I’m a divorced, 43-year-old mother of two teenage boys. I pay attention to my appearance, still enjoy playing sports and am often mistaken for someone much younger. I suppose that makes me the proverbial “cougar,” a term that truly makes my skin crawl. My dating life following my divorce has been pretty stilted; I’ve been on a few dates here and there, but mostly my life has been devoted to raising my sons and advancing my PR career. But recently, I’ve found myself attracted to a much younger man. He’s 31 and our firms share office space. He flirts with me, even though I’ve been very up front about my age and the fact that I’m a mom, and I really enjoy the conversations we’ve had. He invites me to happy hours and has suggested we have lunch together, too. Each time I make an excuse and end up feeling embarrassed. Is it acceptable for me to be attracted to a younger man?
— K Street Kougar
Dear K Street:
First, congratulations on getting to the holy-grail place of being able to balance raising two teens, holding a job and keeping up with things you enjoy on your own. You ask, “Is it acceptable” be attracted to this person, but I don’t think that’s your real question. I think what you are actually wondering is if you can handle the possible consequences of following your heart (or, since it’s early in the attraction, at least following your flirt-instinct).
Your aversion to the “cougar” label makes some sense. Despite the Ashton/Demi pairings of the world, reality TV seems to be taking a mocking approach to the younger-man/older-woman dynamic right now. Still, your frustration with the title suggests that you are concerned about how other people will view the relationship, no matter how great the relationship itself might be. Tasking ourselves with spending time inside other people’s brains is a 24-hour-a-day job, with very little payoff. Yes, it’s too simplistic to say, “Who cares what others think?” But still, is that really where you want to put your energy, particularly when you’ve got kids, work and other responsibilities? Instead, channel it into the potential for a rewarding relationship with a new person who already clearly enjoys you. That’s a much healthier use of resources.
I’d also suggest that you give yourself time to consider what you are looking for in a relationship right now. Do you want something casual to ease you into the process of getting back out there? Do you want something more? Even if this doesn’t lead to a long-term relationship, it might be a fun, healthy, self-esteem-building experience — who would say no to that?
I don’t know what to do. I just graduated from college and my parents have just informed me that they are no longer able (or willing?) to keep helping me financially. There was no hint that they might do this; all along they paid my credit card bills and student fees. Because of them I’ve never had to have a job, so I have no job experience and I can’t even get a job waiting tables. If I had known about their plans, I would have worked harder to find a job right after school ended. Instead, I’ve been putting my efforts into starting a business with a classmate and planning a post-grad trip abroad this fall. I am so angry that they are abandoning me like this. It really ruins everything I’ve worked for. I’m not speaking to them until I have a game plan. It’s been almost two months. What can I do to convince them that they are making a mistake that will permanently impact my future? I thought they had my best interests at heart — I guess I was wrong about them.
— 31st and On-My-Own
I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn’t have a chance to reread this question before sending, and therefore you may have no idea how ungrateful it sounds.
If I hear you correctly, you are complaining that your parents put you through college and gave you the chance to make the most of your studies so that you could … keep spending their money after graduation? Even before the financial meltdown, that would have sounded far too entitled. Today, it sounds ludicrous and humiliatingly arrogant. The good news is that your parents have cut you loose at an age when most of your peers feel like they’re flying blind — you’re in good company and will blend in. (This kind of awakening is less tolerable when you’re say, 38 and whining that Daddy won’t cover your car payment.)
You are right, this is going to “permanently impact your future,” but in a good way. It may not be easy, but this is your opportunity to start taking responsibility for your own life. You should know that adjusting to a change in expectations is hard for everyone. But like many things, the difficulty doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Blaming others may be cathartic in the short term, but it’s like downing a candy bar at 3 p.m. — the sugar high soon expires, leaving you feeling tired and with no energy to change your circumstances. Get a job, any job, and work hard on your entrepreneurial dreams in the off hours. You have the chance to use all of that family support for what it was meant to be — a launching pad.
My husband and I have been married for four years and things are not going well. We don’t spend much time together because we both have demanding jobs. We also are in constant conflict about his family’s expectations (they want us to spend all our free time and vacations at their beach house in Easton). Adding to it, we have credit card debt and bought our one-bedroom condo at the peak of the market, making it impossible for us to sell anytime soon. It feels like the walls are closing in on us and I don’t know what to do. I have asked him to go to counseling, but he completely rejects the idea, saying we can’t afford it and won’t discuss it further. Just yesterday he told me to never bring it up again, yet we spent the whole night not talking to each other after another major fight. I’m so embarrassed and feel like a failure, and I don’t want any of our friends or family to find out what’s really going on. I feel like my only option is divorce, but this is a person I truly love and don’t want to lose.
— At a Crossroads on Corcoran
Thank you for writing such an honest and personal letter, but also one that is so universal. It’s not uncommon for early-stage marriages to face many bold-faced issues all at once: money, work pressure, family stress, communication struggles. I hope you are being gentle with yourself for not necessarily having all the answers just yet — I guarantee your friends and family already have or will face similar challenges in their own relationships. We spend a lot of time fantasizing about the fairytale of marriage, but most of us aren’t immediately equipped with the tools to survive it.
As a couples counselor, I have to make a small plug for going to therapy. Yes, it can be pricey, particularly if your insurance plan won’t reimburse you. But the cost of divorce is astronomically higher. When you include attorney fees (sometimes as high as $500 an hour), custody battles, moving expenses, and the cost of setting up separate households, the price tag could reach $50,000 or more. Even if you are unable to settle your differences, investing in some counseling can help improve communication, making it possible to choose a mediator instead of an attorney-directed separation, if it comes to that.
One part of your letter that stands out to me is your husband’s unwillingness to discuss therapy. It’s a red flag when one partner flatly refuses to do something the other is asking for (assuming it doesn’t qualify as unsafe). This can be a sign of rigidity and control that’s likely to only grow more powerful if it’s allowed to languish.
But his reluctance to try counseling is most likely based in fear of the unknown, fear of truly being seen, even fear of failure. You can’t force someone to confront their fear through intimidation — that’s when our defenses get even stronger. Patience, calm, and speaking from your own point of view (“I want us to go to therapy because I think I will be able to understand you better with the help of a third party…”) is the key to making him feel comfortable and open to the process.
At the same time, don’t discount the value of trying therapy by yourself. We all know every marital problem has two sides, and you might learn more about your own needs and how you contribute to the household stress. At the very least, you will find some healthy coping strategies that could help maintain and even strengthen the nourishing parts of your relationship.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to email@example.com.