Advice: Relationship Q&A

Answers to qestions about real partnerships and is it time to quit.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on December 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Why Did I Kick Out Mr. Wonderful? For the past few years, I have
been in a relationship with a wonderful, caring divorced man who has a
nine-year-old son I can never be number one with. My partner is often
busy and very involved in helping his large family—first a divorced
and depressed father, now a sister newly diagnosed with
cancer—which makes him often tense and irritable and leaves no time
for me. I found myself feeling so detached and unneeded, I asked out of
the relationship. By the next morning, he had already contacted a realtor
to find him and his son a new apartment. He quickly registered his son in
a new school and informed everyone that we were through. At first, I was
happy to have peace again but after four weeks alone, I’m sad and I
miss him. He is so angry and upset with me, that he says he cannot make
any decision for a very long time and that he intends to just get on with
his life and suggests I do the same. He says he loves me too still but
that he cannot trust me right now, maybe not ever again. I don't know why
I did what I did. I have never been married before and all of this chaos
really finally got to me I guess. Is there any hope for us?

You’re lucky Mr. Wonderful even talks to you. You did what
you did because you don't understand that being in a relationship means
you operate as a team. You both pull on the same side—especially
when life throws major stresses at one of you. It may mean doubling up on
everyday responsibilities to free him to deal with the family crisis. It
may mean that you bend over backwards to soothe him when he comes home.
It’s part of the give and take of real relationships. There’s
the implicit assumption of being on a team. Each partner trusts that the
other will pull for him or her in a time of crisis. And when the
pressures ease, usually the relationship deepens, because weathering a
storm together builds a shared history, security and gratitude, which get
translated into love and trust.

Of course, to do this requires that you be a grownup, capable of
putting the needs of your partner and the relationship ahead of your own
for the duration of the crisis. Instead, you put yourself first. You felt
jealous of the attention he was giving others. That’s on top of the
lack of attention you feel you deserve from the son. But that’s a
mistaken expectation on your part. You should never expect to be number
one with a child who already has a mother, whether you like her or not.
Every child needs to love and respect both parents, and your job as
de-facto stepparent is to support that. Again, that requires being an
adult.

The breach of trust here is at least equivalent to that of
infidelity. Unless you’ve undergone some radical internal
transformation he has no reason to trust you again. It’s his call.
And if he is willing, it’s your job to demonstrate
trustworthiness—to his satisfaction. Either way, you need to take
some time to think upon the magnitude of your failure and the neediness
that led you there. And you owe a heartfelt apology to Mr. Wonderful and
his son for failing them.

Is It Time To Quit? I have been engaged for 11 months to man I
dated 17 years ago; we broke up over another woman. He called back a year
ago and eventually I forgave the unforgivable. He is sweet, fun and
loving when we are together, which is once every three weeks as we live
two hours apart. At first we owned separate businesses but he since
changed jobs—against my will, because the hours are long and often
involve weekends. A September wedding date got broken in July, supposedly
to accommodate his family’s seasonal business. Although he paid for
a wedding dress, he has still not set a date. Nor does he yet have a job
here or moved here, both of which he agreed to do, as I still own a
business and can't move. I feel like I'm in limbo. After taking the ring
off it has crept back to this. I’m not sure he isn't jerking my
strings. Is it time to quit? Should I be glad I didn't marry him? When do
ultimatums turn into begging? I am tired of having to make him
respond.

The answers to your questions, in order:

Yes.

Yes.

When you feel you have to make someone respond.

Limbo is a rough place to dwell—all those uncertainties. But
orders and ultimatums no more build trust between lovers than infidelity
does.

Your boyfriend is either an exceptionally slow learner—it
took him 17 years to come around the last time—or he is passively
resisting your efforts to impose your will. The more you try to make him
respond, the more he’s likely to say one thing but do another.
It’s not a mature way of dealing with conflict or planning a
life—it is, in fact, a way of being controlled by others while
trying to escape just that—but it is common.

That’s not an endorsement. Yes, it’s time to walk away
and get on with your life. Don’t make any announcements. Just stop
pursuing him. If that eventually lights his fire and you’re still
interested, then you have to start building a relationship that works by
mutual consent, not by your ultimatums and decrees.