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#217: The Almost-Doctor with the Almost-Boyfriend

Dear Captain Awkward,

So there’s this guy, let’s call him James. We have been friends for several years and in this, our last year of medical school, have slowly gone from drunken making-out, to friends with benefits, to casually dating. It has been exciting and awesome, but we were both more or less expecting this part of our relationship to be temporary since we assumed we would be moving to different cities for residency. We agreed it would have been foolish to enter the residency match as a couple, since we were just starting to explore the attraction back when that decision had to be made.

Against all odds and without any attempts to manipulate the system, we matched in the same city, my hometown. We’re not sure yet if we are going to keep dating – the removal of a definite end date means we now have to consider long-term compatibility in a way we haven’t before (God, I sound so clinical. I have emotions, I swear). I don’t want to spend time in a relationship that doesn’t have at least the potential to be forever, so we have started talking about what we both want in life. I feel good about all of this. Worst-case scenario we keep having fun until graduation then move to the new city as really good friends.

The problem is that I have never mentioned this relationship to my mother and I’m starting to think I need to, sooner rather than later. As far as she knows, James is my good friend who I am happy is moving to our city. Both of my sisters are fully briefed on the situation, but my mother (1) is somewhat traditional and (2) can’t keep her mouth shut, so telling her something means telling my grandmother, aunts, and cousins as well. I’m a generally private person and originally didn’t want my loosely-defined, probably temporary relationship to be a general topic of discussion. I had been planning to fill her in after James and I made our decision, assuming the decision was to keep dating. However, I’m worried my mom is going to feel hurt if I wait much longer. The situation is complicated by the fact that James and I are planning an apartment-hunting trip (for separate apartments) in the near future and he will be staying with me in my parents’ home for several days.

The way I see it, the options are:

1) Say nothing to Mom, James and I decide it makes more sense to just be friends, extended family is none the wiser and I avoid any misplaced pity for a relationship that didn’t work out.

2) Say nothing to Mom, James and I decide to keep dating but only after the apartment-hunting trip. I’m worried that telling her we’ve been dating for months after having him stay in our home in the guise of a friend will make her feel lied to and poison her against him.

3) Tell Mom now that we’ve been dating, explaining that things are a bit up in the air while we evaluate the relationship. This seems like the mature thing to do. I think her feelings still may be hurt that I haven’t confided in her before now, and I have some (small) concern that she would try to disinvite him from staying at our house for the sake of propriety (and if she doesn’t, that things would be awkward).

What do you think?

Thank you,
Almost-doctor with an almost-boyfriend

Your conservative mom doesn’t want to know who you’re fucking, Almost-Doctor. That information is on a strictly need-to-know basis, and when she needs to know is when you say the words “My boyfriend James will be here for Thanksgiving!” and really even then you can let the “We like fucking!” part be silent and allow her to maintain plausible deniability about it. She may in fact put two-and-two together and realize the handsome “friend” from medical school has now been promoted to “gentleman caller” and that perhaps something was brewing way back when he crashed on your couch, so if she asks you about it you say “Of course we liked each other and were thinking about dating back then, but there was so much going on with school and relocating, it wasn’t the right time.” Or your sisters might spill the beans to her, in which case, “Sure, we dated in medical school, but we waited to become serious/decided we were better as friends.”

In other words, “traditional” parents, parents who flip out of they don’t hear every detail of your love life in real time, and parents who broadcast everything to the family set themselves up to have the truth doled out in stages. If things get a little weird, your mantra is “I told you as soon as there was something definite to tell.” Also, don’t have sex in her house and make a show of sleeping very, very separately – it’s just good manners.

There has been a rash of letters recently around the subject of trying to control how a romantic relationship is perceived by others or how it affects the wider social group, and it’s causing me to ask “What’s all this, then?”

