Dear Dr. NerdLove: I have been dating this amazing girl for more than a year, and it honestly has been a great. There is one little detail that always gets to me, though. My girlfriend recently graduated from a Master’s program in a field of study she is passionate about. Things being what they are in the job search department, she has been unable to find a job within that particular field.
I am currently entering my last year (hopefully) of my own graduate degree studies and currently have been promoted to a pretty good position at my job (I work at a local theme park) that gives me a 401K and health insurance. My girlfriend and I decided to move in together and she recently got a full time job (at the same theme park, because they were hiring). However, I feel like I am holding her back from her dreams and her professional development.
I often think I should encourage her to look for jobs outside of the state we currently live in, even if it means that we would have to live apart. I don’t want her to think I’m pushing her away, but I also don’t want her to feel stuck at a dead-end job for staying with me.
I have a question for you, CR: have you asked her about this instead of me? Because look, I’m gonna level with you: I have no idea what your girlfriend is thinking or feeling about this. I’m a little more curious as to why you don’t.
Sorry, I know this sounds a bit harsh. I know you’re coming to this from a place of good intentions and genuine worry. You love your girlfriend, you’re proud of her, you want her to do well. That’s all good. You worry that maybe she’s not — in the words of a mid-90s military recruitment campaign slogan — being all she can be. Also understandable. It’s everything that comes after this that is a little grit-your-teeth-emoji in ways I’m not sure you realize.
I mean, sure there’s the mental image of recognizing that you’re somehow standing in the way of her potential and nobly stepping aside a la Rick at the end of Casablanca, pushing Ilsa to get on that plane with Victor. Yeah, she loves you more than life itself, but you’re seeing that she’s meant for bigger and better things than being tied to a theme park employee with really good benefits and if she doesn’t pack up her bags and get on that plane to… not-theme-park-land… then she’s gonna regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but someday. And maybe, some day, when she’s at the top of her field, she’ll look back on her time with you, CR, and smile and think about how it was your sacrificing your relationship with her that made this happen.
But here’s the part that I think you’re missing: her agency. She’s fully capable of deciding whether or not she wants to chase a job in her field right now, or if she’s ready to take a break for something that may not be what she went to school for, but may be the best option right now. Maybe she’s sticking around because of you, sure. But maybe her choice to stick around is more than just about being in a relationship with you. It’s entirely possible that while not breaking up and moving or trying to make a long-distance relationship work is a factor but not THE factor. There’re any number of possibilities as to why she’s not pursuing a career in her field with more alacrity that have nothing to do with you at all.
She may be passionate about her field, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s chomping at the bit right now to try to leap into it. Maybe she’s exhausted after years in a post-grad program and wants to take a break for a bit while her brain, body and soul recover. Or it’s entirely possible that she’s taken a look around at the state of her chosen field and may be saying “well… fuck that noise.” Sometimes the reality on the ground doesn’t match what you expected when you started, especially in a field that you care deeply about.
She may be looking at an industry that — like many folks who, depending on who you ask, either graduated or escaped academia — and seeing that the scenario that was painted for her when she started her Masters program isn’t matching the reality on the ground. Maybe there’s a national glut of newly minted masters and PhDs, holding their shiny new degrees and blinking their wide eyes as they step out into the light, only to realize that trying to get one of the few jobs in her field is like being stuck on the island in Battle Royale and being given a fly swatter for a weapon.
Or, hell, she may see the benefits you’re getting with your promotion and figures this is a good job to hang onto for now. And let me tell you, employer-matched 401ks and health insurance IN THE MIDDLE OF A GODDAMN PANDEMIC is a hell of a sweetener.
But the only person who could actually tell you any of this is, well, her. So, instead of asking me, you should be asking her, instead. This doesn’t need to be a tearful discussion where you try to push her to leave — the relationship equivalent of trying to chase a beloved dog away before the manipulative and cruel neighbors show up to take it to the pound to be put down. It doesn’t even need to be a prolonged Awkward Conversation where you sit down and try to map out your respective futures and where you both fit in them. All you really need to do is say “hey, I know your degree has meant a lot to you; are you sure you don’t want to expand your search radius a bit and see if there’re openings elsewhere?”
And then, you listen to whatever she has to say and take it at face value. Unless you have a real reason to suspect that she’d lie to you — and I mean, caught in the middle of the night looking at LinkedIn and crying levels of reason to suspect — then take her at her word. Let her decide for herself whether she’s ready, willing and able to look elsewhere or if she’s happy where she is for now.
I realize that all of this sounds like I’m just dunking on you for kicks, and I’m really not. It’s admirable that you want her to chase her dreams, CR. Just let her chase them at her pace and in her own way, if she wants to chase them at all.
I think you’ll be surprised to learn that you’re not holding her back at all; you may well be the person who’s currently making it possible for her to succeed in the future.
Hello Doctor NerdLove!
First off, thank you for all the excellent advice you’ve given over the years! Reading your writing has always provided food for thought and contributed to my growth as a person, and I really appreciate that. It’s also helped me figure out what I want in a relationship, communicate better, and figure out the best way for me to date.
