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The Vine: October 30, 2013

Submitted by on October 30, 2013 – 1:12 PM25 Comments


My boyfriend's younger sister is 22. She has lived her whole life in her parents' house in a rural town.

After struggling to find a career she's interested in, she's now working as a nurse at the same retirement home as her mother (also a nurse). They even studied nursing together last year; they're very close. Sister has never traveled outside the country. She's had a few brief relationships but nothing serious. All of which is to say she's quite sheltered.

Recently she started dating a guy she met at her church (unlike the rest of the family, she's very religious), whom we'll call R. He's older than she is by a few years. Since they met, BF and I have picked up on some weird behavior by R. (Full disclosure: we live interstate, so most of our info is through Facebook updates and secondhand from his other family members, so I acknowledge that we probably don't get the full story.) Since they started dating, he's gotten really close to her mother (he sent flowers and a card for Mother's Day which was only a couple of weeks after they started dating; he calls her "Mama"; he friended her on Facebook and posts comments on things all the time). In photos he just looks like a creeper.

He's also fast-tracking the relationship. They've been dating only a few months and he's already talking marriage and how many babies they'll have together and how soon. And it's soon; the other day BF's older brother emailed him that she's talking intently about having the wedding in April next year, which is also when she graduates. Older bro also told us on a recent visit to our city that he also thinks R is weird. Maybe I'm just judgmental and have read The Gift of Fear too many times, but R's behavior is triggering all kinds of red flags for me. Aside from that, I'm worried for her to be making such a big decision when she's still so young and hasn't known this guy long.

I don't know how to express these concerns. We've only met a handful of times, even though I've been dating her brother for over two, years because flights are expensive and the family rarely leave their region, let alone the state. Neither of us have met R. She and BF have never gotten along that well (she's a few years younger and has always been spoiled by her parents as "the baby girl" so she can be a serious brat) and while she's always been friendly towards me, we're not exactly close. When I raised my concerns to BF, he confided in me that he also finds the situation disturbing because there was a previous incident when she was in high school where a male teacher took her out on what was touted as a school-related outing but turned out to be a dinner date. (She left when he tried to hold her hand.)

BF's also worried but his proposed solution is to send her self-help books anonymously. If we talk to her directly, she'll never forgive or forget. I think we should try to raise it with the parents, just in a "big brother worried about his sister marrying someone he hasn't met" kind of way. They were married when they were 19 so they probably don't see it the same way we do.

My real worry, aside from R possibly being abusive (which is a huge stretch, I admit), is that she's going to make these huge life decisions before she's even graduated and wind up married with a couple of kids by the time she's 25 and never do anything else. I don't think marriage and babies is the end of the world but it would tie her to that small town forever before she's really seen anything outside it.

Sars, what do I do? Should I hold my tongue, mind my own business and recognize that she's an adult and can make her own life choices? Or should we try to stop this thing before it gets too far gone?

Wondering if I've just seen too many Lifetime movies

Dear Wondering,

Hold your tongue, mind your own business, and recognize that she's an adult and can make her own life choices. It's sweet of you and BF to worry about her, but R is not evidently abusive — you admit yourself that that's a stretch — and I assume that if you'd found incontrovertible nosy-Google evidence that he's flim-flamming Sister somehow, you'd have mentioned it. He's neither; he's just kinda hinky, and it's not that you should ignore your instincts about slightly too intense and/or controlling dudes like him. It's that it's not your instincts that count here, and I think you tend to discount Sister's because she hasn't lived much yet, or lived in a city, or gone much of anywhere. At Sister's age, I'd lived in New York, I'd gone to Italy, I had a university degree, and I was still a fucking moron about almost everything except Edith Wharton and gelato. Ain't much changed, either. I've picked up some light plumbing and I know the difference between "true friend" and "just needs my car," but living in a city for two decades hasn't equipped me better than anyone for anything except living in that city. And nobody's got more provincial assholes than Brooklyn, believe it.

