“Jack” and I have been dating for over two years now. We’re planning to move in together when my lease runs out in June, and are starting to talk in very general terms about settling in for the long run.
I think he loves me, but I have started to worry that he loves me more for my family than for myself. There are five of us: Mom, Dad, Nonie, Jack, and me. Except for Nonie, my kid sister who is away at college, we all live within a few miles of one another. My parents still live in the family home, which is a great place—the house all the neighborhood kids always wanted to hang out in, not just because it is very comfortable and has a pool and a basement with a ping-pong table and other great kid amenities, but also because of my parents, who are very charismatic. Several of my friends have told me that they wished they had a dad like mine, and one even half-seriously confessed to having a crush on him. As for my mom, at least three of my high school and college boyfriends liked to stay up late sitting at the kitchen table with her, baring their young souls over a carafe of coffee or red wine, as age-appropriate. And my big brother Jack is and always has been both cool and friendly, a sensitive golden-boy jock. A good brother, I might add, and always willing—maybe too willing in this case—to spend time with anybody I bring home.
Jack has clearly fallen under my family’s spell. There were days last summer when we spent more time at their place than mine or his, almost always at his instigation, “because of the pool.” He and Jack play pickup basketball and drink beer every Thursday. Jack never lets us miss Sunday dinners with my folks, a tradition that I like, but that that used to be a lot looser before he came along. He and my mom, who’s a Political Science professor, talk shop on the phone at least once a week. My dad, who teaches film, must always be consulted before we ever see one, in theaters or at home, and as often as not this leads to our all watching together
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family, and love being with them—almost as much as Jack does! If I were sure Jack loved me and valued my company in my own right, things would be fine. But I find myself feeling less like Jack’s life companion and more like a minor cog in the engine that is my family. (In case it matters, Jack’s own family is concentrated in a city about 90 miles away. His feelings for them seem dutiful and respectful, but not overly fond. What little I have seen of them makes me understand his coolness. They are a close-minded, judgmental, whiny, boring bunch if ever I saw one.)
So what do I do? Do I even have a problem here? How can I be sure of Jack?
—Incidental in Indiana
Dear Double Eye,
People who are rich, famous, gorgeous, talented, powerful, heirs to an apartment in Paris, season-ticket holders, or otherwise especially blessed often ask themselves your basic question: Am I loved for myself, or for this attribute that has nothing to do with who I really am? And it can be a hard question to answer because answering it depends on knowing what is in your lover’s heart. Jack’s behavior sounds totally consistent with his truly loving you. His growing affection for your family—while perhaps a bit excessive and, I suspect, partly the result of some need to fill the emptiness created by his own relatives—may be serving only to enrich and deepen his feelings for you. But it is also remotely possible that his affection for your family is distracting him from his feelings for you, or even creating some vicious cycle where, the more he sees your family and enjoys their company, the less time and love he has for you, and so on.
From the way you describe him in your letter, my guess is that Jack does love you for yourself and that he sees you and your family as mutually enhancing one another. What is love, if not being thoughtful and supportive, planning together for the future, and having great sex? That said, he does seem to be going a bit overboard, so—especially given your history with all those early pals and boyfriends—I can see why you are in need of reassurance. Here are a few things you can ask, or do, to help see into his soul, and maybe your own.
The first question to explore is whether his feelings for you or his desire to be in your company, seem to have changed in any way as he has gotten so caught up in being with your family. Does he treat you any differently now when you are alone together? Does he ignore you when you and your folks end up watching movies together? Do those Thursdays take away from time you used to reserve for each other? If you don’t see any major change, what you might have here is a growing pie, or perhaps I mean burgeoning heart, situation, where Jack loves you for yourself, loves Jack for himself, etc., with a heart that has expanded in order to accommodate his new sort-of family.
Have you talked to Jack about this? Is he even aware that his enthusiasm for your family might be anything other than pleasing to you? If he has no idea, you might find that alerting him to the issue will go a long way toward resolving it. But I would tread lightly. Maybe say “Sometimes I think you just love me for my family,” but say it with a smile, while arriving home with burritos or taking a shower together. Or let him know, if he doesn’t already, that you’d really just as soon skip Sunday dinner every third week or so to have time alone with him, or with him and some of your other friends.
No matter what, if anything, you say to Jack about your worries, I strongly suggest that you devise ways to spend more time alone with him, whether at home by the fire (or equivalent), out for a romantic dinner, or attending events together. Are there entertainers or activities you and Jack like but your parents can’t stand? Kendrick Lamar? Karaoke bars? Rock climbing? If your parents are as hip as they sound, these may be hard to find, but I’m sure you can manage if you put your mind to it. Spending time alone with Jack—or with Jack and people other than your family—may be the best way both to test and to strengthen the depth of his feelings for you when your family is not part of the equation.
Have you considered talking to your brother or one of your parents, and perhaps even enlisting their aid? I do not know your family, of course, and have no idea how they would react. But perhaps your brother could run some interference if, say, you want to plan a weekend alone. I am sure he would understand. Or you could tell your mother that you’re planning a special romantic movie night with Jack and ask her to find some way to discourage your dad from making it a foursome.
If you can swing it, how about a long trip abroad, just the two of you? Foreign travel as a couple can cement a relationship—and, if not, at least it will be informative.
