Dear Margo: Play It as It Lays

Margo-Howard_tall10Margo Howard’s advice

Play It as It Lays

Dear Margo: My boyfriend (of more than three and a half years) and I are at a crossroads in our lives. We’re both in a master’s program, and up until now we’ve been very serious and committed to our relationship. However, last week he brought up that we don’t know where we’ll be working when we’re done with this program, and he doesn’t know whether he wants us to stay together if we end up in different cities.

I am ready for a long-distance romance, but he cannot see himself doing that and finds it irrational to think that a few visits back and forth would be sufficient to sustain a relationship. Our program ends in September, and we know we’ll continue our relationship until then and take it from there depending on our job situations.

I love my boyfriend and am willing to commit to this. He says he loves me, too, but wants to be reasonable. Maybe he is having commitment issues because he is 24 and I am 26. I need you to tell me how to approach this situation so that if we do end up splitting up, I will be more mentally and emotionally prepared for it. — Grad Student

Dear Grad: What I am hearing is that you want an ironclad agreement that nothing will change, when, in fact, you have no idea what will change. It would be helpful for you to remember that even when couples in your situation “take the pledge,” things sometimes fall apart anyway.

You sound anxious to get him to sign on the dotted line, but his approach sounds like the more mature one. The song that is playing in my head right now is “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.” If you two are meant to be, absence will confirm that fact. If I were you, I would end any discussions of agreements in the event that you should wind up in different cities. — Margo, fatefully

Not as Hopeless as You May Think  

Dear Margo: I am going with a lovely man, a widower, and he has asked me to marry him. We’re really perfect for each other. We are most often together, either at his house or mine. Because his house is the larger, he wants me to move in with him. The only hitch in this situation is that his house is loaded with pictures of his late wife.

I always feel overwhelmed by the photos of her in almost every room. I have never felt it was my place to suggest he “retire” some of the photographs, so I’ve said nothing. I would not, however, consider living in his shrine. The wild card here is that he is a widower who carries great guilt. She was ill for quite some time, and when she died, he was out of the country on business. I am unsure what to do about any of this. What say you? — Elaine

Dear E: I suspect the disproportionate photographic presence of the late wife has a great deal to do with this man’s guilt. He has clearly told you of his self-reproach. Now he needs to tell a therapist, because professional help is needed to understand that he did not willfully absent himself at the time of her death; it is just something that happened.

I would tell him the pictures are not just a problem for you, but that you believe, from his confession, they bespeak a problem for him, as well. I would also recommend you sell both houses and buy a new one together. And I offer you something from my own playbook: My husband’s beloved first wife died very young. It was my idea to add her picture to our family wall. Good luck. — Margo, optimistically

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

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20 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Ariana says:

    LW#1: What makes your ‘very serious and committed’ relationship different from just being BF/GF? Have you talked before about starting a family or spending your lives together? If not, it unfortunately may not be as serious as you assumed it was. If you were ‘the one’, I suspect you two wouldn’t have been having that conversation.

    This guy sounds like he is trying to send you a message without you freaking out. I don’t know anyone who is really serious about a girl tell her, oh well, if we end up in different cities- bad luck, that’s it then. He may even try to find a job in a different city on purpose so that he has a way to soften the blow, since it was the job, and not himself being the cause of the breakup.

    There is no way to prepare for it. Being broken up with when you wanted to spend your life with someone is right up there on the list of most suckiest things to experience. But keep in mind – it’s even worse to have a partner in life who only feels so-so about you.

    Let the next few months ride out. Do some crazy fun stuff together to have good memories of grad school and of him without trying to back him into a corner. You may just find that the pressure of school, lack of money and nothing fun to do were some of the things that makes him wish for freedom. If he sees what kind of fun you two have together, it may bring you closer.

    • avatar nikkylee says:

      I’m going to agree… he’s probably not as serious as you think he is. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 9 years, since we were 16 and 18. When he was potentially moving to the east coast (we’re in Michigan) about 3 years in, I planned on going with him, without question.

