Can we talk? No wait it's not like that.
January 13, 2009 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Omnibus Relationship Question: Getting married, and can't wait, but have numerous small issues I want to resolve.

We're planning on getting married this year, after being together for a few years. I love her, and look forward to spending my life with her. But, there are issues I'd love to work on, but don't really know how to start.
She has low-self esteem, and really beats herself when she feels she's messed up even over tiny things. This is the main reason I'm asking the hivemind for help, because I don't feel I can go to her in my ham-handed way and lay out my concerns without her feeling worse. She's amazing, sweet, creative and caring, but she doesn't see it, and lets a lot of opportunity pass her by because she doesn't feel good enough for it. Or she begins to have successes, and then lets the momentum drop because she doesn't believe her successes are anything but flukes. I'm always positive about her work, and upbeat about her chances but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

This leads, in a way, to the second problem. I have a good job (knock on wood), and we are scraping by, financially. When she was a single mom, she had incentive to make enough money to make ends meet. Now she doesn't need to make as much, and has consequently fallen into wasting a lot time online and working a lot less. This has strained our finances, and meant that a lot of the things we wanted to do (take a vacation, and fix our house) had to go on hold. It's stressing me out, and I don't know what it would be like if I were to lose my job. For the record, I'm no saint with money, and we are living paycheck to paycheck.

She has two awesome kids, but she does everything for them, and expects almost nothing in return. Luckily, they aren't rotten, they just have no idea how to do almost anything for themselves. I get the feeling her mom wasn't really there for her, so maybe this is her overcompensating with her own kids? I've lightly discussed this with her in the past, and it usually leads to her concluding that she's a terrible mother. But even that doesn't change the habit of doing everything for them.

Last, I'm worried about our long-term health. We are both sedentary by nature, and over the last year we have started gaining some weight. I really want to find ways for us to get more exercise beyond the "Yes! Let's get more exercise" agreement that we both ignore. Suggestions to how you went from couch potato to outdoor enthusiast heartily welcome!

Beyond these specific issues, I'd love to feel like we can be open and honest, even if it means criticism, with each other. I know I'm far from perfect and would love to know from her how I could improve, and be a better (future) husband for her. But I fear trying to talk about this stuff will just worsen her self-esteem issues.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
These don't sound like small issues.

If you can't talk with your partner, you're going to have issues with your relationship. Period. If you fix this, the rest of the problems can follow. However, until you can talk about your problems, they will not get fixed.

You need to tell your partner what you just said here directly and provide her with the resources to solve them (ie, therapy, suggestions on what specific financial changes you'd like to see, and a rationale behind your thoughts). She will not just "pick up on them" and fix them on their own. You have to do something about it.

I hate to provide such a direct answer, but you've written a fairly descriptive statement that should be directed to her, not to us.
posted by saeculorum at 12:39 PM on January 13, 2009

I hate to be a downer, and maybe the other MeFites will be more positive, but your post sounds off about a billion warning alarms in my head.

Ask yourself something: if none of these things change, are you happy with her? Do you love her? Will you be with her for the rest of her and your life?

Because if not, don't get married.

The whole "I love you for who you are. I want to get married. Now change" argument never really worked for me. Sure, people always have to work together as part of a relationship, but you can't expect her to get therapy, lose weight, work harder, etc. all on her own.

Second, you're afraid to bring this up. Communication is vital vital vital to the survival of a marriage. If you can't even tell her that these are problems (even for the "selfless" reason of "it might hurt her self-esteem even more") then there are just more things to follow that you won't be able to talk about. They will fester in your mind, under your skin, unspoken until eventually the dam bursts with a flood of all the ways she has been letting you down that you never told her about.

So I would speak to her, and if the talk goes poorly or cannot be worked through, perhaps couples therapy.

Lastly, how about leading by example? Why do you need HER in order to up your exercise? Why not just go out and do it on your own? In certain respects, this post seems to be pushing blame on your future wife for things that you have control over?

Man up and communicate with her, and take charge of your own well being, both mental and physical. Then hopefully things will work out.

That said, no one in the world is perfect, whoever you marry will have idiosynchricies or patterns of behavior that you have to learn to live with (not change in the other person, learn to live with) so ask yourself if you can do that, or if all these small things will lead up to a big divorce.
posted by arniec at 12:39 PM on January 13, 2009

With respect to exercise, tennis is a great sport you can play with your sweetie (and the kids too), and it's a lot of fun. Lessons aren't cheap, but raquets and public courts are.
posted by bananafish at 12:51 PM on January 13, 2009

Delicately, these are not "numerous small issues." To be frank, these are in fact deep concerns that impact not only her, but you, her children, and any children you may choose to have in the future - forever. This isn't a "hey, I dislike the way you do laundry" small issue; this is something that impacts the past, today, and your mutual forever. So my first suggestion is to wrap your mind around that concept.

