‘Jen. B’ Asked:
Hi Dr. Zoe,
I hope this email finds you well! Last year […] my boyfriend’s younger sister (who is a twin) died suddenly. It has been just a little over a year now, and that was one of the hardest years on our relationship. Not only did she pass late Christmas night (which has made it incredibly hard for his family), my younger sister was also her best friend and with both of the twins when she died. My sister and his other younger sister no longer speak.
Just wanted to give you a bit of the background, and all the stress factors that have gone into this past year. My boyfriend and I have been together for 3 years […] and I am ready to get married and start a family. I am going to turn 33 years old in Feb, and I would like to have kids by the time I am 35 (I know that doesn’t always go as planned, but it’s a part of my life that I want). My boyfriend and I have talked a couple of times since his sister’s death about marriage, and he just keeps telling me that he is not ready; he is still grieving. Which I completely understand and have been there for him, his family and my family 100%.
My question is (and I understand there is no “right” answer for this) do I have to put my wants and needs on hold for him to grieve? When will I and our relationship become a priority again? It seems like everyone around me is “starting their lives,” and I feel stuck being my boyfriend’s support team.
Dr. Zoe Answered:
The simplest answer is of course you don’t have to put your life on hold for anyone. A massive amount of loss has happened to both of your families over the course of a year. No one can put a time frame on grief. The truth is that he will be grieving the loss of his sister on some level for the rest of his life.
Another hard truth is that life doesn’t stop happening when we hop off the Ferris wheel to grieve. It can feel horribly alienating to the grieving when the world keeps spinning. We want everyone to freeze in time with us. But sadly, that is not how the world works. Life goes on, and none of us can escape the reality that time passes with it.
It’s important to find out what aspect of getting married feels too soon for him. Is it that he can’t imagine a huge celebration without his sister? Or is it that he feels he can’t give to a committed relationship right now? If he doesn’t want to celebrate with friends and family, maybe suggest an alternate, private ceremony between you two and a celebration later when he feels ready.
It is also highly possible that he is using his sister’s death as the reason that he just doesn’t want to marry you. I would defer to your gut for the answer to that question. Were you two moving firmly in the direction of marriage prior to the death? You said that YOU wanted to get married and YOU wanted a family, but was he even on that same page before all the devastation? Even if so, the death of a close loved one can substantially change our priorities, plans and ideas about life as well. He is certainly entitled to not get married if he doesn’t feel ready.
If he is simply not ready to move forward, you are not loving yourself to wait as the years pass on your plan to start a family. A loving act towards yourself would be to make a clear decision about how long you will stand on the side and support him without a commitment. It is okay for you to put a timeline on it. No, this doesn’t make you an uncaring human. It hasn’t been weeks or months since his loss. It’s been over a year.
It is also common that grief morphs into a depression, which can suck the motivation for life out of him. If this is suspected, you may encourage him to seek grief counseling. Even if this is the case, his depression still does not create a responsibility for you to stay indefinitely.
Plenty of people get married after the death of a loved one and usually find a beautiful way to honor them during the ceremony. He hasn’t ended his relationship with you, but if it isn’t continuing to progress, it’s important for you to explore if this is an excuse for him to not examine what he really wants out of your relationship or if he is in need of professional help to lift a debilitating depression.
Either way, until two become one, your allegiance needs to be to yourself.
You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace.