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‘My Broke Boyfriend Wants Us to Live Together!’

Photo: Tanvir Ibna Shafi/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I’m a divorced mom. My ex and I had one of those divorces that “shocked” many friends and family, but our marriage felt stifling, made me hate and doubt myself, and made me hate our seemingly enviable life. My ex made a lot of money, but everyone around us was stressed out and competitive and kind of a total jerk. I never felt at home.

But that’s not the problem. I left that marriage and home and did a year of intense therapy. I have a job that gives me flexibility and fulfillment, and enough to live on. I made new, kinder friends and reconnected with old ones. I realized how many of my decisions and how much of my self-worth came from those around me and figured out how to stop that. And it’s changed everything. I surround myself with inspiring art, music, nature, and people; I’ve gotten involved with local politics; and I am a much better parent. I get along with my ex, and we’re pretty solid co-parents. We’ve forgiven each other and ourselves for the mess of our marriage.

I’ve also slowly developed a deep and wonderful relationship with someone radically different from me, who has helped me heal immeasurably. We’ve known each other two years at this point. He makes me feel strong, brave, and capable and that the things about me others wanted me to change are the BEST and most attractive. He’s present and supportive and so happy for all my accomplishments. Our relationship is sweet, passionate, and romantic. He’s my most trusted sounding board for parenting: incredibly empathetic and caring with his kids and mine. He feels profoundly like home.

Here’s the problem: He’s not good with money. A big part of it is that I just grew up with more money and have a better education than him. America is like that, and it’s not fair, and it’s getting less fair all the time. He’s had a bunch of working-class gigs, done interesting creative projects, and for a while he ran his own business and made a decent living. But due to changes in the industry/local economy, that’s dried up, and he’s broke and constantly stressed about it. But he’s also trying to maintain the lifestyle he had with his ex and kids, dreaming big dreams of getting rich, and kicking the can to keep from making hard decisions and meaningful changes. His ideas are often really good, but they need money and time and people and he doesn’t have those things.

When I bring it up kindly, he’s clearly terrified and embarrassed — of failure and rejection, of being in some minimum-wage job when he’s 70, of being a burden to his kids. But he needs to do SOMETHING: Sell the house, get an okay job that leads to a job he wants. Find career-retraining resources. Get any reliable stream of income while he makes a plan. I know I can’t make him do anything he isn’t ready for. I don’t want to do that work for him if I could. I really believe if he makes a plan and real decisions, he can get into a much better spot.

But instead he has been hinting at us living together, and trying to reassure me things will get better soon. Emotionally, there are times when the idea of sleeping next to him every night feels amazing. But then I think of having to support him, and dragging his fear and indecision out forever. So, I told him I don’t know what I want and I’m not ready (both of which are true, separate from the money thing). But that’s not the whole truth, and with everything else I’ve been completely honest with him.

I’ve created this life I love SO MUCH, but it’s not luxurious and there’s not this magic giant leftover pool of money. The idea of losing what I created and cutting back on the special things that bring me joy in life makes me feel so sad.

Other times I feel like I’m just as spoiled and heartless as my old rich neighbors. If you love someone, you help them. Maybe not by living with them, but by doing more than just listening, biting my tongue, and offering to help with planning or job searches or the like. And this isn’t just fear on his part. There’s real stuff beyond his control, and he works really hard to stay barely afloat, it’s not just dreaming about big new business ideas.

My friends love how happy he makes me, but are strongly in the “don’t live together, don’t give him a cent” camp. But what do I do? Is this relationship clearly doomed and I can’t see what’s going on because love makes you stupid? Do I stick around and see what happens? Tell him to get any job if he wants us to consider living together? Run away and join the circus? How can I trust anything I feel anyway, because I know I can make some pretty terrible decisions.


Dear Afraid,

Do not move in with your boyfriend. No no no no. With his kids and your kids, together? No way. Don’t support a man who has no job. Nope. And don’t start coaching him about what he should do next or make him a career to-do list or create some Excel spreadsheets for his business. Don’t invest in his business idea. When you do stuff together that you can afford and he can’t, you can pay for that. That’s it. (You should also do cheaper stuff that you can both afford, of course.) Every other thing you’re imagining that involves this man and your time and your money is a bad idea, like a terrible idea, like a don’t even fucking consider it for a second awful idea.

You’re not describing someone with a job who can’t quite make ends meet, because he grew up working class and he’s still working class and this world fucks over the working class, hard and early and often. You’re not describing a hard-working human who just can’t catch a break. You’re not describing someone who can’t work thanks to physical or emotional limitations. You’re not even describing someone with a solid business plan and a tireless ability to network and build his contacts and make new connections and believe in his vision, all he needs is a small outside investment. No. You say you want him to “get any reliable source of income” or “sell his house” and stop living beyond his means. In other words, he falling deeper and deeper into debt, and he doesn’t have a job, and he’s still spending way too much money in spite of this, and he’s STILL talking about his big dreams AND HE STILL WANTS TO LIVE TOGETHER.

In other words, your boyfriend isn’t merely someone who grew up with nothing and has worked incredibly hard his whole life but can’t make ends meet. The person you’re describing is someone who has never worked a straight job for that long, someone who has made money for short bursts from businesses and gigs but hasn’t saved a penny, someone who has a seriously unrealistic attachment to living a relaxing life that he can’t afford. You’re describing someone who doesn’t really want to work, or is afraid to get out there and try something new, or feels that most jobs are beneath him, or is a tiny bit depressed and anxious underneath all of that passion, or is afraid to face the real world for some other reason.

I don’t blame him at all for any of these things. Who wants to work some shitty dead-end job? Not me. And it’s really fucking hard to save money under current economic conditions. The cost of living is obscene. When you have kids? Forget it. It’s very, very hard. But saying “it’s hard” over and over without working, when you have kids and a house and you’re in debt? It takes a very particular flavor and strength of denial to live that way.

Your boyfriend is a particular kind of person who I personally have a lot of affection and sympathy for, to be clear, because I don’t like reality that much, either. I prefer to live in a fantasy world of my own creation a lot of the time. I hate hassles. I don’t want to leave the house to go to a Beyoncé concert, let alone to sit at a desk in an office with people telling me what to do. I don’t like offices or traffic or crowds or stadium concerts. I don’t like spending way too much for a ticket and then spending even more for tickets for my kids, who are excited to see Beyoncé and who also need to go to the restrooms right before Beyoncé starts, and who panic while we’re in line because they might miss the start of Beyoncé, so we have to leave the fucking line while I tell them they’re not going to be going to the bathroom for the next two hours so don’t even think about asking.

See how complicated it gets, leaving the house? Now imagine that someone says to me, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go see Beyoncé at some crowded football stadium. Fuck that. I’m going to bring Beyoncé straight to your living room instead. You just lie right there where you are and keep pouring gin into your face like you like to, and Beyoncé will be here with her athletic goddess moves and her gorgeous voice and she’ll change outfits ten times and sing just for you, for two full hours. You don’t have to buy tickets or drive across town or look from the giant screen to the tiny stick figure in the distance back to the giant screen while your feet ache and your kids softly whine and you wish you were closer to the stage and you wish that all of the clouds of pot floating around your head would organize themselves into a smoke monster and smoke-monster their way straight into your lungs without your kids noticing a thing. You don’t have to move. Beyoncé will come to you.”

What would I do if that happened? Why, I would lie prone and pour gin into my face and wait. I would lie there, getting drunker and drunker, as the hours ticked by, and the days and the months and then the years, decomposing into the couch forever and ever, waiting for Beyoncé.

That’s what your boyfriend will do, too, if you two move in together. You’ll tell him, “Yes, we’re a team! We’re in love!” He’ll say, “I’ll take the kids to school and clean the house!” And you’ll say, “And I’ll help you with your business plan, I’ll help you make some contacts, I’ll organize your time, I’ll set you down the right path, and your big dreams will come true!” And then you will pay the mortgage and the bills and go to work every day. You will slowly attempt to help him pay off HIS debts. He will feel very relaxed and happy and thrilled about all of this, at first. You will bring motherfucking Beyoncé straight into his living room, in other words. And then he will sit still, like he prefers to, and talk a big game about his big dreams, which is also his thing, and he will do nothing. Not because he’s a bad person, but because it is incredibly difficult to get out the door and get a job when someone else is paying the bills.

And what will happen as your boyfriend sits still in your nice house (or his house?) (or your new, too-expensive house?), with all of your kids together now, as you make him coffee and coach him on networking and planning and such? He’ll slowly grow even more depressed and anxious and terrified and embarrassed than he usually is, and it will get worse and worse. And you’ll feel more and more responsible and burdened and queasy and guilty and resentful. It will be just like going to a giant concert with five panicky kids and they all have to go to the bathroom but the concert is about to start and the lines stretch on forever and ever, you can’t see the end of them. It will be just like that, only a million times worse.

You write “If you love someone, you help them.” And that’s true, generally speaking. But if the person you want to help has no job, no paycheck, no budget, an ex-wife, a few kids, and even so, he’s still living beyond his means, you do not under any circumstances help that person. That is a person who is determined to remain a child forever, whether he recognizes that consciously or not.

Now I’m not saying he’s a gold digger. But he ain’t messin’ with no broke broke.

I’m sure he’s just as wonderful and sweet as you describe. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. I’m nice, too! But I would never put myself in a situation where someone else was taking care of me, footing the bill, handling my shit for me. Because I KNOW MYSELF. You give me a chance to lie prone and pour gin into my face without working, in the sweet privacy of my own home, where no six-foot-tall human is blocking my view of THE LITERAL QUEEN OF AMERICA, I will stay right there and decompose. You give me a way to do nothing, I WON’T DO SHIT.

I have to work, and exercise, and cook, and deal with whiny kids. It’s good for me to do all of these things at once, actually. It makes me feel stronger. I need to be with someone who supports me but doesn’t do all of the work for me, or I get weak and weird. EVEN NOW, if my husband starts doing too much (we both sometimes do this), I can start to wilt a little. I get listless and I turn into a shut-in, by default.

My personal opinion is that when you take someone who is a teensy bit depressed or avoidant by nature, and you put that person in a situation where that person doesn’t have to work — or at least can get away with barely working for a while — that person will find new, creative ways to avoid work indefinitely. I’ve seen this happen with other couples many, many times. I get letters from women REGULARLY who are dealing with husbands who can’t deal with money and don’t want to work. I know your boyfriend doesn’t seem like that kind of person to you. But when you meet someone who hasn’t had a solid job for years and he’s never really had a clear career path and he’s still living beyond his means, and he’s anxious and embarrassed and paralyzed and in denial and a tiny bit defensive about all of it? That person is not only capable of putting off that career forever and ever, that person is also capable of resenting you for your money and your career and your relative power in the relationship. You might like the idea of saving that person from hell, but the next thing you know, you’ll be the one in hell, because you’ll be doing all the work of supporting the family but somehow you won’t get any credit for it. Your capable nature will make him feel weak. I see this all the time in my letters, no exaggeration. You will save him, but you’ll be the enemy. And then you’ll go from making spreadsheets for his business and cheering him on to never mentioning a thing about his business or his future career path, because he’ll explode in anger if you do.

I know I’m making your future sound very bleak. But this is a giant red-flag situation and this story usually ends the same way. I’m 48 years old. Ask someone my age or older what you should do, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Don’t move in together. If you do, you’re asking for a world of misery.

I’m a little curious if his ex had a good job, and if she was frustrated with how he handles money. Sometimes the ex is also a capable person who got sick of dragging along dead weight, but you’ll never hear that from the dead weight. You’ll hear about their sex life being crappy, or you’ll hear that she was unforgiving and unfair and had no empathy for him. Pay attention, because you might find yourself in her shoes. I’m not saying he’s bad and the ex is amazing, necessarily. I’m just saying don’t underestimate how impossible it can feel to have a dreamy, unrealistic man-child as a partner when there’s a mortgage and some kids involved.

Now if your boyfriend gets a job (any job) and starts to pay off his debts (slowly) and figures out some concrete way that the two of you could live modestly together and build your shared (and separate) savings and invest in a long-term future together, side by side, then that would at least be worth considering for half a second. I’d still have reservations about it, honestly, but it would be a start.

But let’s get real. He’s not about to become that pragmatic and direct out of the blue. He’s not about to take a hard look at his problems then figure out sane ways to solve them. He’s not about to own up to what a burden he will immediately become if you two move in together. He doesn’t even have a job right now, and he wants you to live together. That’s not really honorable behavior if you ask me. I don’t care how confused he is about money or love or class differences or anything. He’s ignoring reality.

My guess is that ignoring reality is his thing. He digs it. Many, many people are like this. They like the idea of big dreams and big schemes and career moves that are more like lottery tickets that might pay off big or might just add up to nothing at all. They like patents and amazing ideas for businesses and they like killer screenplays. They talk a lot about how long they can last on unemployment. They don’t talk about working every day. They think work is overrated. But they don’t think sushi is overrated.

You don’t have to be a dick to live that way. Lots of people do it. I don’t think your boyfriend is secretly a dick. But he will FOR SURE turn into one if you let him move in with you.

Are you into ignoring reality, too? Ask yourself if you are. Pay closer attention to the ways you like disappearing into your own little fantasy world. We all do it. It’s part of survival for most of us. But it’s still important to recognize what’s acting on you. Did you let your ex-husband’s money define you for a while? Are you letting your money and your comfortable life define you a little bit now? That’s what you should examine closely, instead of acting like your need for healthy boundaries financially makes you a selfish jerk. Having healthy boundaries about money is just plain HEALTHY, particularly when kids are involved. Don’t drag them into this brewing shitstorm. You can love this man from the comfort of your separate homes.

So don’t do it. Don’t bring him Beyoncé. Don’t lie to him, either. Tell him you’re in love and you can’t imagine life without him, but he needs to figure out how to work and make ends meet or he’ll become your dependent, and that would slowly but surely kill your love.

Now obviously, if you want to downsize your life and support him, that’s another choice. But that’s not, somehow, a more honorable, ethical choice. It doesn’t make you less of a jerk to support this man. His life will not improve if you support him. His life will most certainly get worse.

Once you finally admit some of this stuff to him — and you should — he won’t like it. He might dump you over it. That will be a sign. His next girlfriend might have some money, too. That will be another sign. But even if he doesn’t dump you, he will feel hurt. If he’s incredibly defensive and angry, that’s some indication that he doesn’t have strong boundaries and he doesn’t really want to acquire them. If he freaks out, he is trying to make you adopt him, essentially. And if you say everything you need to say about him getting his shit together, and then he freaks out and then, a few weeks later, he buys you an engagement ring? SAY NO.

Do not feel guilty. Be kind to him, but be firm. Letting him live with you or marry you right now is not kindness. It will fuck up his life just as much as it fucks up yours. Give him your respect and your love, but don’t start crumpling and giving in just because he can’t tell where he ends and the outside world begins.

Don’t bring him Beyoncé. You’re not responsible for him. Keep it that way, or he’ll never take responsibility for himself.


Order Polly’s new book, What If This Were Enoughhere. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Broke Boyfriend Wants Us to Live Together!’