All that great advice has led to me (34f) dating an absolutely amazing man (28m). He’s so sweet, kind, gorgeous, funny, thoughtful, and our relationship is better than anything I ever could have dreamed of. This is the first time either of us has been in a serious relationship that we can see lasting forever, and I feel so SO lucky to have him in my life. But (oh the dreaded but), there is an issue.
We met through Tinder last winter and agreed we were both looking for something long-term, but we didn’t want to meet until we were both fully vaccinated. So we kept talking, texting for hours every night, FaceTime dates, and then when we met up in April, the chemistry was there, and we both felt good about committing to each other right away. That summer, he had to move out of his apartment. We agreed that we wanted to live together, but it wasn’t the right time after dating for only three months in person. He also wanted to experience living on his own with no roommates. I have no chill, so we made a plan that he was going to find a one-bedroom apartment and sign the shortest possible lease (6-12 months here, and his idea), then move into my condo with me, live together for a year or so and then get engaged. He couldn’t find an apartment in the time frame he had to look, so he moved back into his parents’ house while he kept looking. The plan was that it would be for maybe a few weeks. But COVID has massively affected the housing here. Apartments that were $800 a month are at least $1200 now; there are waiting lists for everything, our area has had a significant housing shortage for the past five years, and since Covid started, it’s blown into a full housing crisis.
I get why my boyfriend is still living at home, and as someone who lived at home for years to save up a down payment, I appreciate the practicalities of waiting until the market is right to move out. I also appreciate how family-oriented my boyfriend is. But it’s also starting to wear on me.
My boyfriend’s parents disapprove of him staying the night at my house; they’re pretty religious and just sort of ignore that we’ve gone on vacations together where we shared a bed. My boyfriend wants to respect their wishes and it’s different than the (still good) relationship I have with my parents, and I want to support that. But I hate that we only get to wake up together when we plan months in advance for a vacation. We both have a lot going on in terms of going back to school (he’s a full-time student and I’m working on a masters) and working, and it’s an hour-ish roundtrip between his parent’s house and mine, so when we’re busy it’s even harder to carve out time to spend together.
His parents also ask for a lot of his time to do work for them, favors for their community, etc., which sometimes interferes with our plans and sometimes (more importantly) causes issues with him being able to finish his school work in time for the deadlines. He’ll be 2 hours late (with lots of notice to me) for a date because they asked him to do yard stuff. He missed the deadline for a school project because they asked him to help someone with tech stuff, and it took 4 hours instead of 30 minutes, so he had to retake the class. He comes over too exhausted and sore to do our plans after telling him he needs to help drywall his brother’s place. He’s still super considerate of me, he’s always apologetic, and I love that he is so generous with his time and effort, but he doesn’t feel like he can say no since he is living with his parents. I get it, and I want to support him, but I also saw how much easier it was for him to draw boundaries with them when he wasn’t living there. It’s frustrating to see the stress he’s feeling and know what I would do to fix it but not be able to fix things for him.
It also doesn’t feel like the relationship is progressing. We love each other so much, but the literal distance also enables a metaphorical one (never seeing each other unshowered/grumpy/not at our best, easy to not share about having a hard time until it’s over, harder to ask for help/a hug). We still talk about moving in together, getting engaged, all that, but there’s no longer a timeline attached, and that’s starting to stress me out. I’m also pretty sure that he still wants to live on his own for 6-12 months, and I support that. I felt more ready for him to move in when he was regularly spending the night, and we saw each other every day than I do right now, but we’d only been dating for three months then.
Obviously, the best solution is to win the lottery, but I think the second-best, more feasible solution probably involves communication, and that’s where I’m stuck. I don’t want my boyfriend to feel like I’m blaming him for an issue caused by the economy. But I don’t know how to bring this up or what kind of action plan to create that isn’t “win the lottery so apartment costs don’t matter.”
I want my boyfriend to spend the night more, but he’s on waitlists for every apartment he can afford. I love how much he respects his parents, and I don’t want to mess with how they all relate to each other. I don’t know what to do. Any other time I’ve had an issue or been stressed about something in the relationship, it was so easy to tell him what I felt because I had an idea or vague plan to make things better. Now all I know is that I love him, and I don’t want to lose him, but this is weighing on my mind more as time passes. He’d be preparing to move in with me within the next few months in our original plan, but the economy has delayed that plan. I know we went from zero to sixty by meeting and committing and talking about the rest of our lives together within three months, and I was okay with things slowing down, but now it feels like we’re stuck and have slid backward.
Is there a solution I haven’t seen yet? How do I bring up these issues when I don’t have a practical way to fix them? Is it worth even bringing this up, or do I just keep reminding myself that he’s doing his best, capitalism is the real enemy, and eventually it will all work out? Do I start buying lottery tickets and trust that fate will provide?