      I’ve only been with one person so I’m probably naive, but it seems to me that if you are “serious” you discuss building a life together and how to make it work… not plan for an exit strategy. Good luck though, and I hope things work out for you.

    • avatar misskaty says:

      Precisely. LW#1 has a good, monogamous relationship, but this in no way makes it a committed partnership. When he says he doesn’t know if he wants to stay together, what he’s gently saying is that he doesn’t want to stay together. So enjoy the time you have left and when you move, let him stay in touch and see where he takes it. Relationships come from both sides, not one person willing it into existence. And in your time to yourself in your new city, be open to whatever connections show up. You never know.

      • avatar JCF4612 says:

        Absolutely … you never know. Someone who knows for sure they want to be with you may be around the corner. There’s no substitute for the wonder of that. When it happens, you’ll never look back.

  2. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1: Your bf is having commitment issues and it is not necessarily related to his age or yours. Long distant relationships are very difficult and even if it *lasts*….just how long do you anticipate being apart? It doesn’t sound like marriage is a topic that has come up between you and given his anticipation of a break up as soon as you graduate, I doubt that it will. Margo is correct that any further discussions on this will not be helpful and may prove harmful. Live your life and if he wants you in his, he will find a way to make that happen. If he doesn’t, you will have a new job in a new city and new people to meet and make your happiness with.

    LW#2: Margo is right that the best thing would be to sell both your houses and buy a new one together…even without the presence of his first wife’s photos…you are going into *her* house and may feel constricted in changing anything to your liking. Try to convince him that it is best for you both to make a *fresh start* together.

  3. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2- Spot on advice Margo!

    I too would have suggested that this letter writer gently suggest her beau seek therapy about the loss of his wife and that they sell both homes and start anew in a new home. Create new and unique memories of their own.

    This will be a pivotal test for this letter writer. Will he listen to her sage advice and seek therapy? Understand that there is something far deeper at play than simply a need to have her photos on display? If not, he may not even be ready for marriage.

    Letter #1 – Ugh! Reading that letter made my head hurt. I abhor stupid women in smart bodies. 🙂

    I believe in being organized in life and especially when it comes to a relationship, you have to think down the road, there is nothing wrong with that IMO. But what he is saying makes 100% sense. Some people can handle a long distance relationship and some people can’t. Kudos to him for being upfront and saying it is not his thing.

    Life goes on and so will you. More men will enter your life. He is but one person, one chapter of your book. God willing, when you are in your 50’s and 60’s you’ll look back on this chapter of your life and smile at how you were sweating this relationship. Agonizing over where it would go and if it would go on. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, and right now you are in the thick of it. Allow yourself to step away and gain perspective.

    If this relationship doesn’t work out it is because it wasn’t meant to be. Your a smart woman, don’t let love make you stupid. 🙂

  4. avatar Donna Sampson says:

    lw #1
    You are more into him than he is into you. This is his way of finding an out from this relationship. If he were really into you, he would not have brought up the “solution”(breaking up) to the problem of distant dating, but instead asked you to look for a job in the cities he is. Sorry to burst your bf/gf bubble, but that’s the apparent message he’s sending.

    • avatar Jennifer juniper says:

      This^^^^^ 100%
      I’m sure it hurts – but in man speak he is basically breaking up with you. And because he WANTS to, not because of logistics.

  5. avatar olderwiser says:

    Like thousands of other women, LW#1 has put the cart before the horse by living with her boyfriend without benefit of marriage. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned concept, but the ugly truth is – when you set up housekeeping with no commitment required, you’re setting up for heartbreak. The boyfriend has had all the benefits of marriage without any legal entanglements to worry about when he’s through with the relationship. Our grandmothers knew the truth – – – i.e., when a man really loves a woman, HE GOES AFTER HER, HE WANTS TO MARRY HER and this young man clearly does not want to marry the Letter Writer. She’s in for a heartbreak and it’s going be as painful as a divorce. I wish the young woman well, but I hope this will be a strong learning experience for her.

