For the past seven months I've been dating a great guy but now that things are getting quite serious I'm totally scared. I can't tell if it's because I myself am beginning to fall out of love with him, or if the internalized judgment of my (very judgmental) parents is freaking me out.
Before I met this guy, I was on an online dating rampage. I was preselecting guys who were tall, dark and handsome, had been to good schools, and were very, very likeable by my parents' standards (which at the time I thought were also my standards). I am extremely intellectual and well-educated and was looking for someone else very similar, although in the past I have had a penchant for guys with a rebellious streak as well. Then I met a man in person who totally did not fit in with what I was trying to look for. He is short, has a mohawk and rides a motorcycle, and did the Marines instead of college. He also is very successful in an artistic industry that raises some eyebrows among my parents extremely conservative WASPy set. But we met in person, not on the internet, at a social dance event, and the sparks really flew. At first I tried to fend off his advances by insisting that I would never date someone who was not my newfound "type" but soon the attraction became overwhelming and I succumbed to it.
And man, was it awesome. I have never been so attracted to someone in my whole life. Soon I was having the best sex of my life, and what is more, I was learning that I had totally judged my Mohawk Man prematurely, because although not having attended college, he loves art and culture, particularly classical music, and has generally made a point of educating himself on his own, as best he could. He is very cultured, having traveled the world in the Marines and for his work, and he has memberships to art museums, which we visit occasionally, and he enjoys accompanying me to plays, seeing indie films, we even went to the ballet, which he loved. We also do other fun stuff, like this weekend we went sledding and built a snowman, and of course we are avid social dancers, and go out dancing usually at least once a week. Our relationship has been going great, and I have been very happy. Although he has cultivated a rebellious appearance, to me he is sweet, thoughtful, respectful, considerate—a successful badboy with a heart of gold. Who could ask for anything more?
My parents dislike him immensely because he hasn't been to college, because he is short, and because my family is New York City upper middle class and the family he came from is Alabama blue-collar. They actually confronted me and told me that they think we will never be truly happy because people from the North and people from the South will never get along, that people who haven't been to college will never be as happy as people who have, and that people who are short have Napoleonic complexes and are inherently sadistic. I know, it sounds crazy, but my parents actually said this stuff to me, verbatim. After a prolonged falling out with them resulting from this ridiculous conversation, they have finally started to open up to the idea of my Mohawk-Man, and even had him around for Christmas dinner, but I can tell they would still prefer if I was with the Harvard doctor of their dreams.
Lately things have gotten quite serious between Mr. Mohawk and I. I'm 29, he's 38, and for a few months now, we've been talking about our children, spending the rest of our lives together, making plans for our future. He has in the past been very ambivalent on the subject of actual marriage, preferring instead the idea of eschewing social norms and starting a family without being married, or becoming domestic partners or something like that. He has been married before, and the wedding was very stressful and soon after he and his wife began to lose interest in each other and it was the beginning of the end for them, really. But since I told him that getting engaged and getting married before having children were really important to me, lately he's been starting to ask all those, "So… what types of rings do you like, hypothetically…." kinds of questions that let me know something serious is probably coming down the pipeline.
And yet this creeping, horrible doubt has been growing in my mind about our relationship in the last few weeks, which has been manifesting as crippling anxiety attacks. This guy has been basically amazing through and through, we have so much fun together and we share similar hopes and dreams for the future, are on the same page about wanting to start a family, etc. etc. There should be nothing wrong here. And yet this pervasive sense of anxiety is overwhelming and controlling me. I don't know what to do. I don't understand if this anxiety is a real thing that I need to take seriously because it's coming from a real place, or if it's just the result of some weird internalized judgments from my parents rearing their ugly heads and sabotaging something really great. Or am I just getting cold feet, now that I am finally about to get something I really wanted?
Please help me. These anxiety attacks are getting worse and worse and I don't want to throw away something really great just because of cold feet, or because my horribly judgmental parents have implanted some subconscious judgment time bomb in my psyche.
Sweet god, your parents' imaginations are as rich and as foreboding as a J. R. R. Tolkien novel. Short people are inherently sadistic! People from the North cannot live in peace with people from the South! Their armies will clash in the night, until the end of time! Marry this foul Hobbit, and be doomed to a life of mediocrity forever!
If only your Hobbit were taller, and had grown up in one of the finer suburbs of the northeast! If only he'd spent his formative years sulking around the mall in White Plains, or vomiting into the couches of some stinky frat house in New Haven, he'd be guaranteed a lifetime of happiness! If only he'd blindly followed the path of least resistance, from prep school to college to med school, dutifully fulfilling his parents' wishes every step of the way, then your parents could trust him to live a life of quiet longing, shuffling obediently to soccer lessons and swim lessons, picking up groceries at the proper gourmet food boutiques, drinking himself into a stupor each night in front of the premium cable entertainments currently in favor.
Instead, your Hobbit had the great-est adventure, over the hills and far away, among the ruffians, whores and harlots of the filthier port cities of the globe! Why, he probably high-fived over exotic pilsners while watching common whores cavort on stage in Pattaya and Guam, instead of high-fiving over domestic pilsners while watching common sorority girls cavort in Dartmouth or Philadelphia!