Forgive me, since I am not sure you asked for this particular advice, but I believe that you should also consider your own feelings about your family, and whether you may be projecting any doubts or resentment about them onto Jack. Do you ever wonder whether they really value you for yourself? Does it bother you that they devote so much attention to Jack when they could be spending time with you, or at least allowing Jack to give you his full attention? Does it annoy you that they seem to need to cast these spells, as you call them? Do you worry that you’re less charismatic than the rest of your family, or that your family believes that you are? Do you believe that being around them makes you suffer by comparison? It would be worth talking to a counselor if you have any such concerns.
If you resolve, or don’t think you have, any issues with your own family; if you and Jack make more time to be alone together, and seem to do fine when you are; and if you do not think that his love for you has actually diminished in any way because of his enthusiasm for your family, I do not see his fondness for them as posing a serious threat. Even if his feelings for your family do enhance his feelings for you, he probably sees your family as icing on the cake. And if his affection and admiration for you and for your family do get tangled up every so often, I would not give it too much thought. After all, your family played a large part in your becoming who you are. Besides, there are worse things than having a potential life partner who loves being part of your extended family, especially if you all continue to live near one another. If you and Jack stay together and have kids, there will be no problem getting him to take them over to the family pool. And as your parents grow older and, perhaps, less powerful and charismatic, he will be there to help you take care of them. It could all work out.
La Wally’s Response: I think she just needs to talk to him. It strikes me as odd that she is overthinking this. This seems to me the opposite of a problem. Imagine how much worse it would be if they didn’t all love each other.
Last week I was riding home from work on a crowded bus, hanging onto a strap for dear life and feeling kind of tired, when a young man stood up and gave me his seat. Surprised, I responded automatically by sitting down and thanking him. “It’s what any young person should do,” he said, smiling and gesturing with his head and eyes toward a sign that said something like: “Always be courteous and offer your seat to disabled or elderly riders.” I’m clearly not disabled, June, and I just turned 48. I went home and cried.
Do you have any advice on how to handle this? What should I do if somebody offers me a seat again? Next thing you know, boy scouts are going to be dragging me across the street.
—Prematurely Gray in Punta Gorda
Don’t read too much into what happened. Bear in mind that many young people define “old” at least as broadly and loosely as older people define “young.” The guy who offered you his seat probably noticed only your tired posture, the fact that you are not in your first youth, and perhaps your prematurely gray hair, and lumped you into a broad category that probably includes everybody from his feeble great-grandma to the woman, now 37, who taught him Freshman English.
Consider also that, although 48 is in no way old for most purposes unrelated to childbearing or athletics, it does put you just two years shy of 50, an age which happens to trigger various early senior-targeted promotions, housing options, etc., gets you on the AARP mailing list, and often places you in a new subcategory for purpose of polling, dating services, etc. 50 may be the age that kind young man held vaguely in his mind when he offered you the seat. It really is not that bad to look two years older than your age when you are hanging onto a strap on a swaying bus, tired after a long day’s work.
Or the young man may just have been offering his seat out of kindness unrelated to age or gender, or out of chivalry, and you may have misread his gesture. Or he may have been planning to get off at the next stop anyway, and just wanted to impress some girl on the bus. Or he may just have been messing with you.
My guess is that, when it matters, you can do whatever you need to do to look like a pleasant and attractive 48-year-old, maybe even a pleasant and attractive 38-year-old. Try not to let that one incident get you down. Or any future incidents: looking your age, or even a few years older, is nothing to cry about.
As a Certified P.C. and Uplifting Agony Aunt, I should probably add some exhortation to wear your age proudly: every line and wrinkle a sign of a life lived fully, every gray hair a challenge to an ageist world, your pooching tummy and varicose veins the proud badges of motherhood, and so on. (And I do note from your nom de June that you seem to have forgone hair dye until now.) But we all know about preconceptions and discrimination, and about the current obsession with appearing younger in almost every culture where people can afford it. In this country, where on our good days we seem to be moving beyond race- and class-based standards of attractiveness (and overall worth!), we are not doing so well where age is concerned. Most women over 40, and many over 19 if we can believe the skincare ads are openly trying to look younger than they are—to the point that, if you don’t join in, you can end up appearing older than your chronological age. You may even be perceived as not caring about your appearance, or lacking discipline and self-respect—you know, letting yourself go.
So—even if doing so may play into the hands of ageist bigots—I have plenty of sympathy for wanting to look youthful, and for being distressed when you don’t. But try to seek some balance. Do what you need to do to feel comfortable in your workplace and your subculture. (Mine seem to virtually require those Spanx things on certain occasions, but surgery is derided and golden highlights are optional, and the whole process seems to follow some sort of parabola where, at some point, trying to look younger moves from obligatory to unseemly.) But please, please also keep in mind that old age is in the eye of the beholder and, in any case, is not a bad thing in itself. The next time somebody offers you a seat, take it if you are tired and, if you are feeling rested and energetic, refuse it graciously—we certainly don’t want to discourage acts of kindness. Then try not to dwell on the interaction. Just think of these little incidents as inoculations against having a total meltdown the first time some pimply cashier asks you whether you want the senior discount.
On the other hand, I would be firm with any boy scouts you may encounter. I think they have a monthly quota or something, like meter maids, and it is so annoying to have to wait until they are out of sight before you can head back across the street.
La Wally’s Response: That sucks, but some people are idiots. Or maybe the guy on the bus just knew he was younger and thought that was enough. Don’t get too upset about it. If you don’t think you are old enough to take somebody else’s seat, then don’t.
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.