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      I don’t see any indication one way or another that this “committed” gf/bf are living together. For all we know they’re in separate housing on or near campus. I think it’s also a mistake to automatically assume the boyfriend suffers from a “why buy a cow when milk is free” attitude.

    • avatar misskaty says:

      Oh I hate to agree with old (or young?) cronies like you, but some facts first. LW#1 didn’t say whether they were living together or not, but your basic idea holds – a monogamous relationship is NOT a marriage, even if it “feels like” a marriage. The ritual of marriage is very powerful, which is why it has endured over the ages.

      Now, if the objective of life is to minimize hurt by selective experiences, then don’t live with anyone or have sex before marriage. (Not that it always reduces heartbreak but hey it’s worth a try!) And it is true, when a man wants a woman it will be made clear to her and everyone else. (Whether she wants him is another story.) But who said life is meant to be lived safely! So stash your judgments olderwiser. Marriage isn’t a panacea.

      Anyways I think people fall into relationships like these because they can’t read the signs of an unequal relationship, but habit and familiarity take over, and neither is an unstable cheater, so many years pass before they assess the relationship. In the worst case, they get married despite this inequality, and years later only tolerate their spouse. In the best case, some external thing shakes it up. The LW’s guy sounds like the rational sort who doesn’t direct his life, but lets life “happen” to him.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      im not sure why you only see this as a gender thing. She has had the same benefits from the situation that he has. It would be the same if she had tired of the relationship and broke up with him. Same thing, no legal entanglements or divorce, so Im not sure what your point about them living together is. I personally have no problem with adults cohabiting after establishing a relationship. The heartbreak would still be there whether or not they had kept separate apartments. Not living toether would not have made them more likely to marry either, and I think the idea of marrying just so you can live together with someone absurd. 50% of marriages fail anyways, so assuming that marriage is a way to avoid heartbreak also doesnt hold.

    • avatar Rebecca Adams says:

      I realize you cannot help your old fashioned ideas—they were ingrained into you when you were young and impressionable. But this has nothing to do with cohabitation and sex and everything to do with two people who were together for a while but there was not enough love there (at least on one side) for it to end in marriage. Remember, the letter writer was also getting her sex (not that sex was mentioned in the letter) for “free”—ie, in your definition of “free”—without marriage. People like sex, and since we don’t get married at 18 anymore, we don’t want to wait to have it until we are older and ready to settle down. Yes, you are correct, this breakup is going to be painful, but it is a breakup that has nothing to do with the reasons you are interjecting into the situation.

      The modern day truth that your grandmothers would have no way of dealing with is that women are men’s sexual equals; they have sexual needs too and they might want to satisfy those needs long before they are ready to settle down and get married.

      I did find myself wondering if she lived with him (not at all a given, but possible) because, as I agree with some here that what he is actually saying is that he wants to break up, just not now, she might feel like she wants to end it once she comes to terms with that, and living with him is going to make that harder.

      I don’t advocate living together only because of that reason (not because of any silly ideas about sex)—–when you are living together, it makes it that much harder to break up, and I think it makes people stay in sucky relationships too long. At least that is what I have witnessed.

  6. avatar Cindy M says:

    L #1: Seems like a situation which will work itself out; one way or the other. Your emotional anxiety is understandable, and I hope it works in your favor. But don’t *force* it, no matter how tempting that may be.

