-- Question for John --
I have been dating a woman for about 6 months. We are in love and have discussed marriage recently. One of the issues that I have is that she has a lot of male friends. She still keeps in touch with one of her old boyfriends who is currently working overseas. She broke up with him about a year and a half ago but he still wants to see her and her daughter when he comes into town.
She says that he is only a friend at this point and that she feels sorry for him because he doesn’t have a lot of friends and he still wants to see her daughter. He came over to her house for a few hours a while ago, she called me after he left and assured me again that it was purely platonic and that I needed to trust her. I am trying to understand what his and perhaps her underlying motives are, I do trust her but of course I am just a little jealous about the whole thing and question of what may happen when or if I am engaged to and marry her. I don’t know if I would be OK with him coming over to “our” house at that point. Perhaps the situation will resolve itself, but I don’t feel right asking her to not see him as I am sure that it would backfire and she would be resentful. Her other male friends are friends that she has never dated so I am not as concerned about them. I told her that I didn’t like that he was coming over but tried to conceal my jealousy and the fact that I was upset about it.
I am considering proposing marriage to her very soon and then planning on being engaged for about a year before we get married. What I am struggling with is the question of whether or not it is too soon to propose or not. At 40 years old I feel I have a much better idea of who I am and what I want in a partner. We have both been married before, she was widowed and I was divorced. I can’t see my feelings changing and we both want to have a child together and have discussed our feelings, goals, dreams, etc. enough for me to feel comfortable in asking her to marry me.
What should I do?
-- Answer from John --
People have pasts. Sometimes they still feel a positive regard for past partners. This is not something unusual. It does not need to be threatening to your relationship — that is, unless you insist that it is. It could be threatening if your insecurities cause you to act out in ways that alarm her about you. I get that you realize this and are trying your best to keep your act together. Which is real good.
It is also very normal that you might feel insecure about this. After all, you are still getting to know her. Five months is still within a testing zone, although you are getting good enough signals that you want to state your intentions for something lasting at this time. And that is good, too. Especially with the engagement period you envision.
Anyway, I wouldn’t particularly worry about either her wanting to see the old friend, or you feeling insecure about it.
The thing I would be concerned about is how the two of you handle this potentially challenging and seemingly emotionally-charged (to some extent for you) issue.
How you handle it will spell out most clearly the kind of future you want to have together. If you handle this in an emotionally unskillful way, obviously your love may suffer. Such unskillful ways would include what you already have rejected doing, i.e. asking her not to see him (any form of trying to control the other person is almost certain to backfire sooner or later).
So, first off, I would highly recommend that you take full charge of your own insecurities and learn to work with them.
Second, I would encourage you to be authentic and honest with her — like you have so far. Mention that you are having trouble with the situation. But at no point discuss it in a way which might imply that — underneath it all — you are really trying to get her to change what she is doing in order to take care of your uncomfortable feelings. Instead, be honest with the spirit of giving a weather report. You don’t want to keep the info bottled up inside you. But you don’t want to issue veiled mandates that imply she is causing your feelings.
She isn’t. The feelings are inside you, and are your response to the situation. While understandable, they are not necessarily useful as an accurate appraisal of the situation objectively. They are more an indication of some inner work you can do in your own personal growth, regarding dealing with personal insecurity.
The more you and she can create an atmosphere which is safe — for both of you — to explore such uncomfortable feelings as insecurities — the better your relationship will become. Many couples try to sweep such things under the rug or use the techniques of pretending and denial. I do not believe this results in a deepening intimacy. Better to disclose and reveal — but to make sure you are doing so in a kind, respectful, and self-responsible way. You are responsible to take care of your own feelings. And in taking that responsibility, you can more easily disclose what is going on inside of you — like giving a weather report — without seeming to make her responsible to take care of your feelings. The latter is where relationships self-implode.
While you are in a proposing mood, I would suggest proposing something powerful and necessary for the longterm success of your love. That is an extension to the shared vision you have been developing with your partner. You say you have discussed your feelings, goals, dreams, etc. Knowing that you share positive values and goals is clearly important. But I am talking about proposing an expanded shared vision with her that includes how you will see and work with challenges, differences, problems and issues that may come up in the relationship. Challenges such as this one, in fact.
It is our view that relationships continually prod us to do more personal growth. Love brings up things within us — like your insecurities — to focus us on the tasks of inner growth, skillbuilding, healing, wholeness, and so forth. When a couple is able to see and name challenges in a way that recognizes that challenges are a natural and good part of relating, then the “threat” of challenges diminishes, and both partners develop solid trust that they can face and overcome obstacles together.