Secondly, this ain't gonna go away with some discussion, however well intended you might be. There are no magic words the innernets can hand you that will unlock this problem.

Also, please be cognizant of (what I would deem) red flags: you have "lighly discussed" the children with her in the past and it threw her way off kilter. You shouldn't have to dance around issues like that. I mean, there is a certain amount of tact involved in relationship discussions, but you shouldn't have to be watching your feet for eggshell proximity. You're in for a whole lifetime of dancin', my friend. Are you ok with that?

She has also demonstrated some tendencies toward not pulling her weight financially. You say she previously had "incentive" to work when she was a single mom. Uh...that incentive shouldn't have shifted: she still has a family, she still has a home - regardless of whether you're there or not. That burden doesn't just latch onto you just because you've shown up on her shore, *especially* when you say you are just scraping by financially. One would think, given your current scraping and an upcoming wedding, that would be "incentive" for her to work harder.

Her decisions are impacting you in a negative way. You mentioned vacations that go untaken, children who are growing up with no sense of doing for themselves, and the aforementioned financial difficulties. She may indeed be a sweet, caring person, but she is not engaging in activities that reflect concern for your wellbeing or her children's, for that matter (I'd argue that not making enough money to fix your home falls into that category, as well as coddling them and thereby not giving them the tools they need to be self-sufficient).

So, overall, I don't think there's much you can do to alter what is already a fairly clear pattern of behavior; I'm sorry to say that. The decision is ultimately whether you're comfortable with a lifetime of living this pattern. Are you ok being the ringleader with someone who is dependent on you, as opposed to someone who is a partner with you? Are you ok raising children who will rely on you to the extent you describe? Are you ok with financial struggles? Only you know if she is so kind and caring as to merit overriding issues that are clearly troubling you.

Alternatively, you can try the counseling route, but from what you've described here, it doesn't sound like she is of a personality type that would go into that with the open mind required to do so. I don't know. Again, only you know that, but my guess is she would have difficulty accepting counseling.
posted by December at 12:56 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I wish the default advice on AskMe wasn't usually, "don't get married." They love each other, they've decided to get married, and now they need to work with that. So, I suggest:

1. Write down your list of issues. Have her do the same. Maybe she's got concerns too, you know?

2. Talk to each other, go down the list, and figure out how you're going to handle those issues.

3. Look into your options for counseling. It sounds like you may both need it, so don't just write it off as impossible because it might cost too much. There are surely services out there to help you, and I bet someone here can suggest something better than I can. But counseling would help.

4. Financial counseling, too. Look into your options for maximizing the money you have and work together to earn more. If you have to temporarily cancel your internet connection to get yourselves jump-started, for Pete's sake, do it.

5. Work out together. Be each others' cheerleaders. Come up with a backup plan for those days when neither of you has the energy to push the other one into exercising that day.

6. Give yourselves a goal date for the things that are easier to fix (the non-psychological ones). Several goal dates so that you're no overwhelming yourselves with the whole list of changes you need to make. And stick to those goals.

And good luck.
posted by katillathehun at 1:05 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

She may not know that life can be easier by taking a few extra steps, and has become mired in the relief state of seeing that life can, at minimum, be better.

I don't think her issues are a precursor to doom. I've seen people with these same issues turn their mindsets around and get the right balance of productivity and positivity into their lives. But I've also seen the opposite, too, so you've got to keep your eyes open and be realistic about her commitment to present and future happiness for all of you.

It will require a bit of help for you, though, because outside voices are important to the process. She may well need individual counseling, but I think couples counseling would be the more important step, here. Couples counseling often includes help with setting goals and budget agreement, which will help her to see how important her continuing contributions are to things like real vacations and worry-free downtime. Make sure to mention that during your search for counseling, as not all delve into that aspect and it seems like an important area for your new family to establish as soon as possible.

It's important to sit down with her before all of that, though, and make sure you're both on the same page regarding goals and hopes for the future. Tell her how excited you are to be going into the rest of your life with someone with all of her good qualities and that you know things have been difficult but you want life to be easier. As much as us hairless apes sometimes hate it, structure is the best way to make that happen. A budget, a certain expectation of what needs doing/when/by whom, an idea of what the year to come will bring (if you feel ambitious, maybe go ahead and do a 2/5/10, too).

There are literally hundreds of books on pulling a family together toward common goals. Decide what the most important area is and focus on that, encouraging family efforts in researching it, metabolising it, and checking in on results, but keep in mind that you'll need a good basic infrastructure in order to build that kind of effort.

If she seems resistant or doesn't seem able to follow through...that's when having counseling is really going to come in handy. Personally, I'd be doing all of this in preparation for marriage and making one of the first goals being met (say, perhaps, having a certain amount of money in the bank with a commitment of contribution percentages from each of you) as a requirement before the wedding.

You're in a situation that can be difficult. Please make sure to leverage your friends and loved ones to support all of you without giving anyone the tools to build a partially-informed case against the other.
posted by batmonkey at 1:20 PM on January 13, 2009

Well, if you want to work on both physical and your relationship, why not take a lot of long walks where you, ya know, talk. I know it helped me and my husband get through some stuff. It's a baby step, but it's a start.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:27 PM on January 13, 2009

I agree with arniec in the following respect: you should assume that none of these features will change, save independently (e.g., kids aging and moving away), and ask yourself whether it's still a good idea.

If you decide that it is, choose your issues for discussion/negotiation wisely. Personally, I think opening discussions on all these fronts, in view of a upcoming marriage, could be a disaster -- an unnecessary one. It would be understandable for someone to view a laundry list of pretty fundamental concerns about them as your passive-aggressive way of trying to kill the nuptials. Choose a thing or two on which you think progress can be made, and be constructive.

I will not presume to opine whether your marriage, given these issues, is a good idea, but I would advise you to evaluate its liabilities in a sober and realistic light -- and if you go forward, not to spend your mutual energies discussing its warts if they are inoperable in character.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:35 PM on January 13, 2009

It's impossible to work on self-esteem issues when everyone pussyfoots around you and is afraid to tell you the truth. I really only began to seriously work on my issues after I got engaged. My husband challenges me - not in a confrontational way, but in a 'hey, I know this isn't who you want to be, and I know you can do better' way. He's also stepped up his game, without any nagging on my part, which has inspired me to expand my world and try new things.

So, in your shoes, I'd do two things. First, clean up your own life. Manage your money, start exercising, etc. If you can't do it, why do you expect her to? Lead by example. Second - after you've gotten reasonably far in the cleanup process - have a talk with her about future goals as a family, and how to achieve them. Either she's inspired by your progress and wants to help you achieve your (collective) goals, or she's not willing to change at all, in which case you might want to reconsider the marriage.
posted by desjardins at 1:51 PM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ask yourself something: if none of these things change, are you happy with her? Do you love her? Will you be with her for the rest of her and your life?

Because if not, don't get married.

Quoted for truth. There may be some things that could be done to motivate her in some different ways, but the smart money says that the way she is now is the way she is going to be. You need to decide if you are okay with her just as she is. If not, it's really a bad idea--very, very, bad--to marry one kind of person while hoping that they'll become a different kind of person. If you want some other kind of person, she's out there somewhere.

If you want to marry the woman you are with, your best chance for happiness is to learn to be content with exactly who she is.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:08 PM on January 13, 2009

I'd love to feel like we can be open and honest, even if it means criticism, with each other.

So you don't feel that you can be open and honest? Judging by the rest of your post, I'm not surprised, but that's no way to start a marriage.
posted by owtytrof at 2:20 PM on January 13, 2009

Do not marry your fiancee hoping that she'll change. Most people don't change, and most people who do change do so because they decide for themselves that something needs to be different, not because someone else in their lives asks them to. I'm not saying that she might not change, and I'm not saying don't marry her. But if your confidence that your relationship will endure is premised on her behaving or feeling differently than she currently does, do not assume that your relationship will endure.
posted by decathecting at 2:22 PM on January 13, 2009

It sounds to me like you don't know how to bring up problems in a productive way in conversation. A basic book like Crucial Conversations might really help. If the issue is that you can't bring up issues because of the way the conversations then spiral out of control or something, then you have a much more serious issue.
posted by salvia at 2:31 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Start with couples counseling to learn together how you can express your feelings and needs without her going into "I'm a horrible person and I suck" mode.

Your part of this dynamic is codependent avoidance: using her habitual overreaction as an excuse to minimize and bury your own needs by tiptoing around things that you're afraid are going to set her off.

This is a cornerstone dynamic. Until both of you learn to respond differently, you're not going to get traction on any of the other issues you've raised here.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:41 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Successful couples, in my experience and observation, are those who actively see themselves as part of a team -- with shared values, goals, and responsibilities that you can both discuss and agree upon.

To me, the most urgent issue on your list is the financial one. Now, more than ever, is not the time to settle for "scraping by." Your team's financial health depends on not just meeting the immediate expenses every month, but also paying off debt (if you're carrying it) and building savings (for emergencies, home upkeep, retirement, and -- yes -- even for the occasional vacation).

