Dear Sugars,

I’ve been dating my boyfriend for more than two years. We’re in our early 20s and head over heels in love with each other. We plan to live together and eventually get married. He’s from a Middle Eastern Islamic family; I’m white and Christian. Although we have no issues with our differing religions and backgrounds, his parents do. My boyfriend finished college last year and he’s still living at home. When his parents found out about me shortly after we began dating, they threatened to kick him out and cut him off. Instead of standing up for our relationship, he told them that we broke up. I’ve been his dirty little secret ever since. I’ve put my emotional needs on the back burner to placate his family, but I don’t want to continue making this sacrifice. I’m tired of having to hide and I’m becoming resentful of my boyfriend.

Is it selfish for me to want him to stand up for me and for us? When I try to talk to him about it so we can finally resolve these issues, he apologizes and then brushes me off by claiming there’s nothing he can do. Where should I draw the line? I love him and I want to be with him, but I don’t know if our future is viable because of his family. When should I walk away?

Dirty Little Secret

Cheryl Strayed: Your boyfriend may tell you he wants to marry you, Dirty Little Secret, but his actions tell a different story. It’s this: His reluctance to disappoint and possibly defy his parents is greater than his commitment to you. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that he may have had good reasons to keep you a secret early on in your relationship in order to keep the peace at home. Perhaps he needed his parents to pay his college tuition, or his status as a full-time student made it difficult to cover the expense of renting a place of his own. Or maybe he opted to avoid stirring the pot on behalf of a relationship that might turn out to be short-term.

Now, more than two years in, those possible explanations are no longer valid. If he were serious about wanting to have a functional long-term relationship with you, he’d be the one trying to talk to you about when to break the news of your existence to his parents. He’d be the one working to resolve the divide between his parents’ opposition to cross-cultural romance and the fact of his true love for you. He isn’t. You are. This spells doom.

Steve Almond: I have to second Cheryl here, DLS. I realize you love your boyfriend. But you can’t swallow your self-respect forever. That’s why you wrote to us. Because you know that this guy, wonderful as he may be, isn’t strong enough yet to love you openly. He’s not willing to risk betraying his parents, or confronting their intolerance. Nor is he willing even to broach the ways his evasive behavior has hurt you.

And why did this guy choose to lie to his parents about you? Because they threatened to kick him out and cut him off. I don’t know what his socio-economic circumstances are, so I don’t want to fault him for still living at home. But it’s worth noting that his loyalty is partly about financial dependence. Asking us if you’re the “selfish” one is an effort to blame yourself rather than recognizing the painful truth here: this guy isn’t ready for the kind of love you desire and deserve. This isn’t even about his family. It’s about him and his behavior toward you, which has been cowardly and callous.

CS: By repeatedly telling you there’s nothing he can do to change the terms of your relationship, your boyfriend has in some ways done you a favor, DLS. He’s telling you what he will do: nothing. (In fact, less than nothing, since he won’t even discuss the matter honestly with you.) You ask where you should draw the line, but I wonder if you realize your boyfriend has already drawn his. He wants to continue having a secret relationship with you. What do you want?

Your letter makes it clear that you not only love your boyfriend, but you also feel loved by him, in spite of your status as his invisible girlfriend. Is the love you share with him enough for now? Would your resentment lessen if you stopped planning a future with him and focused only on the present happiness you share? Or would you rather call it off now, heartbroken as you’d be, knowing that he’s not willing to do what must be done to build a long-term relationship with you? There is no right way. There is only what you want to do. But I hope whatever you choose, you’ll do it with a clarity gained from an honest interpretation of what is, rather than what you wish it would be.

SA: A lasting intimacy can only take root if two people trust and respect each other. That’s not what’s happening here. Your boyfriend is disrespecting you. He’s making you feel like a Dirty Little Secret rather than a Beloved Partner. That’s why your resentment and mistrust keep growing. As Cheryl observes, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide where to draw the line on what we’ll withstand for love. But any love that asks you to contort your self-respect into self-doubt, any love that renders you invisible, will never make you feel entirely safe.

It’s important that you face this truth now. That way, you can try to stop passively accepting the terms dictated by a lover and start actively defining terms that work for you. It may be that this shift will cause your boyfriend to do some soul searching. Perhaps in losing you (or potentially losing you) he’ll find more strength and self-possession than he’s mustered thus far. I hope so. That shouldn’t be your goal in confronting him, though. Your goal should be to announce the contents of your heart. No love is without moments of frustration and doubt. But you have to respect yourself before you can expect the same from a partner.

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