Pre-marriage counseling is fine. But how committed is he?
April 27, 2013 5:25 AM   Subscribe

It's been a few months after my fiance proposed and he made plans to move in with me and my 15-year-old son this summer. As predicted, my son began acting up, basically in the form of talking back and being a little rude to me in front of the fiance, who comes here every weekend. It's important to note my son does not act this way when it's the 2 of us and I completely understand what's going on and we're talking to someone.

3 weeks ago I had successful surgery. My fiance was here for a few weeks and was pretty helpful, but while he was here my son was less pleasant to me than usual. Both my fiance and I expected that he'd be anxious and act up, and he did.

Since the surgery, my fiance has expressed how deeply uncomfortable he now is with the idea of moving in with us (and getting married) because of how obnoxious my kid was.

I work with teens and it may sound like I'm in denial, but my kid wasn't really all that bad overall. Over the course of several weeks, the worst of it was: instead of doing chores immediately, he'd yell, "I will later!" and once he was playing X-Box Live with his friends and I was trying to nap but he was screaming into his headset and I told him to quiet down and he yelled (this is the first and only time he's ever done anything like this), "You're such a fucking bitch!" So I took away the headset and the X-Box.

In other words, it was a damned stressful time. But it appears to have given my fiance pause about moving in. So there's an element that actually, my fiance may not really get/want to live with a teenage boy.

Which would be enough, but...

Unfortunately and unexpectedly, my pathology reports diagnosed something more serious for which I am now undergoing treatment.

So I'm a little overwhelmed right now and I went to see a therapist who specializes in dealing with chronic (or sudden and serious) illness. One of the first things that came up was the question of how strong a support system I felt I had in place and I obviously thought about my fiance and his ability to help me and not get so freaked out about my kid acting up.

Cutting to the chase, I talked with my fiance about our recent stressful time, and asked him if, moving forward, I can count on him as a major support (for the next few months of treatment and y'know, forever).

He suggested family therapy before he moves in. I agree. Great idea.

So basically, I just ask this, "Are we beginning family therapy because we're both committed to our relationship and we're both in this for the long haul and love each other enough to know we're staying together? That this is a rough spot...we need some guidance...but we're going to get married?"

His response was yes he wants to work on this but no, can't promise staying together anymore because who knows what's going to happen? And the thing is...I kind of get it. I mean, I wish it was puppies and rainbows but I get that this was very stressful. I also get that this was very hard for all of us and that maybe he saw a living situation he didn't like. I also get that we're getting help for it.

But I also think...until several days ago, we were going to spend our lives together. Now I have an unfortunately illness and a few months of unpleasant treatment. Now there's a (somewhat anticipated) glitch within the family dynamic. We're working on the glitch together and I had assumed we were staying together.

So my question (and I'm reaching out for help here because I'm pretty messed up with my diagnosis and my medication and everyone here has always helped) is: what the hell, AskMeFi?

Is it worth getting family counseling if I sense he's got a foot out the door? Does he have a foot out the door? What am I not getting here (and I ask in all seriousness because I'm exhausted and I cannot for the life of me get my head around this right now).
posted by kinetic to Human Relations (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If it's something that's overwhelming for you, it can be overwhelming for someone else. He has a kid who doesn't really like him and a fiancee who is ill. That's a lot to process. I'd be suspicious of anyone who didn't think that was a lot and slowed down any new aspect of the relationship to process what is going on right now.

So while it's possible he's having second thoughts, it's also entirely possible that he recognizes that now is not the best time to make life-changing decisions. He's being honest with his answer that he doesn't know what the future holds.

People generally don't suggest therapy when they want to get out of something. They stall. They dissemble. They do whatever they can to avoid talking about their feelings. Seems your man is being honest. I don't think he knows yet how he feels. But therapy might help you two process it in a constructive way.
posted by inturnaround at 5:36 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Traditionally, the whole point of an engagement is to make sure you're making the right decision before you make it permanent. A broken engagement is better for most people than a messy divorce or unhappy marriage. Your fiancé has just come upon new information about your son and you that gives him pause and probably makes him wonder if he's getting in over his head. The fact that he may not be able to deal with this and may not be able to give you the support you need might give you pause too.

So far as your son is concerned, he has no other male role model so probably doesn't know how to view your fiancé or what to expect once he moves in. It sounds like he's testing boundaries. Your fiancé doesn't (I'm guessing) have a say in parenting him so when he's confronted with bad behaviour that he may have to live with, yet have no control over, it would make you think a little harder about whether or not you're prepared to take it on, on a daily basis. You work with teens so you've probably seen much worse but if he hasn't and his own kids were fairly well behaved your son may seem fairly extreme in comparison.