What I’m getting from these letters (and your letter) is a ton of anxiety that’s directed away from the question of “Is this relationship happening/working/will it work/do we like each other” and into these side-questions of “What will other people think?” and “How can I stage-manage and control every aspect of this?

I don’t really have an answer to why, and any advice I have boils down to “You must chill.” If you’re feeling solid and happy about your relationship (whatever form it ends up taking), carry that into how you interact with your family about it. If this anxiety of “What will my family think” is really about you and James and how you’d like to lock things down and spell them out more than you have before you bring him home? That’s a talk you need to have with James.

Loving someone is an adventure and adventures carry risk and there’s no way to be perfect.

What Cowboys Know About Love

Last night on the sports channel
I watched the rodeo.
Those cowboys have it right;
the best and the beauty of it.
You cannot win, so you ride
for as long as you can and enjoy it.
When you dismount,
whether it be on your own or not,
it won’t look pretty. You’ll limp off.
But you’ll feel good; your heart
will be pounding like it never has,
and walking away, one crazy step
after another, your ears will ring
with the loud approval
of those who never felt so good.

–Louis McKee

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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

22 comments on “#217: The Almost-Doctor with the Almost-Boyfriend

  1. “What I’m getting from these letters (and your letter) is a ton of anxiety that’s directed away from the question of “Is this relationship happening/working/will it work/do we like each other” and into these side-questions of “What will other people think?” and “How can I stage-manage and control every aspect of this?“”

    This.

    LW, you don’t have to tell your mother anything–my stance on these things is once there is news (as in, an official and serious relationship that my BF and I discussed and agreed on) I’ll tell my family, but until then there’s no point.

    If you want to figure out where things are going, talk to him about it. If you’re truly fine with things as they are, enjoy it.

  2. I also have judgmental traditional parents who tell EVERYONE EVERYTHING. (I am not even joking that once one of my mom’s friends, a woman I loathe, called just to offer me advice regarding my recent spate of girly parts related infections. I am SO glad Mom is too technically challenged to use facebook.)

    Their inability to not be judgy and to keep their mouths shut means they find out about things in my life on a “how upset and annoying are you going to be about this” basis.

    And so far this has worked. The only caveat is that sometimes things get a little twisted in the interpretation. “We broke up, I really don’t want to talk about it.” turned into “He dumped me and it was awful,” when really I’d dumped him and I just don’t want to talk about it because I am so glad it is over. This resulted in years of snide comments about my ex until the record was finally set straight when I figured out what they thought had happened.

    I think the Captain’s advice is sound. I also think if you are going to be living in the same city with your parents again after a long absence you may want to think about boundaries before you move, and set expectations. I remember that first Christmas break when I came home from college and they expected me to be home by midnight and tell them where I was and I was like “uhhh what? I’ll be back tomorrow?” I feel like moving back into town as an adult could have the same sort of adjustment period.

  3. “Your conservative mom doesn’t want to know who you’re fucking…allow her to maintain plausible deniability about it.”
    I second this. My husband and I dated long distance, with every other week visits. When my mom asked me where he slept on these visits, I told her he slept on the couch ( true as far as it went, just not the only place he slept) and she willingly believed me. Oh, the tense discussion we had when my mother finally decided to put two and two together. Frankly, I was glad for the year delay on that inevitable talk.

    • LOL!

      I had a long distance relationship after school. My mother started asking me questions about one weekend the SO spent at my place, and I stopped her. I told her I was an adult, as was she, and going forward, she could ask me anything she wanted, and if I was willing to answer, I would tell her the truth. So she needed to consider what she was asking and whether she wanted the answer.

      She’s never asked again. But my mother and I have worked pretty hard to have an adult-to-adult relationship that transcends our mother-child relationship.

  4. Sometimes worries about “stage-managing” perceptions of relationships are actually about the relationships, as CA suggests, but sometimes they’re not.

    Are these letters coming from young adults? (This one sounds like it is. Most if not all of the others have, too.) Then some of them might actually be about Being An Adult With My Parents, or just plain old Being An Adult. I don’t know if y’all remember what it was like to be a very, very young adult, but it’s often all I can make my own choices now, but my parents haven’t figured that out and surprise! my parents aren’t perfect, how do I talk to them now that I know? and omfg, why do my parents keep projecting their issues onto me?!

    And that’s even if there isn’t also how did I not realize earlier that my parents are slut-shaming/misogynistic/homohating throwbacks? This stuff really is all about perception, and it can be hard to manage at first.

    “If you’re feeling solid and happy about your relationship (whatever form it ends up taking), carry that into how you interact with your family about it.” Fair enough, good advice no matter what the source of insecurity. But sometimes that insecurity is more than just deflection, and some of us could use some help navigating it in its own right.

    • Very true, but the answer is still, “Mom, I am almost a doctor, OK? You don’t get to micromanage my love life anymore”.

    • Agreed, and there is also a transition from the types of relationships that people tend to have in school (where mostly things are transient and ever-changing) to “adult” relationships where you’re really considering your future and how things all fit together. I’m not saying that no student ever really considers hir future with a partner, but more that for me and for most of my friends, there was a big sort of seismic life shift when moving out of school and into OMG REAL LIFE. Some of the insecurity might come from that, too. How do I relate to my parents, my career, my potential boyfriend, and life, as a non-student?

      All I can say is that you do figure it out, one step at a time. For me, the adult relationship with my mother involved stating and re-stating my boundaries, calmly, knowing that she needed time to adjust, too, and both of us working on it.

  5. I was very confused when LW turned out to be studying to be an actual medical doctor, because the whole time I’ve had this tab open and been looking at the title, I’ve been assuming it was some sort of Doctor Who reference.

    I agree that it can be handy to allow conservative parents a little plausible deniability. For example, I think my parents like that fact that they don’t have any definite information to disprove the theory that my wife and I waited until marriage to Do It.

  6. Yeah, this seems like an easy one. There’s an option number 4:

    4) Say nothing to Mom, James and I decide to keep dating but only after the apartment-hunting trip. Tell her at that point that we’re dating. If she asks whether we were dating back when we came apartment hunting, say that we had feelings for each other but didn’t figure things out and begin a relationship until recently.

    LW, you get to decide how much information your parents get and how you spin it. Some of my friends tell their parents everything. They gossip about guys they like and one night stands and every fight with their significant other. I am DEFINITELY NOT like that with my parents, who I think would be scarred for life if I tried to tell them about a one night stand. So I tell my parents about exclusive, official relationships but not much about my dating life outside that. Neither one of those approaches is wrong; it’s a question of what you feel comfortable with.

    And when you do tell them about a guy, you don’t need to “come clean” about what exactly had been going on for months before it became official like an apology for lying to your parents during that time. You weren’t lying. Many things happen in your life that they will never hear about and you are the gatekeeper for when something is important enough or long-term enough that it becomes important to you that they know about it. The conversation shouldn’t be “I need to tell you that I’m dating this guy, and I’m sorry I hid it for you for months, it’s just that I had ______ reasons and I feel terrible I lied.” The conversation is “I am dating this guy! He’s great! When did this happen, you say? Well, we’ve been friends for a while, and there was a bit of a mutual crush, but it’s only recently that we talked it out and decided to be in a relationship. High five!” Or even “We’ve been dating for a few months, but we weren’t sure what would happen with next year, so it’s only recently that we decided to make this official.” Think of yourself like a PR director — you can tell the truth while still putting the best spin on things.

  7. LW, I was in almost your exact situation! Me and my now-boyfriend started out just fucking. He was already in another open relationship, he was going to graduate in six months, we were just going to have some fun along the way. I didn’t tell my parents, because why would I? He didn’t tell his either, although me appearing at move-out with about ten things he’d left around my apartment can’t have been that subtle.

    I ended up (like you, coincidentally) in the same city as him after he graduated, and we kept getting closer over that summer. His girlfriend had broken up with him a while back, and I was finding that I liked him a lot more and for longer than I thought I would when we started. At the end of the summer we stayed together, even thought it meant long-distance.

    I finally told my mother explicitly about the relationship that next year, about a year after we started having sex. It went totally fine! If she’d asked, I would have given her my line about “oh, we were just sort of casually dating for a while — it wasn’t serious until recently. I don’t want to bother you about grabbing coffee with someone, I mean, they might not even turn out to be cool.” This would have reframed our long sexytime leadup to the relationship in terms she’d used when telling me about kinds of relationships before, specifically, when she was outlining “dating” in the not-that-serious and not-sexy sense of the word.

    Said boyfriend has now been over for Christmas dinner (and stayed over, while I took the couch…really, I wasn’t planning on having sex in my parents’ house, come on now) and my parents seem to think he’s cool (although I’ve missed their signals before — he’s at least better than Darth Vader, who was the last person I brought home).

    Anyways! I’d say don’t worry about telling your mom now. You said, “I don’t want to spend time in a relationship that doesn’t have at least the potential to be forever, so we have started talking about what we both want in life”. If your mom is weird about it later, repeat this at her in some kind of way — “Look, there was some spark, and then we dated a bit and decided that we were seriously into each other, and now that I’ve decided *that* I’m telling you.”

  8. Fucke what other people think about you and your goals, schemes, relationships, and etc. Including your family. Even those who genuinely love and think that their jugments of you are “for your own good” are completely fucken full of shitte and deluding themselves that their own ego gratification is some kind of altruistic act. Fucke them all.

  9. Ok, so I’m fairly sure The Captain’s mention about not sleeping with your paramour whilst visiting your mom is about not saying you’re just friends and then making it impossible for her to believe that, but since someone else mentioned an OUT boyfriend sleeping on a sofa, I got worried. And then wondered if I were the weird one, and then, no, I think I have this right. Or: fine, you tell me-

    Do we really think that two adults who generally have sleep-overs and/or live together should sleep separately under their parents’ roof? Isn’t that….some gross shaming bullshit? To me, it smacks of under-my-roof-little-girl, never-in-sin awfulness; a way for a controlling parent to remind not only you but also everyone else that they DO NOT APPROVE OF YOUR LIFE AND CHOICES HARLOT, but fine, your sinning partner can sleep on our crappy lumpy basement sofa, I GUESS.

    I mean. If a friend invited you and your significant other for a holiday, but said, oh, but, you can’t sleep in the same bed together. Because of the hymen. Would not the whole Captain’s Army say, verily, fuck that noise?

    • P.S. Word press is being annoying as crap about not letting me use just my normal email address, the one that is my username and which I have previously used. Not spam, still me.

    • I … also feel some weirdness about saying that “sleeping very, very separately” is “just good manners.”

      Deciding to sleep separately (or acquiescing to a parent’s request that you sleep separately) could be a good choice for a particular situation, in a pick-your-battles kind of way. And in LW’s situation, if she doesn’t tell her mom what’s going on, obviously she has to sleep separately to keep up the charade. But why is it “just good manners” for an adult in a relationship to take up two sleeping accommodations, split up the social unit she’s used to operating in, and go out of her way to pretend she isn’t intimate with her partner (where intimacy includes simply sleeping in the same room)?

      When I was a kid and my family visited my grandparents’ houses, my married parents shared a bedroom if it was available, or slept together on a pull-out couch in the living room. Nobody thought that was weird. What’s the difference? Marriage shouldn’t get special treatment.

      In situations where everyone knows who’s dating whom, I think the “just good manners” option is for the parents to offer joint sleeping accommodations to their coupled offspring where logistically possible, and for everyone to expect mature and respectful treatment (e.g. no slut-shaming or awkward questions about sex from parents, and also no detectable sexual activity in the parents’ house) from everyone else.

