Monthly Archives: July 2011

Tradition transitions

In Carolyn’s Saturday column, a young woman seeks advice about talking to her (apparently long term, serious) boyfriend about how they spend their vacation time. This year, he plans to spend all of it at his family’s cabin–as apparently he has always done. According to the LW, “It is one of his favorite places on Earth, and he would love nothing more than to spend the entire summer there. The two of us went last year, and I also loved it, and am excited to go again this summer.But, she is nervous this means they won’t go anywhere else, ever, ever again. (For example: while he’s willing to accompany her on visits to her family, he offered to take a week of unpaid leave to do so, rather than shortening his time at the cabin. On one hand, wow, that’s a generous thing to do. On the other, it sort of demonstrates exactly how much it is worth to him–to the dollar–not to change his cabin plans).

Carolyn advised her, wisely, to try to see the biggest possible picture here, and to be brutally honest with herself about how she hopes to spend her leisure time and money in the future. In reply to the question “how seriously should I be taking this?” Carolyn wrote:

As seriously as context tells you to. I don’t think inflexibility on one thing is automatically a sign of trouble — especially something that you can appreciate as “one of his favorite places on Earth,” and especially when he (quickly, it seems) volunteered to sacrifice something valuable to create a little more flexibility where previously there was none.

But that simply means you need to air this out more; don’t just take your consolation week and like it. If you see yourself wanting to go to the beach with him in February some year, or whatever, in addition to your normal week of family visits, then don’t be shy — say it now, and see what he says.

If his answer is, “I have no interest in the beach, and the whole time I’d just be annoyed about my lost week in the cabin/lost pay,” then you have to take that very seriously as a prediction of life with him. I do hope he’d be that honest with you, if that’s how he feels. Speaking a truth that might make us look mean or selfish is far better than saying all the right things and having no interest in following through— yet nerves do falter at truth time.

Even if you don’t feel strongly about variety in vacations, you also need to pay careful attention to other non-cabin things he feels strongly about. When people don’t care much about an area where their partners are inflexible — say, religion — it’s easy to resolve differences by letting the ones who feel strongly have their way. Sometimes, though, the mellower halves go on to find out their mates aren’t just dug in on religion, but instead are one-person Maginot lines of entrenched positions on issues — some of which the erstwhile mellow ones do care about, a lot.

So, try to see as much of the picture as you can before you decide whether this is about a great cabin, which isn’t terribly serious, or inflexibility, which is. Make sure the “give” lines up with the “take” — not just his, but yours, too.

Makes sense, but I was amazed at how quickly many of the commenters on this column jumped all over the boyfriend, when actually we don’t know very much about his response at all. For example:  “this is all of their free time for the rest of their lives doing only what he wants. if she wants to visit friends, or go to Europe or any wish she has — it must be subordinate to his plans for their free time. sounds like a lifetime of a man who doesn’t really care for her or for pleasing her — his way or the highway — I say the highway.


Carolyn’s advice was consistent with her general philosophy, which is to acknowledge and honestly deal with your preferences and annoyances in (dating) relationships, because no matter how good you think the relationship is, or how much you want it to work out, if on a day-to-day basis you don’t want the same things, and don’t make each other happy, you’re on a track to years of  resentment and misery. This means sometimes you break up over reasons that feel really petty–but actually are reflections of whether or not you are well suited for each other. I think this is really important.

But I also think it’s really important to give people room to consider and accept change, and to gradually work their way out of lifelong, beloved patterns. It sounds like this boyfriend has always spent all his vacation at this cabin. Last year they went and had a great time, so he had no reason to think about changing his plans. This year, it’s in the air that she wants something more, and while he wants to be supportive of her, he’s not willing to change his plans. I think it’s important they talk about it so he can get used to the idea of doing something different, but I also think it’s fair to give a summer or two for that transition to happen, and to come more naturally.

This situation reminds me very much of Christmas 2008. SK had just moved to Michigan, and we were engaged, but not yet married. We’d both done various versions of holiday events with each other’s families for the previous couple of years. We were talking about how we’d handle the holidays that year, and we found that neither one of us was willing to break with our personal traditions just yet. We both had expectations, with lots of emotions attached, about how we’d spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and it was really hard to mash them up. In the end we did go our separate ways for part of the holiday, and then joined up again for the rest of it.

I don’t know about for him, but for me, that year was really important. It was a chance for me to experience my childhood traditions with the knowledge that it was probably going to be the last time, or at least the last time they’d be quite that way. With that mindset, I was also able to see with clear eyes that the traditions had changed, too, and things weren’t always going to be “the same” anyway. It also gave me a chance to realize that I wanted us to spend the holidays together more than I wanted to go through the motions of the events that I thought made the holiday. I needed to do things my way that year, but it wasn’t purely selfish inflexibility. It was a turning point for me that made me ready to plan our holidays as a couple in the future.

Now, this couple isn’t engaged or married, so I’m certainly not advocating that she spend one or two or three more years just waiting to see what happens when summer vacation time rolls around. But if they are together for the long haul, I guess I would just add to the converstion that the seemingly stubborn decision of one year, even if it seems hard and fast (and reduces one party to piteous weeping), can be the beginning of the conversation, not the final word.