I am a 52-year-old woman, long-divorced, no kids, with a steady if not huge income from freelance writing, which I do from my modest, but paid-off and very pretty, home.
Not so bad, right? But my sister says that I should marry “Zach,” the man I have been seeing for the last two years. She keeps telling me how lucky I am to have found love at my age. She sends me studies about how being married increases longevity, sharpens the mind, etc. She also keeps reminding me that marrying him would mean instant economic security instead of probably having to scrimp and save if I retire or stop getting work. (He is quite well off.) I am very fond of Zach, and the sex is pleasant enough, but I am in no way in love with him. I feel perfectly happy to see him two or three times a week and spend the rest of the time with my good friends or my wonderful dog.
As for Zach, he has mentioned marriage several times—I believe you could say he has proposed, though not in any dramatic way—but has in no way given me an ultimatum. I think he would be fine if we just kept going on as we have been.
I have some questions for you. Would it be settling if I married him? If so, is it okay to settle, or should I hold out for some sort of great romance—which seems pretty silly to me at my age? And is there anything wrong with preferring your dog’s company to other people’s most of the time?
—Maybe not OK in Norman, OK
Dear Norma May,
Your first two questions—would it be “settling” if you married Zach and, if so, would that be okay?—don’t strike me as quite the right way to look at the situation. What matters is whether you believe that you and Zach would be happier married or unmarried, not the way you or anybody else might characterize your decision.
Nor is it a question of what’s “okay,” but of what you want and need. If Zach starts putting pressure on you to make up your mind, you will simply have to weigh the benefits and possible costs. On the one hand, if you married him you’d have a considerably higher family income and the freedom that can bring. You’d also have steady companionship and, perhaps, practical help as you grow older—as against the risk of losing his companionship entirely if his proposal does become an ultimatum, or if the current arrangement makes it easier to drift apart or find other people.
On the other hand, you would be giving up the joys of personal independence, and risking the possibility that Zach may be fine as a part-time companion but not so great to share a life and home with every day, not to mention extended family and finances. (Since we are talking hard-nosed calculations here, I will add that his health and age are also relevant: you might end up being a caregiver to him.)
And assuming, as you imply, that you take marriage vows seriously, you will, of course, have to stop clinging to the possibility that you still might meet The One and have a grand romance—which, by the way, may be a long shot, but is certainly not a “silly” idea.
Happily, though, it sounds as if you are under no immediate pressure to change the status quo. Zach is acquiescent, at least for the time being, and you are “perfectly happy.” The only person who seems to be experiencing any sense of urgency about the situation is your sister, whose business it is very much not. Suggest, strongly, that she keep her own counsel.
As for preferring the company of your dog most of the time: why not? What better friend can you have when you are writing than a silent, loving, furry, amusing, nonjudgmental presence? What more satisfying companion when you are walking outside, or pacing inside, thinking about what to write or pitch next? Or when you are procrastinating, or dreaming of glory, or licking your wounds when glory has eluded you yet again? Or when your current writing assignment is pure drudgery, and you need to take a break on your own schedule and terms? Not that you have to be a writer to benefit greatly from having a dog around. When work is done, dogs force you to get up and go outdoors. When you take them out with you, they protect or at least reassure you and keep you company as you walk or run or along, while still leaving room for rumination and audiobooks. Once you settle in for the evening—unless you are the sort of monster who bans dogs from your couch and bed—they can be counted on to warm your legs and feet pretty much indefinitely. And if you do end up feeling the need for more human companionship, most dogs can help out there, too. (I remember one particular week in our local dog park when a young minister and his Weimaraner helped me and my dog face some existential questions. The Rev and I still chat sometimes while our dogs sniff and chase things.)
As long as you do see those “good friends” with some regularity and get together with Zach two or three times a week, I see nothing wrong or even odd about your preferring canine companionship in many or even most of your quiet moments. Fond as I am of human beings, I often prefer to spend time with my golden retriever. This is especially true when my dog’s presence creates a sort of enhanced solitude as I do the things I would otherwise tend, or at least prefer, to do alone, like reading, cooking, dozing in front of biopics, or dancing around the room in sweatpants while lip-synching to Aretha in The Blues Brothers. Of course, there are plenty of areas, mostly involving language, where humans do a much better job than dogs. Puns, needless to say. Certain kinds of irony. Thoughtful observations about films or Paul Manafort or Alan Dershowitz. Insights into Analytic Philosophy. Shopping tips. On the other hand, with dogs there’s no risk of spoilers, gossip, infuriating observations about Paul Manafort or Alan Dershowitz, betrayals of confidence, pretentious misinterpretations of Bertrand Russell, or unsolicited sisterly marriage advice.
The worst problem with dogs, in my experience, is their too-short lifespan. For this reason, and although there are plenty of good arguments against messing with a successful one-dog household, I would at least think about getting a back-up pup, or perhaps a cat, so you will never find yourself petless. Just a thought.
To sum up: everything you are doing seems perfectly okay, except maybe paying attention to your sister.
LA WALLY SAYS:
She should talk more to Zach. Maybe he is just proposing, or whatever he is doing, because he thinks it’s what she wants. If she does not love him at this point, she might not be happy later. But for now she just has to keep talking to him if she wants to know his feelings and her own feelings better.
As for preferring the dog’s company most of the time, duh. Of course that’s okay.
Every year my widowed mother treats me, my wife, and now our daughter, who just turned three, to a week at a fancy beach resort. (Well, not to the endless overpriced meals she insists on, but that’s another matter.) It is Mom’s favorite place in the world: she used to go there every year for a week with my dad. The resort is expensive, and she can ill afford it, but she insists on doing this “for us.” In some ways we would just as soon spend our vacation time relaxing alone, somewhere simpler and cheaper. But the week at this resort has become a tradition. And the beach really is gorgeous. I am sure that the trip is the high point of my mom’s year.
