Dear Dr. He Said, Dr. She Said:
I am trying to figure out whether I should marry my boyfriend or not. He is a very conservative man, and I am a very liberal woman. He is a devout Catholic, a Republican, and a big family man. He has four children from his first marriage of 25 years. I am very spiritual (but not at all religious), a Democrat, and I’ve never had children despite being married before. My boyfriend really wants to get remarried and have a “forever” traditional relationship, but I am really not interested in getting married again. I would like a much “freer” lifestyle where I feel very independent yet still connected as a couple. He is discontent with my desire to travel by myself, play with my girlfriends a lot, and have my own interests. We are both in our fifties, and I feel like I’ve “been there, done that”. I love him, and I feel he is a very good man, but I have felt trapped in our relationship recently. What do I do?
DR. SHE SAYS ...
I can understand that from all your life experience to date that you are looking for something different to experience in the realm of relationship. I can also imagine that since you have been married before and are again in a long term relationship, that there is a part of you that is attracted to a relationship that is stable and consistent. It is interesting, don’t you think, that you chose to be in relationship with someone who is so traditional across the board. This tells me there is a big part of you that likes to have an anchor in your life as you experience your own independence. This is all okay if your partner appreciates the arrangement. If he wants something different on a fundamental level, which it sounds like he does, then each of your disappointments will inevitably turn to resentment and have a negative impact on the relationship.
It seems important, Suzanna, that you are really honest with yourself about why you have chosen someone who is so traditional in nature as your mate when you are stating that you want something so different for yourself. It almost sounds like you want a “father figure” who is stable and can take care of you as you individuate and assume your independence. It is also interesting that you chose a big family man given that you desire independence. If your boyfriend is a big family man, his four children will be his priority. This might work out okay for you when you desire your independence, but it might work against you when you desire his attention. It may very well work against him when he desires his partner to join him in his family life.
I would suggest that you look deeply at whether your desire for independence is a reaction to pain from previous relationships. We tend to believe that if we don’t get too invested in a relationship we won’t get too hurt if it becomes unsuccessful. If that is true for you, perhaps you can work on your fear and meet your boyfriend somewhere in the middle of “ultra” independent life and “conservative” traditional and learn to value aspects of a traditional relationship that scare you. If your desire for an independent life is the way you are truly wired then, unless he changes a lot, a traditional relationship will feel too claustrophobic for you and feel unsatisfying for him. Trying to change each other’s core values at this stage in life seems an impractical course of action.
DR. HE SAYS ...
The first question that comes up for me after reading your letter is, why does a man in his fifties who wants a “forever” traditional kind of marriage look for that kind of relationship with the absolute-opposite-end-of-the-spectrum kind of person that he could possibly find? I will assume that part of why he loves you is that the freedom with which you run your life is something he probably wishes he had more of himself. I’ll also bet he learned a long time ago that he had to transition away from a more independent lifestyle because he had children to raise. Nonetheless, you are both attracted to each other, as Dr. She suggests above, for some reason that up until now seems very threatening to the both of you.
This is such a great example of what we try to teach the couples we work with in “figuring out” their differences. In other words, whether the differences you have with your partner are about how we raise the kids, or who brings home the bacon, or what our religious differences are, because you love each other, it is your job to “figure out” how to make those differences not so threatening. And the only way that seems to work is to somehow A) validate your boyfriend’s more conservative personality—because it IS part of the reason you love him, Suzanna, B) find the thing he values the most in each of those traditional needs (for example, if family and religious connections serve his need to be part of a larger whole, this would then give him ways of serving a higher purpose in his life and feeling fulfilled) so that you can then imagine whether or not you yourself relate to some need you may have to serve some higher purpose, which then C) provides common ground for you both to create unique partnership agreements about your shared values. That is the work we all have in making our relationships work. Don’t give up! Keep talking to him and exploring more of what makes him tick (hopefully he is interested in doing the same with you) so that you can “figure out” where you both can meet.
Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. (Dr. He) and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D. (Dr. She) are a married couple who have worked together for over 15 years coaching troubled relationships to clearer communication, deeper intimacy, and healthier partnership. See their web site at