Counselling here is a great idea, so both of you c>an figure out how you feel about this. I don't think this makes him a bad guy, depending on where things go, it could be a lot to ask someone to take on. Best of luck with your health and this tricky situation.
posted by Jubey at 5:58 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am very sorry this is all happening at once.

I would just make sure to look far enough past fear over both the illness and the direction of the relationship to ask yourself not only if HE is ready but if in fact it will be more stressful for YOU to have to deal with your fiance moving in *right now.* He and your son will be in the volatile process of adjusting (or not adjusting so well) at the same time that you need to focus on your health. What if it gets rockier between them or your son becomes angrier for a while --I do empathize with the kid and the fiancee, but right now it might not look exactly like the support system you've been imagining. I am not saying to break up at all, I'm just wondering if it would be better for you BOTH to think about the timing now.

That said, family counseling should be helpful to help clarify things, but I just would make sure you;re also using the insights from counseling to make sure YOU are comfortable dealing it now.
posted by third rail at 6:01 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are perfectly within your rights to be having really big doubts yourself now that the man with whom you were about to commit to spend your entire life with has pulled back in a time of need instead of pulling together with you.
You're probably feeling scared, unsupported and really emotionally unstable right now. The fact that he's not even sure if you guys should stay together anymore when you need him the most, is simply heartbreaking.
Personally, I can't imagine hanging in the air about breaking off an engagement for external circumstances that were beyond my partners control and I wouldn't be comfortable staying with a partner that would threaten to pull that rug out on me.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 6:18 AM on April 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry you're going through this. I have been through something similar, where it was my son who became ill and my SO, who was already living with us, somehow turned it around so that he was the one who needed attention.

If this crisis is a catalyst for your fiance to look more closely and honestly at himself and what he can contribute to a family, then more power to him. But that journey of discovery is not something you have to join him on. You are ill and your son is struggling: your wheelbarrow is full. A partner is supposed to bring his own wheelbarrow along with him and share the burden.

This person was all "let's grow old together" as long as you had already done the work of constructing a pleasant home/family/life that he could effortlessly slip into, but now real life has appeared and he's not only dropped the ball but given you another one to juggle. Without assigning blame, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you have the time and energy, after taking care of your own health, raising your scared and angry teenage son, and presumably making a living to expend additional energy and time and money on "family" counseling with a long-distance guy who doesn't know if he wants to be part of your family.
posted by headnsouth at 7:09 AM on April 27, 2013 [21 favorites]

I work with teens and it may sound like I'm in denial, but my kid wasn't really all that bad overall.

I think you are thinking "This behavior is not that significant because overall my kid is a good kid." To you, the kid is just acting out about something he doesn't like, which happens. But Fiance may be thinking "This kid is letting me know he has a problem with me and the progress of this relationship." At least, if I were in his position I think it would seem very much that it was personally directed at me. As an "I don't want you in this family." And it would give me pause. I would want to feel welcome by all members of the family.

My friends who have married people with children have had a very rocky period of adjustment and often feel like outsiders in their own homes. I think it's a good idea for BOTH of you to be cautious and move slowly, especially given the stressful situation you are experiencing right now.

I think counseling is a good idea if you feel up to it. And I think you should do what is best for you, regardless.
posted by bunderful at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

That's all very awful (except the kid, that sounds pretty mild) and I'm very sorry. I am not you, but if I was, I would cut things off with him. Maybe not forever, but I would be saying 'After that nonsense I need a break to sort things out' and cutting contact and focusing on my health and my kid and just forgetting him. Either re-assess with a clearer head later, or if he doesn't want to wait or you don't like the separation idea, make a clean break now.

Counseling to work on your fiance being a jerk is not something I would undertake with an illness and an angsty son. He's a grown-up, one without a health crisis -- yeah, the move is a big thing for him, but he's an adult who knew, or who was supposed to know, what was involved in forging an adult partnership, and somebody who's already raised a child and should have been able to figure things out a bit better. tenaciousmoon and headnsouth have put it very well.
posted by kmennie at 7:23 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am sorry for your difficulties and hope everything turns out well.

A mature, sensible person decides to marry using his head as well as his heart. Your guy is doing the right thing by stopping to take a deep breath.

