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Dating Advice #149 - Stuck at Home

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

Her failure to individuate is preventing her separating from her parents.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm in trouble. I got engaged six months ago, bought her a huge diamond ring, and we are currently building a new house.

The problem is, I'm very unhappy and unfulfilled by our relationship. We hardly ever do anything alone and when we do, it's not because she wants to. She always wants to be with family and friends. She's 36 and still lives at home with Mom, Dad and both brothers!

I love her, but something tells me if we get married, it will be a short and painful one. I see major problems down the road. In the meantime, she and her family have been going nuts planning a big wedding in a few months!

If we were not engaged, I would have been long gone! But this is different. What do I do?


Dear Jason,

We agree that you have a big problem, and in order to deal with it you have to understand that love is not everything. Fortunately, we won't have to work hard to convince you of this fact. As you love your fianceé, you recognize there is a serious impediment to your building a life together.

The root of the issues you described to us appears that your fianceé has not individuated from her parents. We don't say this simply because she still lives with them at age 36 -- in some cultures single adults are expected to live at home until they marry. We see signs of her failure to individuate/separate because she never wants to do anything without her family or unless she is surrounded by friends. In all likelihood, she doesn't want to be alone because she doesn't know how to function independently. Even though she loves you, she may be going through with this marriage because her parents tell her she has to, and she may be terrified of the thought of leaving the nest.

People who have not individuated have trouble seeing themselves as a separate person from their parents. They define themselves through their parents' eyes, have difficultly forming their own opinions, and rely on their parents to make most major decisions. Someone who hasn't individuated may be well-educated and have a career, but nevertheless rely on parents to handle aspects of their everyday lives -- perhaps choosing what to do for entertainment, helping select a wardrobe, handling finances, making medical appointments.

Individuation is a process that begins when a child is a toddler, continues through adolescence and the teenaged years, and is usually completed in early adulthood. Adults who have not fully individuated are able to achieve this stage of life with the help of a qualified therapist, and a good therapist can help them do so within a reasonable amount of time.

However, this is something that should be accomplished before marriage. Newlywed couples have so many adjustments to learn how to live together -- and these will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, if one of the spouses has not individuated. In addition, no one should hope that marriage will become the vehicle that will enable them to emotionally separate from his or her parents. It doesn't happen.

If your fianceé wants to address this problem, both of you have to understand that she must do so on her own, without the involvement of either her parents or you. Certainly, you can give her emotional support, but she will have to attend therapy sessions without you or her parents, and perform any exercises or "homework" recommended by the therapist on her own. Gaining independence is an independent process.

As she progresses in therapy, the nature of the way you relate to each other may change, hopefully for the better, and you may decide that the two of you can develop the skills to make your marriage a success. Of course, you may decide the opposite and decide to break your engagement.

If your fianceé doesn't want to address this issue by working with a therapist, we do not believe that your upcoming marriage should take place. Of course, we aren't in the business of breaking up engagements. But, then again, we can't encourage someone to go through with a marriage that seems likely to end in disaster.

You will need to express maturity here. Maturity means taking pain now for a benefit later. If you have to break it off, it will mean biting the bullet and being brave, to probably save yourself a much bigger mess in the future.

We hope this has been helpful, and wish you good luck,

Rosie & Sherry

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