I'm a big fan of the book All Your Worth, the principle of which is not based on tracking every cup of coffee you buy but rather assessing the big numbers (in terms of income and expenses) in order to get your finances into balance: 50% for essentials (housing, insurance, food, etc.), 20% for savings (both short- and long-term), and 30% for extras (i.e., whatever you want that's not essential). Maybe you could read it and, if what it says resonates with you, share it with your fiancee so that you can create a plan together in terms of how both of you will contribute to getting your finances in balance.

If you can do this together -- and explicitly create that sense of being a team, where you both get input AND have responsibilities -- maybe it can be a kind of jumping-off point to tackle some of the other issues.
posted by scody at 2:50 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Regarding your fiancee's self-esteem: I have had issues like this before (particularly after working for a horribly manipulative boss for a year). For me, what really got me jumpstarted wasn't praise from people close to me (my family, roommate, friends, etc.)—presumably they like me already—but when I started getting positive feedback from my new boss, not only directly to me, but also when I heard him speaking well of me to others when he thought I couldn't hear.

My point is that sometimes it takes hearing good things from outside your immediate circle of support to feel better about yourself.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:04 PM on January 13, 2009

I wish the default advice on AskMe wasn't usually, "don't get married." They love each other, they've decided to get married, and now they need to work with that.

That's because postponing "planning to get married" to attempt to work stuff (when you're unsure of the outcome) out is infinitely easier -- than having a crisis and facing the possibility of divorce. Especially when one of them has kids. It's just far more sensible to work out the basics before they are married than afterwards.

Particularly when

I'm always positive about her work, and upbeat about her chances but it seems to fall on deaf ears.
... Now she doesn't need to make as much, and has consequently fallen into wasting a lot time online and working a lot less.
... Luckily, they aren't rotten, they just have no idea how to do almost anything for themselves. I get the feeling her mom wasn't really there for her, so maybe this is her overcompensating with her own kids? I've lightly discussed this with her in the past, and it usually leads to her concluding that she's a terrible mother. But even that doesn't change the habit of doing everything for them.
It doesn't seem like she's at a point where she can easily listen to what he has to say. Sounds like he's been tip-toeing around having ever more important conversations because he's seen her reactions to minor criticism - self-flagellation followed by absolutely zero change.

Nobody's shouting DTMFA, but they're advising caution for damn good reason.

As others have said, OP, you absolutely need to be able to hash this out with her before you are married. A good couples counselor may provide you with the tools to express your concerns -- and help her hear them. Then it will be up to the two of you to figure out if you can, as a team, make things work.

If I were you, I'd postpone any talk of marriage until you felt comfortable openly talking about core issues with your girlfriend and confident that you both would come out of those conversations with a plan.
posted by canine epigram at 3:10 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

>Suggestions to how you went from couch potato to outdoor enthusiast heartily welcome!

Buy a pair of bicycles. Set a course to follow for a fun and pleasant ride, limited to about a mile for the first few rides, then increase. Ride every other day, and stick to it.
posted by yclipse at 6:12 PM on January 13, 2009

On communication:

Most people do not react well to criticism, no matter how loving or thoughtful it is. Here's a trick I learned from The Power of Two: Make Requests, Not Complaints. E.g., instead of saying, "I wish you made more money" or "it's hard when you don't work as much," you could say, "Would you mind picking up some extra hours so that we can have a financial cushion/vacation fund/etc?"

When you make a complaint, she can either agree too much and overgeneralize and beat herself up, or get defensive and fight you on it. It's a rare person who simply notes your opinion and considers it impartially. When you make a request, she'll generally either say yes or no, and any discussion/argument is focused on that request, not on whether she's generally a worthless human being or whether you are more or less X than her.

On her self esteem:

You can't change people, or at least not quickly. But gradually, having a partner who loves her and accepts her and believes in her has got to have an effect. Of course therapy might help, too.
posted by callmejay at 11:47 AM on January 14, 2009

Talk to her and if she's not willing to make an effort to change, I'd rethink the marriage, if only because it will suck for the kids if you are both miserable.

I dunno, guys. Rainer Maria Rilke talks about how young inexperienced lovers throw themselves together and become a tangled mess of limbs. Wise lovers are whole people who can stand at the doorway of their solitudes and touch without violating the other person.

If that makes sense.

It sounds like you will have to expend a lot of energy on your partner, which may or may not help her but at the end of the day, it is YOU carrying the load of two people. And that's way unbalanced and unhealthy.
posted by HolyWood at 3:27 PM on January 19, 2009

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