At least we know that your anxiety is genetic. And it's faintly adorable, really, how your parents want your boyfriend to match the rest of their high-end possessions. We can't exactly blame them for expressing their concerns to you, even if those concerns happen to be unhinged. I have two daughters and it's pretty tough to imagine what kind of slouchy little shitbags are going to be worthy of their shining, golden, honey-bear perfection. I pity the first fool to darken my doorstep with his pimply dipshit face.
That said, though, it's pretty obvious that your boyfriend took his time to go out into the world and figure out what he wanted from his life. He sounds very open-minded and open-hearted in the best of all possible ways. He's seen a lot of the world and he's inquisitive and thoughtful and ambitious and he wants to create a life that feels right to him rather than trudging along to the beat of some really shitty drummer who has no soul and couldn't tell you why he's banging away in the first place. I am curious, I'll admit, what kind of "artistic industry" "raises eyebrows." Is he artistically painting kittens on black velvet, artistically dunking pig fetuses in formaldehyde, or artistically framing shots of ladies bent over pool tables? Let's just assume it's the unborn pigs in formaldehyde, since that's obviously the most sophisticated and civilized option, ah ha ha heh.
Just get him to lose the fucking motorcycle, or encourage him to take out a top-dollar disability insurance policy and life insurance policy on his suicidal ass. Et volia! We are 100% ready to roll full-steam ahead into a lifelong, legally binding contract. Ah, love—heady, intoxicating, litigable!
Hold on. Wait. I have more questions. Goddamn it! I hate to spoil the mood. But… Why are you so haunted by your parents' views of your boyfriend, again? Maybe you've never disagreed with them before? Maybe you've never noticed that their minds are filled with terrifying dark fantasy worlds? Maybe you worry that this man is not a good match for you because you've got normal long-term-commitment jitters? Or maybe you worry that this man is not a good match for you because… this man is not a good match for you?
Would you say that your boyfriend has been on his absolute best behavior around you? Have you ever disagreed about anything, and if so, how did you resolve that? Would you characterize him as an alpha male, super confident, someone who gets his way in every situation? Has anyone else—not you—ever found him the least bit domineering or controlling in any way? I'm assuming that he isn't, but I want to ask just in case your parents saw some behavior that they didn't want to mention, instead opting for the much more sensible-sounding assertion that all short people are sadistic demon-trolls.
But look. On the off-chance that your boyfriend is a macho Jack Russell of a man who wants everything his way, at all times, and there's some possibility that you haven't had a chance to see this yet because you've mostly been sucking and shopping, "Pretty Woman"-style, for the past seven months, then you might consider running away, fast as your foxy legs can carry you, to the nearest hidey hole.
Intellectually, do you feel that this man has interesting ideas and insights, understands your perspectives and feelings, and often surprises you with his sense of humor? Does he like to talk as much as you do, and when you two talk, do you feel closer to each other? Are you comfortable telling him anything and everything, and do you feel like he's the one person you want to talk to about most stuff? Because a long time ago, I dated an Ivy League graduate who didn't have shit to say about anything. He had to be drawn out and had zero unique ideas or opinions as far as I could tell. I also dated a high-school drop-out who was a charming, hilarious, sensitive conversationalist and was great at pointing out the little absurdities in the most mundane experiences. I once dated this other guy who went to a mediocre college and watched a ton of football, but it was fun because he played football in high school and could read every play before it happened, and he would reenact the best plays with such enthusiasm that I loved wasting away my Sundays in his company. He also happened to have a mathematician's mind, and even though he used the words "stuff" and "things" over and over again, he was usually reaching for abstract concepts that were complex and curious, the sorts of things that stretched your perspective and made you feel really comfortable talking about your own freaky, long-winded ideas. But I also dated an upper-middle class guy who went to a great college, and all he talked about was sports, what someone did when they were drunk, and how he wanted to get rich someday. He was a really nice guy. We were attracted to each other. But when we spoke, there was no magic. We believed in each other as concepts, on paper, but when we sat and faced each other over a meal, we had nothing. He thought I needlessly complicated the world. I thought he (stubbornly, fearfully) simplified it.
Here's my point: Obviously you don't need a Harvard man to be happy. But you do need someone who makes you feel comfortable, and garrulous, and full of ideas and feelings. You need someone who appreciates the twists of your mind when you ramble. A smart woman does need a smart man, whether he's a math genius or a plumber or a plumber who also happens to be a math genius. The biggest mistake you can make, in my opinion, is marrying someone who maybe loves your body and your face and the idea of you, but doesn't actually enjoy hearing words drop out of your fat mouth. If you don't feel intellectually matched and understood and met, then you should move on. The people I know who married bad intellectual matches for them are pretty fucking restless.
What's weird is, I can't really tell that much about this guy from how you describe him. The fact that you say he's sweet and thoughtful? I trust that. But when you throw in your looming doubts, and the fact that you've only been together for 7 months, I wonder whether he's just in Dating The Hot Baby Girl mode, and he'll be very different after the courting phase. Your description of why his marriage broke up makes no sense to me (but more on that later).
