I’m a 60 year old woman. I’ve been divorced for 9 years and I’ve been in 3 relationships since then.
For the past year and a half, I have been seeing a 73 year old man. We were fixed up by friends. When I met him, he was being treated, successfully, with immunotherapy drugs for stage 4 melanoma that had spread to his liver and sternum. He is in remission now, but in the past year and a half, he has had other health issues including a bowel obstruction, balance issues of unknown cause, and most recently, a broken hip, after a fall, requiring a hip replacement. He has had complications from the hip surgery including painful bursitis and now a blood clot that requires more surgery.
I am the first person he has dated since his wife of 35 years died after a long illness. Everyone says he took excellent care of her. Their house is full of old prescriptions, wheelchairs, walkers and other medical devices, even a motorized chair to get upstairs. I’m afraid that the standard of care he’s used to is not something I’m willing to give after a year and a half.
Of course I knew that dating someone of his age with his medical history could be a problem, but I was so happy to meet a kind man that lived just a few miles away from me, who had lifelong friends and healthy family relationships. I was attracted to him. I liked his willingness to make plans with my friends and his. I liked that he was curious about me and would read books I was reading or listen to podcasts I liked.
I want to be kind. I want to be a good friend to my 73 year old boyfriend with the broken hip, but I am afraid of becoming a full time caretaker. He has attentive family and friends and hired aides that have helped him during this recovery period. It’s not like I have to give him a bath.
My job, over the past 8 weeks, has been to go over to his house in the evenings, make dinner for him and his aide and hang out with him for a few hours. I admit that I sometimes enjoy it. I like preparing the meals and it means I’m not at home alone.
I’m afraid of disappointing him and his friends and his family.
I’m also afraid of being alone. In 9 years, I’ve been fixed up on dates only 3 times. And yes, I’ve tried internet dating.
Dear Person, I don’t know how old you are and if you can understand how difficult it is for women of my age to meet men.
I have friends and activities, but I don’t want to just fill my life with plans and not have a go-to person, someone I want tell about what I did that day, what I read or what I heard or what I think.
My 73 year old boyfriend with the broken hip tries to be my person, but he’s not. How can I leave someone who needs me? I keep waiting to break up with him. I wait until he gets his latest pet-scan results, until he can walk without a cane, until we use the Elton John tickets he got us, until his sister and brother-in-law visit, and now until he recovers from the blood clot – you get the picture. It seems like there will always be another thing to wait for.
Please, dear person, let me know what you think.
Last year, a friend of mine stayed in a relationship she hated, with a guy she wasn’t crazy about, for months after she decided to leave. She boiled spaghetti using his only pot, ate it on the mattress that constituted his living and bedroom furniture, promising herself she’d break up with him. Tomorrow. But tomorrow would become today and then all of the sudden yesterday, and she’d still be there.
Why, you ask?
Because the asshole’s cat committed suicide. Okay, maybe it was just a freak accident. In any case, the poor bastard leapt from an open fifth-story window and might have landed on its feet, had it not collided with a dumpster mid-route to the pavement below. In an instant, the boyfriend was a man transformed: the vulnerability he’d pretended not to have was suddenly seeping from every cell. He wept. Ugly, snotty sobs.
And my friend was there with Kleenex. As she rubbed his back and collected wads of salty tissue from the floor, her inner monologue re-wrote itself. “I’m not that into this guy” dissolved into “he needs me” and she stayed in that shitty apartment until the spell wore off, freeing her to remember how miserable she was.
It happens, Confused. It’s happening to you.
But “he needs me” is not the bedrock of a fulfilling partnership. “He needs me” is a temporary fix. It fills a hole inside of you that might feel good in the short term, but ultimately prevents you from asking yourself the difficult question: “what is it that I need?”
Living with “he needs me” will shape you into the thing you fear — a full-time caregiver. Even with people we are fucking over-the-moon nuts about, becoming a full-time caregiver is hard work, and it inevitably opens the door for resentment. Overcoming built up resentment requires enough trust and openness for a caregiver to admit that even though they adore and support their partner, they can’t help but fantasize about them (the partner) being fully mobile. The caregiver can risk saying out loud, “I wish you could just fucking walk over to my place unassisted and give me a hug, goddamnit.” Chances are, the person being cared for has these same desires, and rage and sorrow can have their moment.
If he supported his wife through an extended illness, your guy probably had this kind of trust with her. But as you know, Confused, you do not have the glue of a 35 year marriage to carry you through his (ever-worsening) health problems. You don’t even have the benefit of being all that crazy about this guy.
Did you notice that your catalogue of this man’s merits — he’s “kind” and “lives just a few miles from me” — is completely boring? Like, so absent of passion that you might as well be explaining why you chose your dentist?
I don’t blame you. He’s significantly older than you and in poor physical shape. When I read your letter, the romance evaporated at “bowel obstruction.” And from your description of his house, I’d rank it right next to Costco on my list of the least sexy places on the planet. Unless you’re fucking him on that motorized chairlift, I don’t see a real upside to all of that medical paraphernalia.
I’m not going to list the best and worst-case scenarios for your future with this man, because you are going to leave him, Confused. I know this because you didn’t write in asking if you should break up with him. Instead you sat and typed “how can I leave someone who needs me?”
So let’s get to the how.
First, you avoid the luscious trap my friend fell into. Do not let your honest feelings of compassion for this man’s pain fool you into believing you are obligated to stay with him. Or worse — that you love him.
This requires absorbing a harsh truth. I didn’t have the balls to say it to my friend, but I’m (hopefully) a little wiser now, so here is what I did not say to her but I will say to you, Confused. This man you’re caring for? He doesn’t need you.
He has an attentive family, as you said. Lifelong friendships. Hired aides. Your “job” (as you put it) is to cook him meals a few nights per week.
Though I don’t doubt your kitchen prowess, this task can easily be outsourced. He can order take-out, and eat it with his friends. Or his family. Or his hired aides. You get the idea.
Let me say it again, in case the first time didn’t register: He doesn’t need you.
I don’t mean to be insensitive, dear. I promise this is good news. I suspect that somewhere inside your gut you can feel the truth of this, too. And that you are using this man and his neediness to shield yourself from the difficult task of ending the relationship and being alone with your own needs.
But you will do it. You will silence the critics in your head that call you a “bad person” or whatever other nonsense you’ve manufactured. You will give up trying to please his family. You will probably disappoint them, and that will be okay, because you do not need their approval to live your own goddamn life.
Breaking up does not have to be a nuclear detonation, Confused. You’ll simply explain to this man that you want to change the terms of your relationship, and instead of a romantic partner you’d like to be his friend. You’ll tell him that if he’s willing to remain friends, you’re happy to make dinner for him every now and then.
And you’ll admit to yourself that you deserve a truer love. That at 60, even though it’s difficult to find people you can stand, let alone connect with, you will not settle for the marginal happiness of shared meals with a person who reads the same books as you. You’ll remind yourself of the (two other) people with whom you’ve found happiness after your divorce, and this will reassure you that there are others out there with whom you might wildly, passionately connect.
I hope you grant yourself the freedom to find them, dear.