Saturday, 18 December 2010

Auntie Seraphic & Gift-Receiver

It is like my undergrad self travelled forward in time and sent me this email.

Dear Auntie Seraphic

Thanks so much for your blog and advice! It's been really helpful to me (both as a Catholic and a Single).

I suppose I'm technically single right now, in that I'm not engaged or married. I am, however, in a relationship that seems to be heading that direction. I'm nearing four years of dating a young man who I really like, and who seems to like me equally -- or maybe more. He's 2-, and I'm 2-. [Seraphic's Note: she's younger; he's working.]

My question regards Christmas/birthday presents and relationships in general.

He has a tendency towards lavish gifts, while I'm more on the frugal side. I think he's planning to get me a nice [piece of jewelry] that I've wanted for some time, and has already sent me an early Christmas present -- a really nice and expensive [piece of clothing] that I had at one point expressed a liking for, but noted was way too pricy/un-useful to justify purchasing. He has expressed a desire for a nice watch and some other things.

The conundrum: I'm a little uncomfortable with our present status (ha!). I feel like a nice watch is something that a wife would give a husband (or a fiancee her fiance), while simple jewelry is slightly more acceptable in a pre-marital state. I do want to be egalitarian in gifting, but I'm not ready to act like we're married. We have been dating for a while, but I want to get him to slow down on the nice presents. I feel as though spending $-00+ on each other is excessive. Although I like the [piece of clothing], I kind of feel as though I should return it, especially if he's planning to get me this [thing] as well.

I don't think he's trying to "game" or own me with these presents; he's generous and a giver by nature, while I'm on the frugal side. When I try to push back, his response is something along the lines of "I have a beautiful girlfriend who I love and think is worth spending money on, and I want to get you X because I know you wouldn't get it for yourself," which seems to be a typically male rationalization. I don't want to be rude or mean by returning the [piece of clothing], or imply that I don't think he's worth X amount because I tend not to spend in the same way. Am I being irrational/stingy? Any ideas as to how to respond?

Perhaps those questions lead to an underlying issue.

This young man has said that he would like to marry me. He hasn't explicitly asked me yet, possibly because I've hinted strongly that I couldn't possibly entertain proposals until I'm at least 2-. However, he has also hinted strongly that he's willing to wait until I'm ready, if that's what it takes. I'm pretty sure I want to marry him, but I'm definitely not ready to right now. I have things to do, like work, graduate school, being young, etc.

Sometimes I almost wish I wasn't in a relationship yet, as though maybe we met too early. And sometimes I eyeball other guys who have things that he doesn't have (like Y or Z), even while acknowledging that he has all of the qualities that are most important to me. (He's a NCB!, handsome!, loving, kind, tender, caring, my best friend, and loads of other amazing qualities). I think we've helped each other grow and improve since we've been together in a real way. But then again, sometimes I don't think his jokes are funny, and sometimes he annoys me, and sometimes we fight.

Basically, I have lots of conflicting feelings, and don't really know what they mean or what to do.

Do my hesitations indicate that I've just been deceiving myself into thinking that I like him enough to marry him, and I really just don't like him as much as I tell myself I do? (Sometimes I worry because I don't feel as incandescently and obviously "in love" as my newly married/engaged Catholic friends seem to be.)

Or am I just being swayed by the "You're young! You should play the field! Date lots of guys so that you get lots of experience! Make out with a near-stranger!" track that most of my non-Catholic friends are on?

Are they right? Does this mean that I should break up with him? (We've broken up before for awhile; it was horrible for both of us.)

Are all of these seemingly negative or conflicting feelings natural in pre-marital relationships at a point of seriousness, but blown out of proportion by me because this is my only real relationship, and I'm trying to live up to some self-created "ideal" that doesn't exist in reality?

Also, more immediately, how can I deal with this Christmas thing?!?

I know that you can't answer all of these questions for me, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

And I hope you're having a wonderful Advent!


Dear Gift-Receiver,

This is heavy stuff, reminding me of how difficult it was to be your age. (For some reason, I can't get my alma mater's bookstore out of my head as I write.) It also reminds me of how painful it is to date a guy for a year or years without knowing if this is the man you want to marry. It is just so easy to get attached to a comfortable routine, the cool presents and the compliments. You become like half of an old married couple, without any commitment on your part, although you become uneasy when you get a sense that it is time to pay the piper. Breaking up feels impossible, but getting married seems unthinkable.

But let's talk about presents.

First, you don't have to give someone an expensive present. Ever. The most expensive present I ever gave my husband was his wedding ring, which was something like $200. The next most expensive thing I ever gave him was a cool messenger bag which was £60.

Before we married, the only thing I gave him was a secondhand novel which cost me $2 for the book and $5 for postage. But I would have given him my left kidney if he had needed it because I was so in love I was just this side of insane.

Never give men you're not related to or married to expensive presents. Never. Incidentally, I don't believe in egalitarian gifting. Women make less than men and spend more on their appearance. This means women shouldn't have to cough up just because men do, hello.

Second, you shouldn't be pressured into accepting expensive presents. I don't like the sound of this piece of jewellery that you've wanted for some time, and I don't like the sound of this pricey piece of clothing. My mother always told me I could accept only flowers, candy and books from men. The problem with accepting expensive presents from men is that it can make you feel obliged to them. This is bad. Very, very bad.