– Wanting To Move Forward
So, there’re a couple of things here, WTMF, but I think the biggest issue has nothing to do with his getting a place of his own. Trust me: I am incredibly sympathetic about how hard it’s been for him to find a place, especially while we’re entering season 3 of the COVID Experience. I have many, many friends right now who’re functionally screwed by the real estate market in Austin because even the rattiest, most run down collection of termites holding hands that people have the temerity to call a “house” is priced at mid to high six figures and folks are making cash offers at $50k above asking. Unfortunately, unless you’re both willing to move to greener pastures — which may involve moving to places that are mostly green pastures — there’s nothing that can be done except wait and hope that ya’ll get lucky.
However, as frustrating as that can be, and as much as people feel weird about living with their parents, the problme here isn’t capitalism. I think the bigger issue is… well, the parents.
More specifically, your boyfriend desperately needs stronger boundaries with them. It seems pretty clear to me that his parents, and his relationship with them, is at the center of a lot of your frustrations. So much of what’s driving you to pull your hair out comes down to the fact that he doesn’t seem to think he can say “no” to them and make it stick. And that’s a problem.
Strong boundaries aren’t just for friends or the people you’re dating; they’re for everyone in your life, including your folks. Just because people gave birth to you or raised you doesn’t mean that they get to walk all over you or dictate how you spend your time. The fact that his parents will, apparently, refuse to respect his time, his agency and his priorities is a very big issue — especially considering how much this is interfering with his life. It’d be bad enough if they were getting in the way of your relationship; that’s incredibly shitty in and of itself. But the fact that they seem to have no regard for how this affects things like his education, to the point that he failed one of his classes and costing him however much to retake the course? That is a huge, huge problem, and unless he draws some lines now, it’s only going to get worse.
Now, I get it: he’s close with his family and he comes from a culture that prioritizes familial relationships. That’s great! However, just because his culture puts an emphasis on respecting and taking care of his parents doesn’t mean that it’s cool of them to treat his time, his goals and his relationships like they’re secondary to whatever they’ve decided he needs to do. There’s “respecting your parents” and then there’s his being stuck at home while cartoon birds and mice are dancing around singing “Cinderelly, Cinderelly, night and day it’s Cinderelly…”
Here’s the thing: it’s admirable that he wants to help out where he can, seeing as he’s living with them. But living with them doesn’t mean that his time’s no longer his own, nor does it mean that he needs to sacrifice his interests for theirs. He’s a grown-ass man, and it’s well past the point that they treat him like one. But that’s not going to happen until he makes that happen. And the only way that is going to happen is when he muscles up and says “sorry, no”. “Sorry, I can’t replaster the living room, I’ve got to finish this project for my course.” “Sorry, I can’t stick around to do yard work, I’ve got a date with my girlfriend.” “Sorry, I’m staying over at WTMF’s tonight, I’ll see you all at lunch on Sunday.”
Yeah, that can be hard, especially for someone who grew up in a house and culture that emphasizes that saying “no” to your parents is rude. It also sounds like he’s something of a people-pleaser who doesn’t feel like he can say no. But it’s a skill he’s going to need to cultivate and use… and honestly, if he can start with his parents, then it’ll be that much easier to say “no” at other times when it matters.
That’s not to say that there aren’t potential consequences. His telling them “no, I’ve got my own plans,” is likely to get some pushback. His parents will likely put up a fuss. They may even threaten to cut him off or kick him out. People who rely on someone not having boundaries tend to throw tantrums when that person starts enforcing them. But the truth of the matter is that enforcing your boundaries means being willing to face the pushback and deal with the consequences. If he doesn’t… well, all that did was tell people, like his family, that his boundaries aren’t really boundaries so much as mildly worded suggestions. So he needs to be prepared for his parents making all kinds of noise if and when he says “no, I won’t.”
And if that’s the case… well, dude’s 28. There’s only so long he can let fear of his parents’ disapproval rule him. I mean, what’s going to happen two years from now when you two are about to move in together and his parents throw a fit because you’re not married? Is he going to let them dictate how the rest of his relationship’s going to go? If they’re going to try to make him bend because of their disapproval, then it’s time for them to start fearing his disapproval… and possibly even his presence in their lives.
So my suggestion? Start encouraging him to stand up for himself. Give him your full emotional support. If he feels like he owes his parents because he’s living with them, then maybe he could pay rent, rather than being their gofer. That, at least, may help him feel as if he’s giving an equitable exchange, instead of being drafted into whatever thing they’ve decided is more important than his schooling or his relationships.
But all that has got to be his call. You can incentivize him — point out how not being at their beck and call would give the two of you more time together, how much easier it would be for him to stay over on weekends or for the two of you to get a hotel somewhere nearby and have a little romantic staycation. But at the end of the day: it’s his parents, his community and his choice.
I get how frustrating this is. I hope he’s been saving up whatever and wherever he can so he can fly the coop before they decide that he doesn’t need to get an apartment or live on his own. But it ain’t capitalism and the economy screwing him over; it’s his parents and his poor boundaries. And he needs to fix that before anything else is going to work.