There's a lot on everyone's plate right now. Your focus should be on your treatment first. Happily ever after can wait just a while longer. What happens in the weeks and months to follow will tell you a lot about your guy and your relationship.
posted by mama penguin at 7:26 AM on April 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think counseling is always a good idea, but I would spend just as much time in counseling talking about how it makes you feel that now that shits getting tough he seems to be backing away instead of handling this as a team. And yeah _ while annoying that sounds like totally normal teen behavior and not something I would think was "let's rethink things" territory.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

And... I would postpone or cancel an engagement with someone who said "who knows what's going to happen". The point of marriage is being there no matter what.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:32 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing I'm not seeing in your answer is how your son was to your fiance. And I think that's a pretty significant omission.

It's natural for you, being sick in bed and relying on others to help you out, to focus on how the two men in your life are treating you. But when you are ill, especially with chronic illness, you are not the only one affected. Your son and fiance must be stressed out, too.

If your fiance was there for weeks, there had to be, absolutely had to be, some altercations between him and your son. Your son is used to a certain routine at home, your fiance is coming into uncharted territory under stressful situations.

So what did they argue about? I bet a lot more happened behind the scenes than you are aware of. I doubt your wonderful, understanding fiance suddenly turned into a non-committal jerk overnight! If he didn't go into any specifics with you, I think that actually speaks well of him. You're sick, and he is trying not to stress you out.

If I were you, I'd be asking my son how he felt those weeks with fiance went. Encourage him to vent with you, be understanding, point out how tough it must have been for fiance, too--and then show the same consideration to your fiance. And then--this is the most important bit--I'd sit down with both guys together and hash it all out.

The counselling and talk is only effective if all three of you are open with each other; so far you've been teaming up two at a time to deal with all this, and that's not going to work.
posted by misha at 8:00 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: One thing I'm not seeing in your answer is how your son was to your fiance.

According to both of them, it was all fine except for one incident. They made dinner, did chores together, watched baseball on tv, etc.

The one incident: the day I came home from the surgery I was lying on the couch, my son sitting by my feet, fiance sitting next to me. I asked my son for the blanket he was using and he was like, "I'm using it; have Fiance get you the one next to him," and Fiance snapped that I was recovering from surgery and to give me the blanket. Which he then did. Sure, that was one way to handle the situation, on the other hand, my fiance could have just handed me the blanket next to him.

The fact that he snapped at my kid instead of just giving me another stupid blanket kind of bothered me and made me question his ability to handle my kid. It didn't seem worth getting fighty. But I was also on pain meds so who knows.

I later asked my son how he felt about how everything went and his response was that he totally deserved to be chastised for the blanket. But other than that, things were fine, they got along swell. Fiance also thought they got along fine; his concern is that my kid is obnoxious and disrespectful to me.

I think it's more that my fiance has this fantasy of life with me and the reality of what a typical teenage boy acts like is just not something he wants to incorporate into this fantasy.
posted by kinetic at 8:11 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you necessarily have to break things off but it is very wise for all of you to stop and reevaluate.

You have quite a lot on your plate with your health. That's priority one.

I'm wondering though if your son is just a scapegoat here, and perhaps your health issues are what is scaring your man off somewhat. Maybe he doesn't even realize it, if so.

Family counselling would be an excellent way to sort through all of this. But you do not need a man who can't face difficult situations with you without wanting to bail. I am not saying he wants to bail-under the circumstances he is probably doing exactly the right thing-but your counselling does need to determine the depth of his commitment to the both of you. He is not a bad person for wanting to examine this himself in counselling, mind you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:51 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One other thing. As a single mom it really might be that your son is running over you in little ways that he shouldn't and you aren't noticing. Family counselling is a good way to determine that too.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:53 AM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure why you think this is "typical" teenager behavior from your son because I really can't remember my brother or myself acting in the ways that you describe when we were 15.

In fact, if any of my friends had behaved that way to their parents, I would feel super uncomfortable and probably not be friends with them anymore.

I can't speak to the rest and I hope you recover soon. This is what leapt out at me when I read your question above all else.

For reference, I did not grow up in a super prim and proper atmosphere.
posted by jbenben at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Don't marry someone who can't deal with your kid, warts and all.

It doesn't really matter whether this is a "kids will be kids" thing, or whether your son was way off base, or what.

When you marry this guy, he becomes part of your family. That's a pretty intense thing. If not everyone is on the same page, it's better not to move forward.

Is there a reason that this guy isn't living with you full time but just coming over on the weekends? I think that might be contributing to the dynamic here, especially since you mentioned that it came to a head after your fiance came to stay for a few weeks while you recovered from surgery.

