The Ethical Dilemma: A Boyfriend

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Love Him, Love His Family? I’m 32, and I’d really like to get married and start a family. I live with my boyfriend, who is a great guy and says I’m his highest priority. I was hoping he’d present me with a ring on Christmas, or on Valentine’s Day, but nothing so far. 

Meanwhile, his extended family is a handful. Several times his mother, aunt, and sisters with young children from multiple missing men have stayed with us in our one-bedroom rental. They bring nothing, eat everything, and complain about it. I try to be the perfect hostess, but I’m seething inside. Bill is the family’s only employed person and the only male, so he feels he owes it to his relations to be generous.

Recently Bill’s former girlfriend and a 2-year-old child popped into our lives. The girlfriend says the baby is Bill’s and she wants them to have a relationship. She also says that since I may someday become the child’s step-mom, she wants me to bond with him–by babysitting all day on her days off.

I’m trying to be patient, but I’m getting really alarmed about all the obligations that seem to come with Bill. I do love him, and he’s really so much better than other guys I’ve been involved with (yeah, I know), and my biological clock is ticking. I’d really like to get this situation under control.

—About to Blow

Dear Blow,

Did you ever read Dr. Seuss’s Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose? Your life is like that story, except Bill is Thidwick and he’s hitching a ride on your antlers. The load you are bearing will break your big heart as well as his.

First of all, Bill and the baby need a paternity test. Then, if the child is really his, Bill needs a consultation with a lawyer about his responsibilities. And a consultation with a therapist about his willingness to be abused by all but one woman in his life. And you might join him or get a therapist of your own, since you have been allowing him to drag you into his mess without even protesting.

While I can certainly see what benefits Bill gets from you, I don’t see much good you get from him. Perhaps you just left all that out. What I do see is a boyfriend who says you’re #1 but who strings you along while imposing on you. Has he actually asked you to babysit the child, or did he just do nothing while allowing his ex- to ask you? On her days off? What about your days off?

Someone has to take control here, and by default it’s you. You have to tell Bill that you’re not doing this anymore. If he wants you to spend time with his family, he has to make clear to them how they must behave. No more empty-handed extended visits, no more ungrateful behavior. As for his “son,” you are not doing a thing until the genetic and legal situation is sorted out, and then not unless Bill has demonstrated he can put you first and protect both of you (and the baby, if it’s his) from his grabby ex- and relatives.

As for putting a ring on it, it’s a good thing you aren’t legally bound yet. Keep your hands behind your back until you see whether Bill can make good on all of the above. If not, don’t even think about marrying or continuing to live with this “great” guy. Perhaps what you really need is not a ring but boots—made for walking. If Bill’s rough-shod posse can’t be tamed, make a get-away. You still have time to find a partner with whom to build a family together, instead of just taking in Bill’s ready-made menagerie. No boyfriend at all is better than one infesting you with parasites.

Fat Chance: Friends and I were looking at pictures from a party when we came across one of an extremely overweight teen smiling in a short, tight, shiny strapless dress. My friends said her mother shouldn’t have let her out of the house; it was a disgrace. Then I saw a movie starring a hilarious chubby woman. The man next to me said he couldn’t bear watching her because she was going to drop dead if she didn’t lose weight. I thought the actress was not only charming, but also energetic and agile.

I’m sure everyone has heard all the health issues blamed on extra pounds (whatever happened to “fat and happy”?). My friends say overweight people must be saved from themselves. They have no problem telling even strangers they should lose weight or “Do you really think you ought to be eating that?” I feel just as strongly that overweight people are judged and treated not only harshly but unfairly.

Are we really doing larger people a favor by insisting they can and should change, and scorning and bullying them to do so? Isn’t that almost like telling gay people they should straighten out?

—Will Power Won’t

Dear Will,

Good for you seeing past all the piling on to the plight of larger individuals. In recent years, a few brave souls have formed activist groups to speak out about fat discrimination, but so far they haven’t gotten much traction. It is extremely difficult for them to stick up for themselves when most of us don’t think twice about dumping on them—in a ruthless, blatant way we would never treat any other type of minority or disability. Politics aside, is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s girth a punch-line worthy of David Letterman? Is his health really more of a liability for his presidential aspirations than FDR’s immobility, JFK’s Addison’s disease or William Henry Harrison’s cold?  

What’s really ironic is that atheists, humanists and the like are subject to the same kind of brazen disrespect for being non-believers (i.e., we are dismissed as amoral-to-immoral scoundrels to be shunned), yet many of us may be just as quick to dismiss heavy people as lazy, gluttonous, and weak-willed.

It’s easy to advocate exercising, eating less or eliminating certain foods (which may include just about every food there is, depending on whose advice you follow), but the fact is it’s probably harder to make a lasting change in weight than it is to stop smoking or drinking alcohol. People can go cold turkey with cigarettes and booze and never touch the stuff again for the rest of their lives, while everyone has to keep eating. It can be just as difficult for underweight people to gain weight, but our society doesn’t frown much on that problem (in fact, we drive people to anorexia and bulimia). Each of us tends to gravitate to a particular weight, and no matter what we do, our bodies fight most efforts to modify it.

It’s the exceptional person who can change his or her weight and maintain the change over time. You can’t miss those celebrities who drop stunning amounts of weight on one diet plan or another. But they drop out of sight when they start gaining the weight back and all they’ve lost is their spokesperson contracts. These are people who have unlimited access to the top chefs, trainers and physicians, yet even they can’t keep off the pounds. Just ask Oprah.

Everyone should read Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories before judging anyone who is overweight. Like the stock market mantra, “Buy low, sell high,” the weight loss mantra, “Eat less, exercise more,” is even harder to pull off and less likely to yield lasting results. In our culture that worships thinness and demonizes fat (today Marilyn Monroe would be considered overweight), most people would love to reduce, and many are willing to sacrifice anything (favorite foods, even their health through extreme diets, liposuction and surgery) to get thinner. No one, not even “the experts,” fully comprehends all the complex factors that make some people heavy, thin, or in-between—whether it’s related to food quantity or quality, processed and refined ingredients, exercise, genes, metabolism, psyche, or something else we haven’t yet hit upon. It’s one bandwagon after another: high protein, high fat, low carb, low sugar, low fat, no grain, whole grain, etc. Obesity continues increasing in both rich and poor nations, despite public health efforts that are clearly missing the mark. Yet heavy people are blamed for being what they can’t help being.

Despite all the warnings about how deadly extra pounds are, plenty of thin people drop dead young, and many heavy people survive into old age. We as individuals and as a society should do all we can to help everyone achieve optimal physical and emotional health at any weight, through solid science and realistic support. A negative attitude toward heavy people–not only regarding how they should dress, but also in terms of things like employment and companionship–is misguided and counterproductive. People of all sizes should be accepted and encouraged, and encouraged to accept themselves. Individuals who are not self-conscious about their size are more inclined to get moving at a gym or swimming or running or dancing, which are fun and healthy even if they don’t move the scale. If people who’ve got it want to flaunt it in tight, short, shiny fashions, they deserve cheers, not jeers.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.