    • There are weird dimensions around all of this, but the crux of THIS situation is that it’s only polite to perform what you want your mom to believe.

      I never had a bring home boyfriend until I was 28, and when I did bring him home, I leveled with my mom. “I’m going to sleep in the same bed with him while we’re there, but if you are seriously uncomfortable with that we can go get a hotel room.” pause for response “Because I’m almost thirty and I am fully capable of getting a hotel room on my own dime.”

      Mom was concerned about hypocrisy because when BroLogic was a young 20something and dependent on her, she never (knowingly) allowed his ladyfriends to sleep in the same bed as my brother. But that was different. He WAS under her roof and DID have to abide by her rules, however annoying. I was visiting and independent, and also not hiding my relationship. I could call the bluff.

      The LW in this case is in an information management mode. She is visiting, but marginally dependent, and unsure of the relationship status/future. It is only good manners to abide by the information the Mom has, and the rules she has based on that information. That’s the price for staying with Mom, as surely as the price of a hotel room is $150 or whatever. If the price is intolerable AND you have other options, by all means, bail!

      • I get that “it’s only polite to perform what you want your mom to believe.” It’s also only judicious!

        The thing that concerned me was CA’s aside that “it’s just good manners.” Since the previous sentence was about how to handle the relationship’s history after the LW eventually told Mom about it, it sounded to me like CA was saying “it’s just good manners to sleep separately from your partner when you visit your parents,” full stop.

        If what CA means is, “if you say you’re not sleeping together, don’t sleep together,” then that’s a statement I’d agree with. But it’s not the statement she made.

    • I was with my dude for 4 years before we got married. We did not sleep in the same bed at my parents’ or grandparents’ houses until we got married. Their cultural and religious norms mandated it and they had every right to express clear conditions for folks taking advantage of their hospitality. They never proffered an opinion about what we did outside of their homes, but the house rules were “unmarried folks sleep in different rooms”. Its the same for my brother and his fiance who have been together for 7 years (and who live together without complaint from my folks). It was kind of eye-rolly for sure, but house rules is house rules. If it bothered us that much, we would have stayed in a hotel. Its possible that the LW’s mom doesn’t have these rules, so it might not matter.

      I also take my shoes of when in the homes of people who require it, even though I think its ridiculous.

    • Yeah, when my fiancé and I stay with my parents or his grandparents it’s the same thing. And we’ve been together for eight years, and lived together for six. Though once we actually got engaged his grandparents let us sleep in the same room. It’s stupid but just one of those things you deal with… I do think it’s polite when you stay somewhere to abide by house rules, and both my parents and his grandparents live in a super small town with no hotel as far as I know.

  10. I think parents like this want you to be responsible for the information *and* how they feel about it, which is no bueno.

    I had a serious conversation with my mom when I was a teenager and we came to an agreement that I would not lie to her but she would think very hard before she asked questions that she did not really want to know the answer to.

  11. I’ve seen both sides of the sleeping-with-a-partner thing. My own parents are very nice, and offer me and my boyfriend a double bed in the spare room when he comes to visit. But when I visit him, although we sleep in the same room, he always has to take an air mattress on the floor in the same room, like a sleepover, even though I think everyone knows (subconsciously at least) that he joins me in bed later. Some parents just don’t like the thought of their children having sex, I guess? I can’t understand it… Full relationship disclosure is the same sort of thing, I guess – some parents are understanding, some aren’t (or would rather not know) I think it’s a case of pick your battles, LW. If it’s important to you, make an issue of it and tell her – but otherwise, keeping things quiet is easiest?

  12. Hey Captain, this is somewhat unrelated, but I Love Love Love your blog and advice with a passion, and also, the poetry.
    Do you have any recommendations of particular authors? I keep reading the pieces you put up and they give me butterflies. So much wordlove.

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