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Nancy Alvarez Headshot

What's My Business, and What Is His?

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I have been in a live-in, romantic relationship for seven years. When my partner first moved up to the Northwest to live with me, we were both so excited about feeling what we did for one another, we didn't think too much about the practical issues of living together.

Neither of us had lived with anyone for a long time; I, for one, had forgotten all the issues that arise when you inhabit space with someone else. Would he be messier than me? I am pretty neat. Would he wake up earlier -- no question! Would he like a quiet home, or prefer to listen to music? Turns out I like quiet; he prefers listening to music of any kind, though he plays it at a lower decibel level than he would if he were living by himself. But there's a more important issue that neither of us gave a thought to either. What if his actions in taking care of his life are really disturbing to me, or vice versa? When do I have a right to say something, and when not?

The first year of our relationship this issue turned out to be a serious one. When something is bothering me, I want to talk about it. When something bothers him, he retreats inward. During that year he not only retreated, he put up a Plexiglas wall and was living behind it; at least that's how it felt to me. It was a very cold wall. I tried to force discussion, which didn't work at all. He retreated further and further until I felt as if I was living with a stranger. Finally I asked him to move out, which was traumatic for us both.

Much to my surprise, he stayed in town, and after some months would drop by to chat. This felt particularly strange because now that we were not living together we were again talking, initially about benign subjects, in time, about troubling ones. In time we also again became a couple, though living in separate abodes. I soon realized that was not what I really wanted. I suggested turning my garage into a room for him so we would both have separation. He gave it some thought, and then agreed. Once the work was complete, he moved back in. He has never retreated in such a 'final' way again when he is upset; and I have learned to give him space when he isn't ready to talk about something.

That doesn't mean there aren't other issues that are confusing. I'm a saver. If I receive a residual for $200, I put at least half of it in my money market account, the rest in my checking. He spends what he makes, sometimes on himself, sometimes on his daughters, sometimes on something for me. But he rarely has a reserve. I worry that if he has an emergency he will have no way to pay for it.

Do I wait until something happens, and then let him figure out what to do, or do I say I am concerned now? Is it solely 'his business' if the ramifications of it could impact me? I don't think my way is the 'right' way, and I also know I don't have the right to expect someone else to make the same kind of choices I do. My decision, after years of struggle with boundaries: leave it alone. His life is his life; if down the road this issue impacts me, I trust that we will find a solution together.

Of course this is just one example of the kind of partner problem that I find confusing. We 'handle' the business of life, the business of our separate lives, very differently. Since we are a couple do we work out those differences together, or do we allow separate solutions? When a new issue arises, I often don't know. Before talking about it, which I would have done in past relationships, I sit with it, cogitate, talk it over with a close female friend, and in time, sometimes more than a month -- amazing in and of itself to me -- bring up the problem. Is the conversation easy, pleasant, fun? No. But he's learned that I don't bring something troublesome up without a great deal of thought, and I've learned to keep some of my concerns to myself.

It's a process for us both. We are both more tempered in our approaches then when we met, but we are still very different. Acceptance of that fact has been essential, taking care of myself important as well. Learning to trust our ability as a couple to handle our issues has taken time and is always evolving. I still sometimes make his business mine. But I'm getting better at staying on my side of the street because I have learned in 12-step programs that 'helping' can be intrusive. And he has clearly learned that cutting me out of his struggles cuts him off from joy and from love. There is still my business, his business, and our business. Knowing which is which is the conundrum.

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