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Dating Advice #150 - Life with a Starving Artist

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

He's a mensch, but works for minimum wage. Can creativity carry them through?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I've searched your articles looking for info related to my situation. I and the man I'm seriously dating are in our 50s. We've each been married before and have seven children between us -- three of whom are still young enough to be in the home.

Our relationship is getting serious, but each of us is afraid of making a mistake again. We have each done a lot of emotional work to heal from past relationships, analyzing what we used to be looking for, and determining what empty hole we were trying to fill at the time by picking the ex-spouse. (And filling up the holes ourselves this time, before we looked for someone else to do it for us!)

My question is still the age-old question, however: How do you know that you've thought through the issue well enough to get married? I was married for 22 years to a cold, distant man who treated me to a spiritually and emotionally empty marriage. I now know that I "married" my mother and her views of what made a good husband (a successful, popular, socially adept man).

The man I'm dating now has almost every quality I've ever wanted. He is emotionally open, has a keen spiritual depth, loves Judaism, an intellectual seeker, kind, considerate, treats me like a queen, yada yada yada. We have similar life goals, we have good conflict resolution styles, I respect him, and I'm physically attracted to him.

So what's the problem? He's dirt poor and we have a fairly large gap in educational levels. He works full-time for minimum wage because he wants to go back into the arts -- a field he had to abandon to raise his kids as a single parent. I support his path and really feel he needs to walk this artistic path again. But it isn't going to support us. I have a modest retirement with family medical benefits and also work full-time, although I don't make a great deal of money, either. He has some college and I have 3 degrees. I don't find him ignorant, however. He is a reader and seeker.

On one hand I recognize that he is a mensch. On the other hand I can't seem to let go of childish fantasies of the rich and perfect man. I also recognize intellectually that I have never met a man who was a successful "mover and shaker" who was also spiritually aware and emotionally open. I also know that happiness at this stage of life will come from having companionship as we sit in our rocking chairs in the light of the sun of our golden years.

Any help?


Dear Barbara,

Before anything else, you've got to decide if you can accept the man you are dating as a complete human being, without that gnawing feeling that you will be missing out on a certain lifestyle if you choose to marry him, and without the sense of regret that he isn't as well-educated as you are. If you cannot accept the package deal, without limitations, then as much as you care for him we do not feel that your courtship has a promising future.

That's because as time goes on, the issues that you were never able to resolve will come back to haunt you. You may start to nag him, berate him, or lose respect for him. Your marriage could turn into an unhappy one for both of you.

We know that intellectually, you realize that this man has just about every quality you are looking for, and that you will never find anyone who is perfect. The issue is getting your heart to accept what your head already knows.

One way to work this through is to do a personal assessment of your values, goals and expectations. List the values that matter most to you, and the personal qualities you most want to see the man you will marry possess. Then, ask yourself why each of these qualities is important to you. Pay special attention to the ones that are troubling you now: e.g. level of education and economic prosperity.

Ask yourself why each of these is so important. For example, what does an advanced degree represent to you -- is it intelligence, intellectual superiority, status, upward mobility, etc.? Are any of these elements important to you because you believe they have an impact on how others see you, rather than how you see yourself? Are any of these elements essentially unimportant to you? When it comes to something that means a great deal to you, are there other personal qualities your future spouse can possess that will contain the same important elements?

It is also very important for you to review your economic and lifestyle expectations. While part of you wants this man to pursue his artistic interests, you have to be honest with yourself as to whether you can accept the lifestyle that goes along with these pursuits. How much of your concern about finances and lifestyle is a result of your upbringing, or your perception of how your mother and other family members, and friends will judge you? How important is their approval to you?

If you can get past that, you may want to ask yourself what kind of a lifestyle you can expect if the two of you marry. Will you be comfortable with this lifestyle? Will it provide your families with necessities and a few comforts that you feel are important, or are you worried that finances will be a difficult issue because your incomes will not be adequate? Will you be worried by a lack of economic security? Will you resent him for not being able to better contribute to family coffers? Will he be willing to carry a larger economic burden if it means dividing his time between remunerative work and his art?

We recommend writing down your thoughts when you do something of this nature -- its cathartic and it helps you gain clarity when you review what you have written. When you are finished with this exercise, read what you have written and think it over. Spend a few days on it. Then decide if you can accept this man and willingly let go some of the expectations you once had, in return for the many positive qualities he will add to your life.

We wish you all the best in making the decision that is right for you.

Rosie & Sherry


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