My mom and step dad lived together for a year before they got married, and I think it was a great idea. Everyone had time to get over the growing pains of blending families, and they each had plenty of time to figure out how to be a step-parent and what their place in the pre-existing family dynamic would be. I'm sure other people in our town frowned on it, and Dr. Laura certainly wouldn't approve. But after living through this kind of change, I have to say it's the only way I would do it, if I were ever in a step-parent role.
posted by Sara C. at 10:33 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of compounding factors here. 1) Your fiancé is usually only over every weekend, right? But suddenly he was over for much longer - this seems trivial but it can really subtly mess with everyone's head; 2) Your kid is dealing with a shift in the family dynamic and that's frustrating, so he's become more irritable; 3) Both your fiancé (and your son, assuming you've told him) are dealing with the fact that someone they love is sick... and you are dealing with the fact that you are sick.

That's a lot of stress and would give many people pause. I don't see your fiancé as backing out of commitment but as being cautious about how much shifting is going to have to occur while also recognizing that your son comes first in your life, so if someone has to go, it'll be the fiancé. He doesn't have infatuation blinders on and I believe that's a good thing. He's the one who suggested therapy, even, which shows that he's not oblivious to the tension and wants to act to fix it.

I understand that you're worried and stressed right now but I'm confused as to how you think him acknowledging stress over something he hasn't experienced (moving in with a partner who has a teenage son while said partner is also facing serious illness) is a sign that he's ready to bail. Would you really rather have a partner who blithely ignores the gravity of the changes in your lives and constantly says everything is OK? If so, that might be a sign of greater incompatibility.

Like Sara C., I'm also perplexed as to why your fiancé is only over on the weekends. If he spends more time at your place (a gradual increase), that might alleviate some of the stress.
posted by buteo at 11:48 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

He suggested family therapy before he moves in. I agree. Great idea.

Sorry to be a non help here, but it seems that you are asking questions that really ONLY a family counselor can define or help with in your family dynamic. We can't tell all that much as there are currently some stressful circumstances and we don't see your day-to-day.

Therefore I think counseling will really clear the air. Also find someone who works with teens. I saw my dad's marriage counselor once while they were going through a divorce,and I hated him. He talked down to me and belittled my feelings. Even my dad said "Wow, I really like him but he did not work well with you!"

So basically, I just ask this, "Are we beginning family therapy because we're both committed to our relationship and we're both in this for the long haul and love each other enough to know we're staying together? That this is a rough spot...we need some guidance...but we're going to get married?"

I can't tell you why you are doing therapy. But, rough spots happen, sometimes ESPECIALLY in marriage or moving in together. My husband and I just passed on 1 year wedding anniversary, and yes the first year is hard! We have never even doubted our love but we have gotten in some pretty bad fights when things get stressful.

Will he pull these same doubts when you are married or living together? Will being married change it where he doesn't want to leave or say he can't handle something? For some people divorce is an easy option in their mind. I think you need to sort it out with him and a counselor.

His response was yes he wants to work on this but no, can't promise staying together anymore because who knows what's going to happen?

You never know what's going to happen. I know your situation is different than mine as you have a child and are going through medical problems. However in my mind, when you get engaged to someone you are setting the stage for "Till death do us part." True some people break up during engagements because they do realize they can't handle it, but if he proposed, knowing full well that you have a child, and is just now saying he may not be able to handle it, that is odd to me.

Go to the counselor. I hope you get all of this sorted and I hope your medical problems resolve and you feel better. Try to get into a support group for your medical problem if you can.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:50 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

His response was yes he wants to work on this but no, can't promise staying together anymore because who knows what's going to happen?

He's a 50 year old man. Does he think his own body is infallible? "What's going to happen" is, as he ages, he's going to experience the usual set of ailments that beset us in later life, as well as who-knows-what-else.

I don't think he should move into your home until you are healed and have had time to think things through in a calm, unhurried fashion. If he wants to move to your city, and take up lodging on his own, that's one thing; but taking on the added stress of a live-in guy who may bounce when the going gets tough during your treatment? Ehhh.
posted by nacho fries at 12:00 PM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm also perplexed as to why your fiancé is only over on the weekends.

(Per the OP's linked previous question, her fiancé lives 250 miles away.)
posted by nacho fries at 12:17 PM on April 27, 2013

But, OK, why?

This guy "wants to marry you", but he hasn't figured out how to relocate to your town?

Fast-forwarding a long distance relationship from "we see each other on weekends" to "we're married with a teenage kid" is HUGE. Probably too huge to happen seamlessly without growing pains. Possibly too huge to even contemplate attempting.
posted by Sara C. at 12:38 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Circling back to the actual question:

Is it worth getting family counseling if I sense he's got a foot out the door?

