Unequal Relationships

older man and younger woman

Do you and your partner have an unequal relationship? Is one much older or has more money? Whatever the situation, you can learn some valuable advice from our Ask the Dating Coach responses.

Dealing with Unequal Relationships

Reader Question

I have been dating my girlfriend for 4 years. Despite a significant age difference, 23 years, we love each other very much. I have not "popped" the question, but she tells me she wants to get married often. I just smile. I am old fashioned and want to take extravagant measures when proposing. You know, the perfect place and time, all unknown to her... to surprise her. We only have one point upon which we disagree.. children. She wants to have them and I don't. I already have 3 (2 of which I still support). Last night she said "Can I talk to you about something without you getting upset or thinking anything negative or taking it the wrong way?... and know that I love you and I want to be with you for the rest of my life?" I, being the sensitive understanding type, said sure. She told me that sometimes she wonders what it would be like to be more free and date other people for fun. No sex, just dating. She said sometimes she would like to just go out and be wild or be able to talk to someone she thinks is nice and date them. I was shocked, but did not show it. I told her if she felt she needed to date other people to just let me know... that she could. I told her that I could move out and live in my office... that I needed to spend more time with my kids anyway. She started crying and told me she didn't want to date anyone.. that she just had those thought and wanted to tell me about it. I told her I had wondered about other people too and that I understood what she was talking about. I hugged her and reassured her. Later that evening, she said "If you want to try this thing staying in the office temporarily, for no more than just a month, you can, but no more than a month and I want to to stay with me some nights too." She thanked me for listening to her and not jumping to conclusions about her thoughts and feelings. So, now that I am alone and thinking about it all, and seeing what was said in black and white, I'm wondering what is really going on here? Is she needing space, despite saying she really doesn't want me to move out, or is she doing this to get me to change my position on children... or what. I am feeling a little insecure despite her long-term assurance. I appreciate your input.~~Will

Expert Reply

Dear Will,

Age is only a number until there is a correlation between one's emotional age and their behavior. I fear that your girlfriend and you have more of a parent-child relationship then a boyfriend-girlfriend commitment. When a woman says to the man she loves "can I talk to you about something without you getting upset or thinking anything negative or taking it the wrong way?" She is behaving more like a child than an adult. Part of being in an adult relationship is being able to talk with your partner about things that are uncomfortable for the purpose of improving the relationship. In turn, you responded to this kind of news as a father-figure would. You kept your emotions in check; gave her permission to explore dating with other men and responding with understanding. I don't know any man who wouldn't be rightfully angry and hurt upon learning that the woman he loves no longer wants to be in an emotionally committed relationship with him.

You asked if maybe your girlfriend is "testing" you, maybe she is. Or maybe she is trying to make you jealous so you will pop the question. Does it really matter? What's important is that she wants you to provide for her financially, physically and emotionally while she promises not to have sex with other men, continues to live with you and is willing to allow you to sleep with her a couple nights a week. Is this your idea of a balanced relationship? Instead of wondering what is really going on, find out by talking to her directly and with the emotions you truly feel. Before you talk with her, you need to be clear about what you want in a relationship.

Having fantasies is considered healthy and normal. However, what separates adults from children is the ability to control our impulses. Should you choose to go through with allowing your girlfriend to date other people, how will this affect the trust you had for her? So ask yourself what you want in an adult relationship. Sit down with pen in hand and write down what it is YOU want. Then sit down with your girlfriend and tell her. If she can't accept what is important to you, then you will have to decide if you are willing to settle for less than you deserve or leave her.

The final consideration is the issue of children. This is a serious consideration. You have already had children and as you pointed out are still financially responsible for them and do not want more children. Your girlfriend has stated that wants to be a mother to her own children. This topic, which has not been settled between the two of you, is like a white elephant in the room. Avoiding the conversation will not make it go away; it will only delay the inevitable. This is a conversation that needs to occur before you relationship can continue.

~~Lori

Lazy Boyfriend

Reader Question

I have been in a loving relationship with the same man for close to two years now. Six months ago, he received a better job opportunity and changed professions. Then, 89 days into working for them, one day before he would have been eligible for benefits, they lay him off, and have even withheld his last paycheck. The reasons were that they didn't have enough work for him. Since then, he has been unemployed. He is a quiet person, shy, and my loud Irish family never took much to him. This recent development has created a lot of strife for me. Then, this morning, he actually slept late and missed a job opportunity. Sleeping past appointed times to meet me have always been a problem, but this is the first time he's been late in any kind of work setting. It just feels like the last straw, but I don't want to leave him. I just want him to become gainfully employed and recapture the happiness I had for that first year and a half. If he doesn't get a job soon, he'll become homeless, and I can't help him with that! I can just cover myself. I can't leave him, but my home life is suffering, my emotional well-being has dropped, and we fight more and more every day due to stress. What can I do? ~~Jackie

Expert Reply

Dear Jackie,

There is a well known saying in relationships that "opposites attract." What we are actually attracted to are the traits that the other person has which we admire but lack in ourselves. It's a way of getting the traits without having to work at changing oneself. You described your boyfriend as quiet and shy. Maybe he is an introvert. Your family as you described them is a loud Irish family, more extroverted. So your boyfriend is the opposite of your family. Maybe you're a personality that is somewhere in the middle, not as extroverted as your family, but not as introverted as your boyfriend. And maybe your boyfriend is in part attracted to you for the qualities he feels he lacks. Traits such as being punctual, a strong work ethic, and independence. These aren't just traits of personality, they are values.

I don't support the "opposites attract" idea because the same qualities that attract you to someone are the same traits that will eventually get on you last nerve. As in your case, your boyfriend is quiet and laidback. To some, this could come across as lazy. This might be what your family sees and what he projected at his last job. Although you see something different in him, nothing you can do will change the way he comes across to others. Perhaps it is not his laidback personality but his value system that you are now questioning. This is why you could tolerated him "sleeping past appointment times to meet with you," and aren't willing tolerate him being unemployed for six more months or sleeping through a potential job opportunity. You're realizing that there is a conflict between being attracted to his personality and being disenchanted with his values. This doesn't mean that your family was right about him, it means that you have learned something about what you find attractive in a man and what is more important to you.

The answer to whether your boyfriend will change really not relevant. None of us can change another person. This means you can't make him get a job. That drive has to come from within him. Sometimes a man will evaluate what is important and decide he needs to make a change in order to not lose his girlfriend. Sometimes a man has to hit rock bottom before he will make a change. This means losing everything and becoming homeless.

You say you can't leave him. Yes you can, though it won't be easy to do. To help you decide, consider these two ideas. The first is there may be a medical or mental health reason for your boyfriend's behavior. For example, he could suffer from depression, or he could have a medical condition, such as a thyroid problem. A visit to a doctor would rule out either. However, your boyfriend may be opposed to going to a doctor. You can't make him go if he doesn't want to.

Another possibility is your boyfriend is medically fine and just lacks the value system you hold near and dear to your heart. In which case, the question isn't about him finding a job, it's about how much longer you are willing to be miserable waiting. You have already spent six months hoping for things to be different. How much more time do you want to spend putting someone else's needs before your own happiness?

~~Lori

Unequal Relationships