I get what you're saying, and I know you don't mean to be condescending, but emotional sophistication isn't entirely dependent on experience or environment, is one thing. Another thing is that, yeah, if she's wanting to see the wider world or live in a faster-paced place, Sister's small and selective life and way of doing things is going to leave her somewhat unprepared for certain things — but not everyone "needs" that. It isn't required. In theory, she "should" learn to live in the world more separate from Mom, but on the other hand…why, again? They're close; why not? Seeing and interacting with other cultures and places is great; so is blooming where you're planted.

The last thing is that there's no telling anybody anything anyway. BF should definitely download from his parents what they think of R over a bottle of wine or some tea, but as far as trying to split them up or slow things down? No. Don't send any self-help books; don't start any conversations about how doesn't she think maybe it's too soon/she's too young/she needs to see more of the world. Maybe it is/she is/she does. Maybe it's fine and R just comes off poorly at first. Maybe it's not fine, but remember, when Professor Skeezo tried to get on her, she was like, nope!, and split. Give her some credit.

You don't have to like R, or pretend you do; you're allowed to think Sister's making a mistake. But she's allowed to make mistakes, and what's a mistake for you might not be for her.

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  • Jennifer says:

    "but remember, when Professor Skeezo tried to get on her, she was like, nope!, and split. Give her some credit" This, to me, is the key point. It seems like she does, in fact, have good instincts–when she was younger than she is now, a situation turned out not to be what she thought it was, she recognized it and removed herself.

    Also, you say that her parents might not think it's the big deal you do because they got married at 19. But…they got married at 19. And had at least two kids, one of whom you seem to like a whole lot. So there's no reason why Sister, who seems to be a lot like her mom, wouldn't look at her parents' (presumably) happy lives and be like, right on. I mean, my friend's parents got engaged after knowing each other for four months, and here they are 30 years later with three awesome children. Different strokes, you know?

  • Maria says:

    Doesn't sound like the sister or her mother have problems with the guy, so leave it alone. All you've really got is you think he's moving too fast. Are they even engaged? By that I mean ring, set the date, book the venue, etc.? Relax, it may not even happen. If they are engaged, well, then maybe you are wrong. You haven't even seen them together in person.

    I also think you have to ask yourself if you are coming up with issues because you have dated her brother for years now, and is there anything about that which is influencing your thoughts.

    I think overestimating Facebook posts is the root here, and you need to step away.

  • Jenny says:

    Yeah, I'd step away. She's 22, not 17. I think

    I think we all judge other people somewhat on what we want from life. I wanted to move away from my hometown and I've always kind of felt superior to those that stuck around. And I'm happy with my choices, but as the years go by I realize that they have things that I don't yet—husbands and families. I would change my life, but I don't think they are wrong either.

  • JC says:

    This is what jumped out at me:

    "In photos he just looks like a creeper."

    This may have been just an attempt at levity, but if it's not, it's more than a little judgy. I mean, in these creepy photos, is he filthy and holding child pornography in his hands? One of the sweetest people I know can default to a surprisingly hard and angry-looking face when she's lost in thought. Don't judge a book by its cover and all that.

    And as Sars said, getting married young =/= death of the soul or becoming a hopeless rube. My parents married when they were 18 and 20 years old and have no regrets.

  • M says:

    In some churches, short dating periods followed by short engagements are encouraged, to avoid pre-marital sex and temptation. An old high school acquaintance was engaged after 2 and half weeks and married less than 3 months after that and her church lauded that speed.
    I use this to point out that the sister may be following her faith culture's standards. Learning about her beliefs can help in dealing with and understanding her.

    It does sound like your BF and his sister don't have an adult relationship, so trying to get rid of carryovers from childhood would be a good effort on his part.
    You and Bf could invite her to visit where you live. Not to change her, but to hopefully have fun and get to know each other.

  • heatherkay says:

    If they're very religious, the only way they can have sex is to get married. This, of course, leads to some very problematic marrying young, but how long do they need wait for that?

  • Beth C. says:

    I agree with Sars 100%. I think it is a great idea for BF to have a major download with Parents about how they feel about him, because even if he is a high-grade charmer who's halfway up mama's butt you'll still get a more well-rounded picture than going only on out-of-context facebook activity. If something still feels off, and if he's close enough to one of her friends, he could do the whole "OK, I know this is going to sound very 'overprotective big brother' but I haven't had a chance to meet this guy and he's talking about marrying my sis, can you tell me a bit about this dude?" Keep it light, and if it comes back to her he just lets her know he just wants to know she's happy.