And it also concerns me that you don't say that he's smart—not because I think that means he isn't smart. In fact, I wonder how perceptive you are about intelligence. The fact that you're so focused on your education, his lack of education, his memberships to museums, the fact that he passed the ballet litmus test? Very bourgeois, your notions of refinement and smarts. If indeed he does keep you interested, and he takes in new information greedily, and he has succeeded at running his own business, then why all this focus on provincial signifiers of pedigree? Frankly, I'm not sure that you're going to be happy with him until you reevaluate a lot of your prejudices and misconceptions about what intelligence and sophistication actually are, and what value they have in the world. Personally, I don't care a whole hell of a lot about how many facts are bouncing around in a person's head. Mostly I care about a flexible, open mind that comes up with great ideas over the course of a conversation, and learns new things and tries out new angles on the fly. The smartest people I know spew out crazy shit in conversation, often stuff that they've never considered before. The dumbest people I've known tend to regurgitate shit they read in bad books — over and over again—as if it's just as interesting each fucking time it's repeated.
I'm not wondering if your boyfriend is smart enough for you, honestly. I'm wondering if you're mature enough and open minded enough for him. Maybe it's a bad match because you're not as unique and flexible as him, and you can't quite transcend the very parochial values you've inherited. I wonder how well you know yourself. I wonder if you've been challenged at all in your life, in places other than school. Maybe he's prepared to make a lifelong commitment to someone who isn't really grown up yet, who doesn't really respect how much work he's done to become the man he is today. Then again, maybe he's not grown up yet, either.
Instead of letting your boyfriend pop the question out of the blue without any further discussion (which is fucking archaic, by the way), you need to sit down with him and talk about what you both want from life. I know you've talked dreamily about these things, but this time you need to be very concrete. Where will you live? Do you want kids or not? Will he always live the way he does now? What will change? Will you stay at home and raise the kids, and let your fancy education lie fallow? Is he ok with you working full-time? Are you ok with him working around the clock while you deal with all the kid stuff, even though you also have a job?
Also: What specifically went wrong in his last marriage? In your letter, you worry that YOU are falling out of love, and you also say that his feelings for his first wife dwindled right after they got married. Do you both see marriage as a perpetually in-love state of being? Because if that's the case, you should probably date for another year and see what it's like to feel a little lukewarm towards each other now and then, or to disagree with each other occasionally. Every marriage has its lukewarm moments, and a marriage's success depends a lot on how you navigate those mutually "meh" moments together. You also want to know what it looks like for you to ask him for something you need emotionally, that doesn't necessarily make perfect sense, but that you need nonetheless. Hot tip! Men who repeatedly insist that emotional reasons for doing stuff are "fucking irrational" and "absurd" (ALL TOO COMMON!) don't make great spouses.
You also need to ask yourself: What would it be like to divorce this man, or to share custody of your kids with him? Would he be vindictive, or cooperative and calm about it, or resentful and passive aggressive?
By now you're probably having another anxiety attack.
My point? You're anxious for a reason. You aren't ready to get engaged yet. You don't know enough about him, or what your future together will look like. Your parents are wrong about everything else, but they're right about this one thing. They know that you need to slow down and get to know him better. They're worried that you don't know him well enough yet. If you're also worried, you need to figure out why you're worried, and discuss it openly with him and maybe even with a couples' counselor. In my personal opinion, given what you've described in your letter, you need to go out for at least another year before you commit. You need to see how he reacts to you worrying. You need to watch and see if he can help soothe your anxiety, or if he rejects you when you're anxious.
You also need to look into your heart and ask yourself if you can see yourself with him for the next 40 years. If you feel disappointed with that picture, for whatever reason—even if that reason feels pathetic and judgmental—then you need to be honest with yourself about that. Forgive yourself for whatever you're feeling. Is it your fault? No. Can you control it? Maybe, maybe not. Trying to beat back your true feelings may only cause you more anxiety. But maybe it will help to talk to him about these doubts and fears and unfair prejudices. Maybe it'll bring you closer together. Maybe it will tear you apart. Maybe that's as it should be.
As a legendary Hobbit lyricist once put it, "The mold of your life is in your hands to break." I'm not saying your boyfriend isn't right for you. He sounds great. But you definitely need a lot more time and a lot more information before you commit. To be clear, some people can get engaged quickly and it works out fine. Knowing what I know about your situation, though, I would strongly advise against it. That doesn't mean that he's WRONG ALL WRONG. It just means that you both show signs of being swept away by romance without looking very carefully at the practicality of your choices. Maybe you're both a little immature when it comes to love. You want it to be a fairy tale. You don't want to talk over the details, because that might just spoil everything.
You know what REALLY spoils everything, though? NOT talking it over. Because you're happy together, and very much in love, it shouldn't scare you to get to know each other better. If it scares him to mull over the details, if it makes him permanently jittery and aloof, that tells you a lot about what it might be like to be married to him.
Instead of worrying about the glow wearing off, you should focus on trying to make your relationship deeper and stronger and better than ever. This might just be the beginning of the really good part.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Paul L Dineen.