    L #2: My husband’s kept some photos of 1st wife (by whom he had a daughter), their wedding photos to be exact; but they’re tucked away in an album in a drawer. He only keeps them for the sake of their (estranged to him) daughter. I don’t mind. It’d be “okay by me” if your boyfriend had a few photos here and there; understandable. But yeah, I wouldn’t be happy with “a shrine” either. Margo: “I would also recommend you sell both houses and buy a new one together.” Right! Margo: “And I offer you something from my own playbook: My husband’s beloved first wife died very young. It was my idea to add her picture to our family wall.” That’s so commendable, Margo. 🙂

  7. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) Your guy sounds like a winner because he’s bright enough (and willing) to bring up/ discuss in May what he sees coming in September. Finish school, land your jobs, and then see where you are. Trying to pin him down now will get you nowhere. Make this summer fun … not some angst-ridden, tear-filled “what’s to become of us” ordeal that will have him running for the most distant city he can find.

    2) By all means, sell both your properties and buy a new place together — and maybe a lake house or other getaway place, too, if that’s affordable. If you can’t see doing that, then it could be you shouldn’t think in terms of marriage. You don’t mention if there are grown children involved in an “old homestead” situation. Pre-marital counseling (by a secular professional, not clergy) might be good for both of you.

    (I was out of town on a two-night biz trip when my spouse — fairly stable, yet in final weeks of a terminal illness — ended up dying just a few hours after my return. Had I not been there, the guilt would have definitely been there, and I still cringe at the near miss in what was a chaotic, traumatic time, when I was trying to hold down a job, tend to my mate, and keep my sanity.)

  8. avatar bethan7 says:

    Lw1- if he was as serious as you, long distance would not be an issue. My bf and I were seperated only 2 months after we started dating, and yet we still go strong. He’s telling you to let go.

  9. avatar judgingamy says:

    I concur with those that say it sounds like LW’s boyfriend is purposely leaving an out clause that he plans on exercising at some point. It’s one thing to have a once in a lifetime opportunity come up that forces you to be separate from your partner, it’s another when he basically says that being separated is the likely or even desired outcome. I don’t blame him for not wanting to be in a long term relationship for an indefinite amount of time, but it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much to ensure it won’t BE long distance.

    I disagree though, that LW should necessarily stay in the relationship for now. I don’t think I could enjoy 3-4 months of dating knowing that a break up was around the corner. I’d rather cut my losses right away. Makes me wonder if Boyfriend will string her along before he gets that out of town offer letter.

  10. avatar pinpin says:

    LW#1 if you already knew in your gut that you’re going to be dumped, be a classy lady and dump him first.

  11. avatar Lym BO says:

    LW1: He is right that a long distance is difficult, but ” he doesn’t know whether he wants us to stay together if we end up in different cities” means he does not really care if you do or not. This relationship is finished. He may love you as a friend and not want to hurt you, but he is ready to move on. He is not passionately in love with you. I can only assume he is keeping things status quo because it is easier than shaking things up when there is only three months to go. This way he still gets whatever perks there are to this relationship. (Cooking, cleaning, laundry, companionship, friends, study mates, commuting, sex, etc. )
    I have had all sorts of relationships that proceeded my marriage. One was me at college with he in another city. We drove hours to be together every weekend & I switched colleges to be with him. Then another guy was local for three months then long distance (1000 miles). We lasted about three months before we decided whether it would be easier for me or him to move. I moved. With true love or crazy infatuations there isn’t a question of whether it will work, you figure out a way to make it work. It’s time to move on or accept the status quo & that things will end soon. You won’t change his mind. He’s lost that loving feeling. It happens & it’s no one’s fault. The right guy is still out there and you have learned a lot.

  12. avatar Rustie says:

    This is for Elaine. I would venture to guess that your gentleman friend will move the pictures himself should you move in. If not, I agree with Margo. Offer to put her picture on the family wall and maybe put the others in an album that he could look through from time to time. The deceased wife is a part of his past and you are hopefully part of his future. Do not hesitate because of pictures, and I wouldn’t suggest jumping into buying a different home. That would need to come later if I were in your shoes. I have been in a similar situation before. The precious memories of his deceased wife and whatever guilt he may feel for not being at her side when she died, will be tucked safely away while he creates precious memories with you. Have a happy life with this man!