    As for the sheltered thing, from what you've said it really does sound like she has a pretty good head on her shoulders overall, so I wouldn't worry too much there. If she hasn't ever expressed any interest in leaving Hometown there's no reason to think settling down with this guy and keeping to her own bubble is a bad thing in and of itself. Different strokes and all that. The only this that would give me pause is if she HAD been talking about wanting to explore and get out of Hometown blah blah and that talk suddenly stopped the once this dude came into the picture. That might be a bit of a flag, but even then, sometimes people's priorities change so all by itself while it would give me pause it still wouldn't be a major thing.

  • goreedgo says:

    I work in the domestic violence movement, and from that perspective I see that many people tend to ignore these 'creepy' feelings because they are a 'stretch' or 'unfair' but also because it's hard to know what to do about them. Here are some options:

    -Research this guy, look for a criminal record, have boyfriend ask his friends from that town if they've ever heard of this guy, talk to his exes if you can. If he's been abusive in the past, there may be some record. Often, there are people who know details about a scary guy but they don't say anything unless asked. If you don't find anything bad, you can feel less worried. If you do find something sketchy you're not required to share this info with the sister, but at least you'll be more prepared if he starts being aggressive or creepy.

    -At the same time, be very supportive of her and her life choices. Make it clear that you respect her autonomy and that your only wish is that she ends up happy. This will make it so much more likely that she will reach out to you if she ever needs help.

    -As Sars pointed out, you have no evidence this guy is abusive. If he does become abusive in the future, keep in mind that anyone, not just a victim of abuse, can call a domestic violence hotline or program to talk about their concerns and get advice.

    -An early sign of abuse is the abused person withdrawing from friends and family. If this starts happening, reach out and do your best to stay connected. Make it clear that you are family and are always available to talk and will never hold her absence or silence against her.

  • Kathryn says:

    I second the suggestion to NOT send an anonymous shipment of self-help books. I'm pretty sure I don't know anyone, myself included, who would receive a self-help book from persons unknown and think, "This must have come from someone with my best interests at heart. I should read this and apply the lessons therein to my daily life." No, they'd think it's a passive-aggressive move from someone who doesn't want to say anything face-to-face. THEN they'd ask everyone they know to fess up, the truth would more than likely come out, you'd have the population of a small town annoyed with you for stirring up trouble, and any lessons from the book would be lost. You've go excellent intentions, but I think you should just make sure Sis knows you've got her back, and let her make her own choices.

  • Jen S. 2.0 says:

    Agree with others; mind your own business.

    What she seems to be choosing to do with her life isn't what others choose to do with theirs, but that doesn't make it wrong or invalid. That is especially true because she is CHOOSING it. If she wanted to move to Ibiza and party all night, she could, but clearly that isn't her thing, and her life is not less valuable for not having done that.

    Yes, I also find her life as you describe it to be pretty lukewarm, and no, her world doesn't sound very big. But, again, not wrong, not bad on its merits, not my life, not my problem.

    Moreover, it's not **A** problem at all to stay home and get married young. Millions have done it and survived. Indeed, millions have more have done it and realized it wasn't the best decision, but that's not a death sentence. They then have the choice to change it or to live with it; they likely wouldn't have listened to anyone who tried to stop them.

    I also have had to learn that I don't have to think my friends' boyfriends / fiances / husbands are wonderful, and I don't have to love them. I don't even have to like them. They aren't my men; that's why they're with someone else in the first place. All I have to do is like how my friend feels about her man. If she is happy, my job is to be happy for her, not to insist on showing her other ways she could be happy that are more to my taste.

  • Sean says:

    Sars nailed it.

    I would add that the only thing overlooked is the religious aspect. Sister is religious. Letter writer says that she is not. Sister met R through her church, so I'd presume that he has similar beliefs to sister. This strikes me not just as city vs. rural, worldy vs. sheltered but also about secular vs. religious in terms of being a judgmental know-it-all (letter writer).