I suggest telling him that you loved the first gift, but you are not comfortable with accepting such expensive presents. This Christmas you think you should be creative rather than lavish and spend no more than $50 on each other. (He can use his own money to buy his watch himself.)

In future, stop sharing your enthusiasm for expensive clothes and jewels with your boyfriend, for in doing so you are sending mixed messages. You will have to exercise some discipline, which I know is easier said than done.

Now, love. I notice you haven't said you love your boyfriend. You said "like." Like, like, like. Like is enough for marriage in India, but not in the West.

Four years of dating without getting engaged is usually too long. (Childhood sweethearts excepted.) I wonder if you are bored. The fact that you are actively comparing your boyfriend to other men suggests it. I understand that your break-up really hurt. I wonder what would have happened, though, if a Yer, Zer man had swooped in during your break.

St. Ignatius basically said that when you don't know what to do, you make no sudden changes. So I wouldn't recommend that you break up right now. Meanwhile, of course you have conflicting feelings, and of course you don't know what they mean or what to do: you're 2-. It's a frightful age to be. Your skin is probably fabulous, but your poor brain cells are zapping and your hormones are zipping and it sucks. It is very smart of you to hold off on any marriage decision until you are 2-.

But don't marry a guy you're not in love with. Ask yourself, "Do I want to have sex with him twice a week for the rest of his life, have his babies, scrub his kitchen floor, be nice to his friends, do his laundry and watch TV shows with him?" Because THAT, not some glorious all-expenses-paid Mediterranean vacation, is what marriage is. If you're not head-over-heels with a man, it's hell. If you ARE head-over-heels, you can't sign on fast enough.

It's okay if you don't want to marry him now or ever. Just please don't accept any more expensive presents because if he does ask, and you do turn him down (or worse, go through with it and later get divorced), those presents will come back to haunt you.

Dating guys "for experience" and making out with strangers are both incredibly stupid activities. There is a golden mean here. It is seeing who God sends, dating them cautiously, and marrying the one who is a good man AND makes you feel crazy-in-love.

I hope this is helpful. I hope you understand that your mental freedom and ability to make life-changing decisions without pressure is worth more than any rag or piece of jewellery. Meanwhile, I can't tell you if you really love this man or not. Yes, it is a pity you met him at such a young age.

Grace and peace,

P.S. Readers, park any envy at the door before you write in the combox. Thanks!

P.S. 2: Being "in love" is not a myth. It is a beautiful reality that, like a match, lights up a well-prepared hearth, creating the warm fire that marriage should be. What is a myth is that a married couple feels crazily "in love" for the rest of their lives. It comes and goes. But if it's not there at the beginning of a love match, there is a problem.


Julie said...

One of my old roommates used to get iPods and diamond bracelets from her boyfriend, who she also used to fight with a lot over whether he was going to propose. Toward the end of our year together she had an emerald ring which she seemed to regard as an engagement ring but there was some awful ambiguity about it. That relationship was like a living cautionary tale...

dark but fair said...

Thanks for the post, Seraphic!

Larry said...

I don't think dating couples should buy each other expensive gifts. A $50 limit is more than generous. A reasonable gift limit forces one to find creative and thoughtful gifts.

It sounds like Gift-Receiver is not particularly invested (so to speak) in this relationship any longer. As such, she should end it. Failing that, I hope her boyfriend reads this post, recognizes his girlfriend within G-R's words, and ends the relationship.

The whole situation reminds me that slowly peeling off a band-aid is much more painful than just snatching it off quickly.

Ellie said...

In my humble opinion, generous gift-giving by a man can have deeper undertones. He may be sensing your ambiguity about the state of your relationship. Thus the extravagant gifts could be a way of holding on or swaying your feelings. Let’s face it, we are women and are heads are turning by pretty things. We think, “oh he cares so much, look at what he spent on me”. Seraphic is right, true gift giving does not have an expensive price tag on it.

I would turn this relationship over to prayer. You mention that he is a NCB but are you doing the things that would mature this relationship into (eventually) a sacramental marriage? Do you attend mass together? Go to Adoration? Work in any ministries together? Can you see yourselves making a Catholic home and family? Take the time while you are young to really focus on these things then the answers to your other questions will be revealed.

One last note on breaking up and getting back together; break up if there are specific issues that need to be resolved. If they are not resolved (or never can be) then do not get back together just because the pain of the break up is enormous and the relationship is comfortable. This is sage advice from someone who broke up at least twice, postponed the wedding and then eventually married. The pain of the divorce and annulment later was a thousand times worse than it would have been if I had trusted my instincts and held firm in my break up while in my 20’s.

theobromophile said...

I feel like a nice watch is something that a wife would give a husband (or a fiancee her fiance), while simple jewelry is slightly more acceptable in a pre-marital state

Miss Manners says "no jewellry from men who are not your family members" and I agree with her. It's not just a polite, stuffy thing; it's a reality that accepting jewellry from men is a Bad Idea.

(Now, if you're both in your 30s and he gives you a small charm that he picked up somewhere, or a new band for your watch, that's one thing, but that isn't Jewellry, which is only for a daughter, sister, granddaughter, fiancee, or wife. Period, end of story.)

Since I've given jewellry back and refused to accept expensive presents (such as: all-expenses paid vacation to Europe), I think I count as having parked my jealousy at the door. :) And if I can turn down Paris and Luxembourg, you can turn down jewellry and clothing.