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Dating Maze #358: Can’t Say No

May 9, 2012 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

He wants to get married and I’m afraid to hurt him by breaking up.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm caught in a difficult situation and don't know how to handle it. I started dating Noah when I was a high school junior, and he was a senior. We had a close relationship and when he left for college halfway across the country, we promised to “stay together.” We saw each other each time Noah came home for holidays and vacations, and neither of us dated anyone else. Nevertheless, we had tension during this time, both because of the distance and because Noah was starting to become more Jewishly involved. I resisted his move in this direction and tried to slow down his pace of change.

Then, it came my turn to graduate. I applied to the same school as Noah, but it wasn't one of my first choices. I was accepted at a very prestigious college and decided to go there. I saw this as the perfect escape – an opportunity to get away from an increasingly stressful situation with Noah and to focus on where I was going and what I wanted out of life. So I broke up with him and he took it very hard.

Ilan was bright, self-confident, and focused on what he wanted out of life.

While at college, I, too, started to become more Jewishly connected. I missed having a boyfriend, but I wasn't ready for a relationship for a long time. Near the end of my second year of college, I was introduced to someone from Israel, who was finishing his master's degree here in the U.S. Ilan was bright, self-confident, and focused on what he wanted out of life. We really liked each other and began talking about a future together, and I felt ready for marriage. However, after we'd been dating for a few months, he had to return to Israel to help with a family crisis. Ilan and I agreed that he needed to focus on helping his family, and that it was wise for us to stop seeing each other.

After that, I didn't want to date anyone for a while. But, last spring, both of these guys got in touch with me! Ilan's family crisis was under control, and he was planning to return to the U.S. to begin an internship and to hopefully reconnect with me. Noah wanted to talk about getting back together. I was confused about both possibilities, but chose to be with Noah. We started dating again, even though our geographic distance means we see each other once a month at most. We Skype and telephone each other regularly.

It's been close to a year since Noah and I got back together, and he is talking about getting engaged this summer, after we both graduate. We've spoken about a wedding next spring. I love him, but I'm not sure he's the right man for me to marry in the long run. He's very unmotivated and has taken five years to graduate. He has no professional goals at the moment, and he feels exasperated about life. He says I am the only thing that keeps him going, and that I was his reason for even trying at all in college.

I am flattered… but also scared. Can I trust him with raising a family? He promises to change immediately after we get engaged. He loves me very much, and he cares for me all the time. He gets along with my family, I feel comfortable with him, and I care about him very much. But he doesn't know what he wants to do in life and hasn't even started looking for a job for after graduation.

Meanwhile, Ilan still reaches out to me. His attempts remind me that I can perhaps secure a more protected future for my family, and raise children with a father who is much more accomplished.

In the meantime, I feel unable to make a commitment to one of them at the expense of the other. The result is that I am unhappy and confused.

I wish I had the strength to say “no” to both of them and just enjoy my own life. But I feel too emotionally entangled and insecure to be on my own. Aside from that, I can't image the pain I will cause Noah. He has always been in love with me, couldn't move on after our first break-up, and will have even more trouble now. If anything, I am partially responsible for his laziness and lack of motivation. He fears failure above all, and that is why I can't begin to express doubts about our relationship to him.

I don't know what to do. Help!


Dear Suzanne,

Thank you for writing and expressing your predicament so clearly. You have asked an excellent question, and we will try to provide enough information for you to reach a clear-headed decision.

Let's first discuss your relationship with Noah. You started dating in high school and even though you both were probably not ready for an intense relationship, you developed one. One of the drawbacks of teenage romances is that each person still has a lot of personal growth to experience, and it may be hard for them to move forward knowing how it will upset the status quo of their relationship. That's exactly what happened to the two of you, when Noah started to connect to Judaism and you didn't want to change, and later when you began your own growth.

You can't blame yourself for resisting his becoming more Jewishly involved – you reacted as most young women in your situation would. You're being unfair to yourself, and to him, by saying that you interfered with his spiritual growth by wanting things to stay the same. This placing responsibility on your own shoulders, instead of his, is an underlying theme in your relationship, and we'll elaborate upon it in a few moments.

But first, we want to give you credit for making the very wise, though painful, decision to break-up with Noah when you realized that you needed to be out of the relationship so that you could be free to find your own direction in life and to grow. You characterize this decision as an escape, but we see it as a mature, insightful and positive choice.

Do you still need to learn more about yourself in terms of character, talents, life goals?

