Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I am 23 and have been living with my (male) partner for a little over a year, and we've been together for about a year and half. For the most part, our relationship is relatively wonderful: we agree on practically everything and have found great contentment in what is usually a very quiet, domestic lifestyle. I also have clinically significant social anxiety and he has ADHD, but we are very patient with one another. I have never felt anything other than safe, respected, and loved when I am with with him. He was the first person I have said, "I love you" to, and meant it.
My frustration, however, is this. Despite his (severely) limited funds, he stays at least one night a week across town at his friends' house getting trashed (leaving me absent my car for at least 24 hours), and spends money on everything that goes along with that. He justifies this by claiming that he is cultivating creative relationships (which is, in part, true; sometimes something comes of it). I understand that he needs time with his friends, to let loose and all that, but he maybe makes $200 a month working very part time for a local artist, and spends what he does earn on his medication, alcohol, and cigarettes (which I have repeatedly expressed my dislike of, but frustrated/concerned words are of course are nothing in the face of addiction). No money for rent. Or bills. Or food. He is very conscious and apologetic of what the situation is, but he hasn't changed anything. I don't see him as taking advantage of me, necessarily, because I think that we are both committed enough that when I am once again in school in a few years he will, hopefully, have a job and do the same for me. And I don't ever, ever want him to feel that he is stuck, or his behavior is limited, or whatever, just because I'm the one with resources. But as we've come upon one year living together (or rather, him living with me), I am really starting to lose my patience. To me it seems that we live a great life but he sacrifices very little for it.
I understand that that it isn't reasonable for me to expect him to be at the same place I am right now, financially speaking. I spend most of my time working and volunteering while getting ready to apply to graduate school, while he is still working on completing an associate's degree at community college (although he is on summer break right now) in a program he only started this past spring. I have wonderful, devoted parents who are still helping me out with some of our rent and my student loan payments, but while his mom has also been paying for his education, she is reluctant to contribute any more than that and his dad effectively refuses to provide any financial support at all.
I keep wondering if I shouldn't do something drastic (along the lines of asking him to move out for a while, so that he might be forced to make a greater effort to support himself independently) that would send him a more potent message ( i.e., I'm really starting to get fed up with some aspects of his behavior). But when we met he was sporadically employed, camped out on his friends' couches, and living off of burritos from the Plaid Pantry, so I suppose he would just go back to that, I would miss him terribly, and both of us would suffer. Furthermore, I don't want to jeopardize something that I think could be, well, it, at least for a while (young as we are, I know). But quite frankly, I'm not sure what else to do, given what limited effect my words have had on him so far. Do I wait it out as best I can, or do I ask for more from him?
There is, I think, something in many women -- maybe even most women -- that finds it romantic to save someone or be saved by someone. After all, we were raised on fairy tales and damsels in distress and modern stories of broken boys and the good women who set them right, and, in the end, everyone lives, more or less, happily ever after. Of course, less the few feminist photographers like Dana Goldstein, you don't see how every romance eventually has to deal with the mundane realities of life like budgeting, compromise and who leaves the dirty socks on the floor to the other person's chagrin (in my situation that's me).
So, look, in a lot of ways, he sounds great. Respect, patience, mutual interests and love are all fantastic things on which to build a relationship. And I think it's important for both halves of a relationship to carve out friend-time from the relationship-space, in order to maintain a distinct sense of identity and have a support structure outside of the relationship bubble (so I hope you are doing that yourself, even if you don't mention it). It's also great that neither of you seemingly feels emotionally tied to the patriarchal model of the man-bringing-home-the-bacon, since -- especially in this economy -- there are no guarantees of economic stability for anyone, economic stability doesn't equal contentedness with one's job, and any long-term relationship is likely to see its share of swings in economic fortune.
But! (There is always a but in these things.) The problem is not that your partner's parents don't help out with his living expenses -- if that is even an economically viable thing for them, which it might not be. It is great that your parents can help with the rent and your student loans, and that they have the money to essentially support your preferred lifestyle (living with and totally supporting your partner with no roommates to deal with, etc.). But it's entirely possible that your partner's parents don't have the same ability -- or that they're simply unwilling to support their 23-year-old son's preferred lifestyle of, as you describe it, working sporadically and spending all his money on alcohol, cigarettes and medicine while living rent-free with people who care about him (you or his friends).
