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Dating Advice #120 - Waiting for the 'L' Word

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

He's got baggage and is holding back emotionally. Her family says it's time to get out. Should she stick around?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm in a quandary and hope you can help. I am 29 and have been dating a man for a year. Things are going great -- we have shared life goals, emotional closeness, respect and acceptance of each other.

So here are my concerns:

1. He has yet to say he loves me. He has said everything BUT "I love you." He has said: "I think of us, not just me," "You are the best thing to come into my life," "You mean so much to me." He says that actions speak louder than words. But I have a problem with actions speaking INSTEAD of words. I need both. If he doesn't love me by now, he never will. I've told him how it hurts me not to hear those words. He has asked for more time to come to terms with it, because he has a phobia about "that word." I figure that three months is appropriate to give him. What do you think?

2. He (age 33) was previously married and has two boys, ages 5 and 6. I never wanted to be involved with someone with kids, but both boys have grown on me to the point where I think about their welfare as well. He doesn't get along with his ex-wife, but I see him attempt to have civil conversations with her regarding decisions about the boys. She wants to give up one of the boys because he is autistic. It seems it was a very acrimonious break-up in which both parties were hurt (and even more so, the kids).

I see the difficulties involved with second marriages. In a previous article, you wrote: "It is a documented fact that interfaith couples have a 3-times higher divorce rate. Would you ever consider going into a business with a partner who carries a greater risk of failure?" But second marriages also have a high divorce rate, so shouldn't that be an important factor for me?

3. My friends think he is a good guy. My family, however, says this is not what they want for me, and feel that I could do better (especially since I am a child of divorce). I love and respect my family very much and have considered their concerns. Obviously, they are my concerns as well, but I can't handle the constant bombardment of negativity. Anything he says or does is taken the wrong way and is pointed out to me as a fault. I'm not blind. I know that he has faults (who doesn't?) but his good qualities matter more to me. I have told my family how upsetting this is to me, but they haven't stopped.

I've decided to grin and bear it, but I'm not sure if I can do this for long. It's tough not to be able to bounce ideas off my family to get an objective response. And it's putting a stress on our courtship.

So what do you think? Do we have a chance? How do I ease the strain with my family? Am I crazy to possibly undertake my first marriage to a man with so much baggage and a risk of failure? Am I just fooling myself into thinking this can actually work?

Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on my situation, as you have on many occasions for others.


Dear Joanne,

Thank you for writing. You are at an impasse and really need to resolve these issues.

We are not so worried about this man not using the "L" word. Some people have a hard time saying, "I love you." This is especially true in his case, since he was so badly hurt before. What we do feel is important, however, is whether you both have the same ultimate goals for this relationship. You say that you have all the important ingredients a couple needs to build a great life together, and we sense that you are moving this toward marriage. Does he feel the same way?

We're not dismissing the fact that you want to hear him say that he loves you. If he shares your feelings that your courtship is a good one, and if he is oriented toward marriage, then he will tell you that he loves you when he's ready. That sounds like a cop-out answer. But you've described someone who probably needs more time for the pain he's had to deal with to ebb away. He may need enough comfort and trust with you to say the phrase that he equates with commitment.

You are correct when you say that at this point, if he doesn't feel love for you now he never will (although the amount of affection you feel for each other should continue to grow with time). But he is also correct that actions speak louder than words. You are both very fortunate to care for each other and have the foundation for an enduring relationship. If he can't say the "L" word just yet, but shares the hope that this will lead to marriage, then you are moving in the right direction. If he's not marriage-oriented, all of the "I love you's" in the world aren't going to get you a lasting relationship.

We think that your idea of giving him three months to say, "I love you," really is your way of having him decide the direction he would like things to take. In that regard, it's a good plan.

As for your other concerns:

It's natural to be concerned about marrying someone whose first marriage didn't work out. You might worry that he didn't learn from his first break-up, or that he may consider divorce an easy way out when things get tough, or that his children and his former wife may put a strain on your marriage. These are all legitimate concerns, but we don't believe that they are compelling enough for you to decide not to marry the man you are dating. We've both seen a number of very successful second marriages. These marriages succeed because the partners learned from the mistakes of their first union, decided that divorce was not an easy way out, and were committed to making their second marriage work.

Adding children and an ex-wife to the equation certainly does complicate things, but there is a great deal that a couple can do to minimize the complications. In Sherry's experience, partners in second marriages that involve children have much easier adjustments if:

1. The divorced partner has gone through the mourning process for his first marriage, can deal with his ex in a civil manner, and does not involve his new spouse in "issues" with his former spouse.

2. Before they marry, the couple discusses as many child-related issues as possible, so that the stepparent-to-be knows how discipline, visitation, helping with homework, carpools, child support and spending money for children, household chores, etc. have been handled up until now. The couple should agree upon what changes, if any, should be made, and share that with the children so that everyone has somewhat similar expectations from the outset. If the children are older, their parent may want to ask for their suggestions before the adults have their discussion.

3. The children as well as the adults understand that it will take some time for the family to "blend," and agree to show each other respect and concern even though it may be difficult to become accustomed to each other. Children should be reassured that their parent still loves them dearly, but will not allow them to pit parent against stepparent.

You can find other suggestions in one of the many books on step-parenting in your local bookstore. We recommend that both partners in a soon-to-be blended family take advantage of these books to learn how to best succeed in building a life together with their children.

We'd also like to address the issues you are having with your family. We've seen many parents who had trouble accepting their child's dating partner because he or she didn't fit their own expectations for a son or daughter-in-law. Many parents prefer that their adult child marry a fresh, new person who is unencumbered by "baggage" from a previous relationship, and because they are so close to the issue they fail to realize that anyone you date will have some accumulated baggage (since that happens to all of us as we age).

If your parents' main concern is the fact that this man was married before and has a family, including a special-needs child, then we believe that you are right to "grin and bear it," and hope that your parents will become more accepting as time goes on. That often is the case. If, on the other hand, your family members are genuinely worried about a significant problem with his character, we suggest that you look into that concern a little deeper to see if it has a foundation.

If you are still having trouble deciding what to do, you may want to speak with someone you know who is happily married and has a blended family. Seeing someone who has successfully dealt with the same challenges you face can be very encouraging.

We hope our suggestions have been helpful, and we wish you the best of luck.

Sherry and Rosie

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