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Published January 21, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: They share a home, but not expectations

You have to understand Derek (all names used are fictitious). He attends college and has a girlfriend, Sylvia. Derek is a fun-loving young man who has a hard time giving up his freedom and adolescent attitudes.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

You have to understand Derek (all names used are fictitious). He attends college and has a girlfriend, Sylvia. Derek is a fun-loving young man who has a hard time giving up his freedom and adolescent attitudes.

Why does he have to? There is one major complication. Sylvia and Derek have started living together. They did OK as a couple until Sylvia had a baby. Then their problems intensified and they started fighting. They had different expectations for each other and their new parental responsibilities.

All the values Sylvia absorbed in her parents’ home were coming home to roost. She no longer wanted to run, drink or party with her single friends. Sylvia wanted the closeness of hearth and home. She wanted an attentive and cooperative husband who was devoted to her and their son. She wanted a husband who would show enthusiasm for their relationship.

Their son pushed Sylvia into the world of adult responsibilities. This was a step she was ready for. Derek was used to getting his way and had a hard time putting Sylvia and his son first in his life. Sylvia had grown. Derek was still struggling between the adult world and the carefree life of a college student with lots of options in his life.

Derek didn’t want to change. He liked being with his single friends, drinking and having fun. He drank, carried on and wouldn’t come home when he said he would. He would lie to avoid conflict. He wanted Sylvia to come along though the atmosphere and his friends no longer appealed to her.

Repeatedly left alone, Sylvia became indignant and resentful. She felt that Derek was dumping the responsibilities of their son and home on her. She was hurt and offended. She didn’t mind giving him grief whenever he let her down. Imagining the worst, she saw Derek as drinking too much and perhaps being unfaithful. Derek saw her accusations as unfounded and irrational.

How did Derek react to Sylvia’s anger? The more she said, the more he resisted her. He didn’t want to compromise his freedom. He believed in a “boys’ night out” and saw his activities as harmless. He felt she was too controlling and resented her “insecurities.”

Derek began to react to Sylvia like she was a mother figure. He had clashed with his mother during high school and had learned to ignore her. Derek didn’t like being accountable.

Because they weren’t married, their repeated clashes threatened the stability of their relationship. Their lack of commitment complicated any efforts to resolve the issue. They handled their bills as “his” and “hers.” Each grew more wary of the other as a potential mate though they knew they were linked by their parental responsibilities.

Derek and Sylvia were “playing house” and enjoying the benefits of a living-together arrangement without the security of total acceptance and commitment. Their relationship was subject to the buffeting of normal differences and poor problem-solving skills. They loved each other, but their inability to resolve this one argument threatened to split them apart permanently.

Is this an unusual situation? Not if you consider that 50 percent of all couples have had a living-together arrangement before marriage. Forty percent of living-together couples don’t make it to the altar. Those who do marry have a higher divorce rate than those who never lived together before marriage.

Young couples don’t realize how much commitment is necessary to work out important differences. They hold back conflict for fear of threatening their relationship. They postpone too many discussions, and those that do sneak through become sticking points upon which the future of their relationship rests.

Children suffer. They deserve a loving, two-parent family. If a couple has a child together, what else are they waiting for? If they are going to be a family, they need to get married and build a strong foundation that will help everyone.

If there are serious doubts about their readiness or their partner’s suitability as a committed marriage partner, then the couple should break up. Relationships of convenience become a whole lot more inconvenient when children enter the picture.

How can Derek and Sylvia work things out? Most living-together couples probably don’t seek counseling. If they did, they could get help in negotiating a compromise, reducing fears and learning how to nurture one another better. They probably need help with communication skills. They could shift their social life to finding and enjoying friends as a couple.

Derek needs to come to terms about whether he is single or not. The issue of freedom and autonomy is a touchy one, even in new marriages. Derek needs to figure out how to enjoy his male friends after he has learned to put Sylvia and their son first in his life.

If a couple loves one another enough to have a child together, they need to cement their relationship with marriage. If they want a fighting chance at making a good home for their child, they marry and work out the problems as they come up. Without commitment, ordinary problems become extraordinary – enough to destroy the stability and happiness of what could be a lifelong and mutually fulfilling relationship.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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