It's often said on AskMe that getting family counseling is useful even if the relationship is heading toward the exit. It can help you get everything out on the table, sort through all sides of the situation, and go your separate ways with greater clarity and calmness.

So, yes, I think it is a good idea, BUT, it should be done at a time when you are feeling ready for it. If you need to focus on your treatment and healing, including individual therapy to help you through your treatment, I think it is reasonable to hold off on the family therapy until later.

It may feel urgent, in that you want things to be settled, but my sense is that it would be strategic to tackle one major life change at a time, if at all possible.

Hang in there.
posted by nacho fries at 12:51 PM on April 27, 2013

i think slowing things down right now is a good idea. you are dealing with a major illness, a teenage boy acting out, and an engagement with a fiance who is long distance. family counseling sounds like a really good idea. your fiance may be a bit unrealistic as to what he is taking on and your son needs to grow up and be a help when mom is sick and not act like a brat. seriously, if anyone in my family had misbehaved when a parent was recovering from surgery that would not have been cool at all. your fiance being there meant your son didn't have to do the bulk of attending to you while recovering so your son could have acted a whole lot better about things. i get it that he's freaked out about the changes but when mom is sick you step it up. you don't treat her poorly.
posted by wildflower at 1:02 PM on April 27, 2013

You never know how healthy a relationship is until it has had a few stressors. Commitment is clearly a touchy issue for the two of you as you had originally broken up because you felt he was not committed and he has apparent not had a long term committed relationship since then. Frankly, his answer to your question was selfish and shitty and you are instinctively noticing that. Couple's counselling is a good idea but considering his recent answer I think you should really prioritise yourself, your son and your health and hope your fiancé steps up without you having to take the lead. I don't think family counselling is a priority (or necesssary for your son) until your fiancé decides if he is willing to commit.
posted by saucysault at 1:04 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I feel like there's a few "bright line" answers here advocating an ole-fashioned dumpin'. In my experience, as someone who has had a very serious relationship with a person saddled with huge, life-shaping disability (paraplegia) and attendant health issues; and as someone now with a chronic illness - which is currently mostly okay, but for a long time was mostly terrible and I was ill pretty much all the time; and as someone who was a teenage boy when his parents starting having new relationships after their 27 year marriage broke up... I think bright lines are for the birds.

The complexities and nuances of major and/or chronic illness, mature adult relationships, and - god help us all - teenagers, cannot be encapsulated in an easy set of rules, and I don't know that strangers on the internet will be very effective in making judgments from the very limited amount of info we have here. We don't know you, your partner, your kid.

I think family counselling - and perhaps some individual counselling, too - is a terrific idea. Would be terrific if just *one* of these things were going on.

You would be looking at a time of fragility and adjustment, just if he were moving in, and there is sooooooo much more going on than that. I think some anxieties, fears etc are totally natural. Additionally, does your fiance have his own children? Does he understand teens? As a reformed teen, I mean, they are tough, man, if you are not related. Hell, I love my nephew and niece, but she is wearing her headphones at the dinner table that's how much conversation we're getting at the moment, and the way she talks to her mother...

What I'm saying is that it if you are unused to teenagers, it can be kind of shocking and confronting - they look like adults, but really really aren't, and adult standards don't really apply. It can take a while for the good stuff to shine through, let alone all the additional stressors you guys have at the moment.

In this respect, I think now is the absolute worst time to be making decisions and worrying about some of this stuff - it would be hard for anyone to get a clear perspective of how things are/could be when so much is going on, and a counsellor could be very very helpful for everyone.

finally: I think it's more that my fiance has this fantasy of life with me and the reality of what a typical teenage boy acts like is just not something he wants to incorporate into this fantasy.

I think this is absolutely natural and not necessarily an augury for future prospects - everybody goes through this when they first move in with someone and the compromises start, especially if they've been living by themselves for a while.

Hang in there OP, I think counselling is a great idea and I wish you all the best of luck.
posted by smoke at 4:23 PM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was an asshole teenager when my mother met my now-stepdad. He didn't have any kids, and he was pretty shellshocked by my snotty attitude and misbehavior. I'm pretty sure I was the reason they didn't get married sooner. What's up with your kid's dad? How is school going? Does your kid know about your illness yet? Your son is probably fairly freaked out about major change and it's surfacing in outbursts. I think counseling is a fine idea if you can get your son on board; if you have to drag him to it, it might not work out so well. Can your son's father pick up any slack here in order to support you while you deal with your illness and your fiance?
posted by desjardins at 4:36 PM on April 27, 2013

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