Despondent asks: “I am a 23 year old female dating a 31 year old man whom I love. However I have zero idea what to do about his family life. I feel terrible about the situation that he is in and I want him to be able to escape if possible. I feel that I have a lot of life-living to do (traveling, moving, exploring, etc) and I want him to experience real life with me instead of living this faux-life.
The background: “H” grew up in a war-torn country in Africa. His family was luckily able to escape to the US with their lives but living here leaves something to be desired. In their native country both parents were successful with a large house and servants and chauffeurs; here they live up to 5 people at a time in a small two-person government subsidized housing and more than a few times a year the electricity or phone gets shut off, the car breaks down, etc, leaving my guy to pick up the pieces and pay the fees to get things turned back on. He is absolutely the most responsible person in the family and they all rely heavily on him to fix the myriad issues constantly occurring. Example current huge issues: his only brother is in jail, his sister is a single mom with psych issues, his other sister’s child was taken away by CPS due to drug use and suicidal ideation, and his parents fight constantly. His mom is attempting to divorce his dad even though her English is very poor and I have no idea how she intends to support herself.
Everything is in a state of abject deterioration all the time, leaving H in anxiety, hopelessness, stress, and guilt. We recently were on a trip for 2 nights without reception and the guilt was wracking because the family kept trying to call and demand that he help with problem a, b, or c. In addition, due to lack of parenting, H has had to figure out major life lessons without support or guidance from his parents leaving him with about $20,000 worth of back taxes and I can only imagine what his credit is like. He is still by far in the most fortunate position in comparison of his siblings, except for maybe his youngest sister who appears to be relatively unscathed but is attempting to escape and move to Texas.
What can I do? I want to be with him but I also don’t want to be married to this mess forever and I don’t want him to be either! My feeling is that the excess assistance he gives only serves to encourage the family to use him as a crutch. His sister is obviously trying to take the easy route by just running away. However it also seems heartless and irresponsible to expect them to somehow figure everything out alone especially when they are obviously going through crisis. Not to mention there are children who need to be considered. How can I extract him from this trap?”
Liz says: Before I begin, I need to ask you something very important. Has “H” expressed to you a desire to leave his family, or is this about what you want for him?
You seem to be looking at his family life from a very Western, ethnocentric point of view. This is understandable, but you need to know that most cultures value interdependence and “family first” more than Western cultures do. In the U.S., for example, we raise our kids to be self-sufficient, with the goal of getting them out of the house as soon as they turn 18 and without any expectations, except to call home occasionally. We even have self-help books for parents whose adult kids haven’t moved out yet. In most other cultures all over the world, however, kids are expected to help raise their siblings, stay home until they get married, and put family first in a way that Americans seem to only give lip service to. Neither culture is necessarily better than the other. In my opinion, the ideal would fall somewhere in between. I’m not just speaking from an anthropological point of view, I have firsthand insight on these cultural differences as the daughter of a mother from Africa. If you suggest that he cease whatever behaviors that you think are making him an enabler, you are likely to be met with resistance, because to detach and stop being supportive would be seen as disloyal and ungrateful. Regardless of the culture one is raised in, trying to put a wedge in between a partner and their family is usually not a good idea if you see a future with that partner, even if you think you are acting in their best interest.
I want you to keep in mind that you don’t know what he and his family have survived. Even if you’ve heard some of their stories, you can’t be expected to understand the depths of their ordeals or relate. You mentioned knowing his family is in crisis, but unless you have extensive experience studying and treating trauma victims, you are not prepared to know what is best for your boyfriend. While it may seem obvious that his family’s predicaments cause him stress and the “logical” step is to break away, it may be possible that maintaining a close-knit family unit is necessary at this point for him, especially if he feels fortunate to have his family alive and together after fleeing whatever horror they may have witnessed or experienced, not to mention needing each other because of the hardships of adapting to a new society.
I know you don’t want to hear this—but you’re only 23 years old, and these issues are too big for you to change, nor are they your responsibility to change. You seem to feel that all of his family’s circumstances are your business, saying you have “no idea” how his mom intends to support herself if she divorces his dad, for example. It’s really not your business. I say this because your statement seems to come more from judgment and less from genuine concern.You are not married to him, so if you need to detach yourself for your own mental and emotional health, that is an option. Or you can accept that he is loyal to his family and their personal struggles may be temporary, and that his life is not yours to fix. Most likely, if you two did get married, he would still maintain close ties and be there to help them when needed even if he is an independent married man with kids of his own. It’s healthy to establish some boundaries with family once you get married and have babies, but what those boundaries are would need to be thoroughly discussed between you two before tying the knot. If you two really love each other and feel compatible in other important ways, then you will figure out how to make it work.
I can understand the frustration you both must feel when you can’t even get away for 2 days for some peace and fun, and who could blame you for wanting to live life and travel without all the drama? I suggest sitting him down and telling him exactly how you feel, and asking him what he wants to do. Hopefully, everything will work out in everyone’s favor.