It also seems to us that you've only gone through part of the growth process you need to experience. You've become more Jewishly involved and are working on your college studies. But you haven't said much about your own long-term goals (other than marriage). What are your career goals? Even if they are not fully developed, you should have a general idea of what you might choose and the path you need to get there. Do you want your connection to Judaism to continue to grow? Do you still need to learn more about yourself in terms of character, talents, strengths, tastes, moral values, lifestyle goals?

Like most young adults, you may not yet have clear answers, and until the answers to these questions are more defined, you probably aren't ready for marriage.

A person doesn't need all the answers before deciding to marry, but s/he should have a well-formed idea of the direction in which s/he's moving and should believe that s/he can continue to grow in the context of her marriage.

Aside from the issue of your own clarity about your direction in life, it’s clear that your friend Noah has a lot of growing to do. You tell us that he doesn't yet have personal or professional goals, isn't motivated, and struggles to get through the day. It's possible that he lacks maturity, suffers from depression, or doesn't have the personal tools to overcome a developmental barrier. No matter what the cause of this struggle, it is something he needs to address by himself. We believe he would benefit from therapy.

Instead, Noah says that you're the motivating force that holds him together. That may be true, but it isn't healthy. His motivation and sense of purpose have to come from within. He's made you into the partner who's responsible for his motivation, his happiness, his ability to grow, and the success of your relationship. It's unfair for him to place the responsibility for all of this on your shoulders, and sadly, you have started to believe that this is your role and that his failures are partly your fault. That misplaced guilt, and your fear that he won't be able to handle another break-up, is keeping you from doing what the logical part of you tells you to do.

Making the Decision

We understand how deeply connected you are to Noah and how much you care about him. But deep down, you know that these feelings aren't enough for a marriage to succeed. You wonder if you can rely on his promise to address his serious shortcomings once you're together. No, you can’t. The same internal forces that currently block him from addressing his lack of motivation and direction will exist after you are engaged and married.

We envision a post-engagement power struggle, reinforcing the unhealthy roles in your relationship.

If he truly wanted to work on himself, he would have already have begun to deal with these issues. We can envision a post-engagement power struggle in which you continually remind him of his promise, and then try to motivate him to get help, reinforcing the unhealthy roles that have developed in your relationship.

Many times, husbands and wives do blossom once they're in a healthy marriage. The mutually supportive environment gives them the encouragement to push themselves to meet goals. What distinguishes this from your situation is that these people already have a good sense of who they are and of the direction they want their life to take, and have successfully actualized themselves in another aspect of their life. This is completely lacking here.

In making a decision about Noah, you need to think clearly about yourself. How much growth do you still need to do – spiritually, educationally, morally, emotionally, intellectually? Can you achieve that growth if you marry Noah? Can you achieve it if you marry anyone at this point in your life? Have you identified something that you now feel you should address within yourself before you begin a marriage – with anyone?

A good place to start is the insecurity you feel about being on your own. Very few of us like to feel lonely, but it is crucial that you feel secure with yourself if you want to have a healthy relationship with someone else.

If you decide to break up with Noah, he'll certainly be devastated. Here’s what you can say to help make it as easy as possible for you both: "This is very hard for me. I care very much about you. I have agonized about this, and I don't feel that at this point we should be getting married. It seems to me that we're going in different directions, and as much as we care about each other, continuing the relationship isn't the best thing for either of us."

Looking Forward

Of course, you will also have a hard time getting over the break-up. It will be wise to give yourself time to mourn the loss and develop more clarity about yourself. Before doing this, it would be premature to rush into the arms of someone else, no matter how appealing he may seem.

Over the next few months, we suggest that you take a break from dating. Instead, make a special effort to nurture yourself, so you can heal from the break-up and develop a stronger sense of who you are and where you are going. If you don't exercise regularly, get into a routine at least three times a week. Take time each week to do something you enjoy – a hobby, something creative, or something entertaining.

Spend time thinking about your strengths and talents, and how you'd like your life to develop over the next six months, one year, and five years. What are the different paths you can take to get there? What path appeals to you the most? Is there anything you should be doing right now before dating again? It may be helpful to write your thoughts and ideas in a journal.

It will take some time for you to get used to being “single” again, but we believe this is an important stage of your development. If you need help feeling comfortable with who you are, consider speaking with a therapist. And when you have clarity about yourself and your life direction, you can think about starting to date again.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry


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