We always go in August or late July. When we started making plans this year, I told my mother that we could come any week except the third week in August because Jeannette, my wife, had some medical appointments then.
This was the week my mother booked. When I reminded her about Jeannette’s conflict, at first she said that she had forgotten. Then, when I suggested that one of us simply call and change the date, she told me that actually she had not forgotten but that this was the only time she could reserve the unit she liked best—which, as I later learned, was also the only one with both a bedroom and a bathroom on the first floor, something she genuinely needs.
I told my mother that Jeannette could not miss her appointments, but I did not tell her why. (They are fertility-related, and Jeannette and I do not want to talk about this to anybody right now.) My mother said that the reservations were not refundable, and started to cry.
What ended up happening is that I drove Mom up by myself, and Jeannette and our daughter joined us midweek. This involved a three-hour train ride and a four-hour bus ride—not a great solution, but Jeannette and I agreed that it made more sense than her renting a second car and making the long drive by herself with a very active little girl.
Jeannette and Ellie arrived late in the afternoon and wanted to go right to the beach for a swim—whereupon my mother made a huge scene, saying (among other things) that Jeannette had already insisted on cutting the family vacation in half, and now she wanted to make everybody late for dinner at Chez Michel?
Jeannette said something to the effect of “I’m not going to get sucked into this tonight,” suited up herself and Ellie, and took off, telling me and Mom that there was no need to wait dinner, since she and Ellie had noshed on the bus and, anyway, the last thing they wanted to do was sit still in some public place for another two hours.
Over dinner my mom told me that she was very disappointed in Jeannette, and that this was really the last straw. I told her not to be so self-centered, and it degenerated from there.
For the rest of the week—four very long days—nobody mentioned any of this: not Jeannette’s coming late, not my mom’s booking that week when we asked her not to, not the long train and bus ride, not Jeannette’s going right to the beach, not my fight with Mom over dinner, none of it. Mom and Jeannette were both horribly polite and bland and gracious. The weather was perfect, thank God, so we all got to hang out on the beach and sit around the pool, and eat outside and play croquet and so on. And talk about all the cute things Ellie was doing. So nobody really needed to bare their souls or anything.
Mom lives about halfway between the resort and the town where we live now. After we dropped Mom off, Jeannette told me she was never going back to the resort again. Since then neither she nor Mom has said a word to the other about last summer, or next summer. What should I do?
—Fretful in Fresno
I would just let things simmer down for a while.
Although you write as if the burning issue is your wife’s announcement that she’ll never return there, I assume that your primary goal is not to go to that particular resort, but for Jeannette and your mother to get along better and nobody to be unhappy. It sounds as if your wife and mother have at least observed the forms during and since your benighted vacation, so I am guessing that they will continue to do so and that if you make an effort you can avoid a glaring decline in visits, holiday observances, calls, etc.
With any luck, Jeannette will start feeling less raw and angry over time. Maybe she has already? You can help by supporting her whenever the subject of the vacation, or your mother’s conduct generally, comes up. Raise the subject if she still hasn’t. Thank Jeannette for her patience; tell her how much you appreciate her. Lay it on as thick as you can without straining her credulity. After all, she may not have been the soul of forbearance while at the resort, but from the way you tell it she was basically in the right: your mother disregarded Jeannette’s totally reasonable request, and then lied about it—to say nothing of expecting her to start toeing the vacation line the minute she and her tired three-year-old arrived at the resort. To me this indicates a stunning self-absorption, some disrespect, and perhaps a soupçon of antipathy. (Would your mom have scheduled that week if you had been the one with the conflict?)
Not that it really matters who was in the right; the important thing is to get past this unpleasantness and prevent future problems.
You are right, of course, that one problem is what happens with next year’s family vacation, if any. How long do you have before it is time to book the resort for next year (bearing in mind that they seem to run out of those rooms with the downstairs bathrooms pretty early)? If the deadline is still some months away, and if you think that the prospect of a week at the usual place is still worth salvaging—for your mother’s sake, or to preserve family peace, or just because a week there still seems better than other options—you may be able to soothe, cajole, and bribe Jeannette in the interim, while also taking various measures to rein in Mom, like gently and repeatedly explaining that your family schedules and duties are complicated, and that you have to insist on clearing all dates in advance. Make sure she knows that, although you love her unconditionally, you support your wife totally. And do support her: your letter seemed to waver a bit.
Many things can happen over the course of a few months. Jeannette could spontaneously relent. Mom could apologize. Jeannette could then apologize, even, saying she had been stressed. Or something could intervene. An illness. A new passion for cruises. A pregnancy! The discovery of a resort with fewer stairs and more powder rooms, a resort free of memories and rituals, perhaps in a more convenient location for everybody.
Good luck with everything, from recreation to procreation.
P.S. Just asking: are you certain that your mother is not slipping a bit when it comes to managing her affairs? Could she have in fact forgotten about that week’s being unavailable, and then gotten flustered and lied to cover up her memory loss? This explanation, though of course more hopeful as regards any general pigheadedness or antipathy for your wife, creates obvious problems of its own. And you may know enough to dismiss it out of hand; but, if you have any reason to suspect that Mom may be losing her grip, give some thought to taking over the scheduling and booking yourself, if your mother will let you—and if your wife relents about spending a week at this resort, or any resort, with her mother-in-law.
LA WALLY SAYS:
Basically, I got nuthin.’ I see the frustrations on both sides. The mom sounds unreasonable, but she’s the mom so maybe the husband should ask his wife to just put up with it for one week a year while his mother is still around and can handle the trip. My big question: is that the only vacation time the couple has?
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.