do freelance writing which requires contracts.  My client and I first discuss the project, its terms and expectations, and then a contract is drafted, which is either signed or not.  Only when the contract is signed is the project is carried out.

So once the love is established (basically saying that you want to work with him), you can discuss what you both want out of a marriage specifically.  This is the negotiation stage of contract making.  When I proposed to my girlfriend, it was after we had established our love for each other and discussed what we both wanted for our futures—values, family, lifestyle, etc.  If there was a huge rift with these things, I might not have asked.  As it was, we were in alignment and we agreed on the contract (or agreed to formalize the contract in the near future).

Keep in mind that discussing the terms and entering a contract is not the same as fulfilling on them immediately.  Like any contract, many of the items discussed won’t be fulfilled on for some time.  It’s just an agreement about what you both want out of your contract.

I think if you’re willing to accept him as he is, understanding that he might not immediately fulfill on all the terms, he will probably be more inclined to propose a contract.  He might even be more motivated to get into action when he knows you’re okay to be where he’s at.  That’s what happened for me:  my fiancée allowed me to be where I was at, with my not-so-enviable circumstances.  Her love and acceptance gave me space to start moving toward what I wanted, rather than feeling inadequate for not being where I “should” be.  It was only after I proposed that I got the ring she wanted and the job that would make our contract work.

If he’s not willing to talk about the terms of a marriage specifically, if he’s dismissive, lackadaisical or unwilling to make plans, then you might want to ditch him.  Give him an opportunity to step up, but if he doesn’t take it, it’s probably an ominous sign of things to come.  I haven’t been married before, but I imagine it requires a lot of stepping up and uncomfortable discussions.

Lastly, you mentioning his age reminds me of the fiction-writing adage:  “if you’re going to write about a gun, it better go off.”  I don’t want to overstate this as an issue.  It sounds like you guys are into each other.  But if you are going to marry this guy, be super clear that this is your guy.  It’s not so much that he’s older and all the issues that entails—different peer groups, different physiological issues, etc.  What’s more disconcerting is that he’s exhibiting behavior appropriate for someone in his mid-twenties.  If he’s not cool with committing by this age, if he is not willing to have tough conversations and make plans with you for the future at the age of 40, when will he be ready for those things?  60?

Coming from this 35 year-old, 25 is not that old.  Don’t feel the need to rush yourself because he’s getting older.  This is an important contact.  You want to be sure both parties are committed to fulfilling on their agreements.

Hope this helps and many blessings to you both.