I mean, in a certain way, your partner kind of has it made: he spends his money on the meds he needs and the alcohol and cigarettes he wants, he has a car to use that he doesn't have to pay for, a place to live for which he doesn't have to be responsible, and has electricity, meals and (presumably) Internet access and zero financial responsibility for the maintenance of any of that. You say "I don't see him as taking advantage of me, necessarily," but it's really hard to see it any other way when you also mention that he's on a summer break from community college but is only working "very part time" to earn enough money to keep himself in ADHD meds, tobacco and booze.
And while I appreciate that he might even really believe that, as you write, "we are both committed enough that when I am once again in school in a few years he will, hopefully, have a job and do the same for me," he has actually done zero to demonstrate his commitment to that plan. He is cognizant that the current situation is economically untenable, at least for you, but does nothing to change it. He argues he needs to spend his money and keep your car to go out partying "at least" once a week to "cultivate creative relationships," and yet he doesn't feel the need to spend money on Nicorette or Internet access or even paper on which to print résumés to hand out while looking for a more steady job on his school break. Does he even gas up your car when he takes it out party?
I mean, yes, lots of people grow up and get responsible but, right now, his only incentive to do that is not having to deal with some marginally uncomfortable conversations with you when you are frustrated. And you're building kind of a big life plan -- graduate school -- on the hope that he'll get a job by which he can support both of you some time in the not-so-distant future when he's thus far proven himself either unable or unwilling to really support himself (i.e., couch-surfing and burrito-eating does not count).
I am sure I'm not telling you anything you haven't heard from your friends here. And I'll admit to my own bias here, having done a lot of emotional caregiving and provided more-than-a-little economic support (much of it when I couldn't afford, either) in a relationship with a frustrated creative type who was happy to have it and didn't seemingly notice the toll it took on me or our relationship when so much of that was one-sided.
But, look: Issuing ultimatums is not going to help him take responsibility for his own situation (and I suspect others in his life have already tried it). Yes, if you kick him out, he will probably go back to couch-surfing and burrito-eating and taking the bus to party with his friends instead of your car, and you will probably miss one another (which is natural, but not necessarily the best reason to restart a relationship that failed in the first place). But what you need to do is decide about what you want out of a relationship in the here and now, not about whether he'll get a job to support you when you go back to graduate school, or whether you are jeopardizing some future (in which he has a job and contributes more to the household than understanding and love since, frankly, spending all the little money he makes on partying and smoking isn't exactly respectful of you) because of the untenable nature of the present.
You are not asking unreasonable things of him when you ask him to contribute as much to the household as to his own entertainment, or to find more work than "less than part time" when he is not in school. It's not unreasonable to ask that he cut back on the partying that, were you not paying almost all his other expenses, he would not be able to afford, nor to do more than just be cognizant that his unwillingness to contribute more to your supposed partnership than love and agreeability is a problem. And it's not unreasonable to want to forgo your parents' financial assistance, kind though it is, to live a financially independent life with the man with whom you are cohabitating to which you both contribute in ways both concrete and emotionally.
You have things that you want out of your life, including a graduate education. And you love this dude. So the conversation you need to have is what he wants out of his life, how he plans to get there, what his back-up plan is and how all of that is compatible -- or not -- with what you want. But be honest with yourself in and about that conversation: this can't be about saving the relationship or the living situation for now, but it needs to be an honest, even painful, look at whether the relationship is what you both want it to be, whether you both agree about where the relationship and your lives should go, and what compromises each person may need to make to get there. And then there needs to be action on whatever you decide individually and collectively.
And, if that gets you nowhere, find some way to get yourself (and him, if possible) into therapy. If money is a problem or you lack insurance, there are often low-cost resources available to women (and some men), many of which you can Google based on your particular location. But if you can't go on this way forever, and you can't seem to change the dynamc, a professional can often help you see what patterns you are perpetuating in your own life and in the relationship that hold you back.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com