    For people who are religious, marrying at 22 or 23 or whatever to get on with the business of sanctifying the relationship in the church and/or having kids is serious business. Dating a few months and then talking about getting married is not "fast-tracking" the relationship if you believe that the entire point of dating is specifically to find someone to marry, not to have fun or find yourself in your 20s. And the fact that they aren't married yet and realize that sister should graduate first suggests a level of maturity and understanding about how much God or Jesus is involved here (namely: not expecting Jesus to pay the bills).

    Yes, people who marry younger are more likely to divorce. But so are people who have financial issues or conflicts over money. And so are people who marry someone with religious or spiritual beliefs that are very different from their own too.

  • Jen says:

    It seems like your worried that she's been in a tightly-controlled environment, and here comes a boyfriend who seems controlling (i.e. moving too fast, getting too familiar), and your remedy is…for her not-really-even-a-sister-in-law whom she barely knows to tell her how to live her life?

    Which is kinda…controlling?

    Also, are you really implying that people who marry and have a couple of kids by 25 will "never do anything else"?

    I think you need a little perspective here, which Sars provides nicely.

  • Jenn says:

    The fact that they met at church gives me a different view of R's behavior. I've been in church my whole life and went to a Christian college. Dating in those circles is very different from in other circles. It's not uncommon for a couple to move very quickly. (Look at it this way: If you've been raised to believe that you need to wait until you're married to have sex, you're not going to want to wait too long to get married.) A friend of mine got engaged at 22 after barely dating the guy for a few weeks. I even said when I found out she was engaged, "Wow, that was fast."

    I agree with everyone else: Trust that Sister will listen to her instincts. If she starts feeling like this isn't right, she'll do something. If she doesn't, then maybe it's right for her.

    (By the way, my friend didn't get married. I don't know what happened, but I'm secretly relieved.)

  • S says:

    OR…he could be a Narcissist.

    Narcissists tend to move very fast in relationships…everything seems just so perfect and you have so much in common…because they are just mirroring what you like back to you.

    His employment situation (steady, or fired alot because they are all stupid!), past relationships (why do you have 10 "crazy" ex's?) can be clues.

    The teacher incident may indicate that others see her as an easy mark.

  • Amanduh says:

    I was with the letter writer until she said, "The real worry is [that Sis will not do the things that I think are important to be truly fulfilled]". I'm not ripping on you, LW. I have a few friends and relatives who decided to marry right after high school, have babies and never leave our small town, and I am horrified at the thought of living that way…but it makes THEM happy. And it's THEIR lives, so I've had to learn to accept it graciously.

    Is there any way at all that the LW and BF can make a visit in the next few months, ostensibly to see the family, but mainly to meet R? R's behavior does feel mildly creepy, and at least one family member who's met him finds him weird. However, if it were me, I would want to make sure that he's genuinely creepy, and not that I'm seizing on possible creepiness to help justify feelings that Sis should forego early marriage and live my lifestyle. R could just be a socially-awkward guy who has a poor relationship with his own parents, and loves feeling like a part of Sis's family.

  • D says:

    I say this as the big sister who did leave and saw lots of things and got out of the family web, but Sars is bang-on. There's a touch of elitism against small town life in the letter that would not escape a conversation with her; that tone more than the content of the advice is what would come through. And as tone goes, if you judged my BIL by his Facebook demeanour you would think he was a Neanderthal who found a computer by accident and not a perfectly nice, hard-working husband and father. Let this one lie.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Yep, going with Sars here. It's a lot tougher (I have found, to my chagrin) then we think to not be judgy about a person's choices when they radically differ from our own, but aren't immoral/illegal. Just not what we'd pick.

    And the reason it's tough is that when you (general you, not just the letter writer)run into someone who's pretty much like you–same general socioeconomic status, sexual preference, age group, etc., and that person picks a life choice that's completely the opposite of what you would, it makes you question not their choices, but your own. Am I really cool with not being married? How fulfilling was moving to the city, in the long run? Is my career what I hoped it would be?

    This doesn't mean that you should doubt every aspect of your own life or throw everything up and move home to work at the DQ, just keep in mind that the uncomfortableness might rise from your own dissatisfaction.

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    Dear Wondering,

    Yes, you've seen too many Lifetime movies! And you're over-analyzing–are there really any problems here?

    Lived all her life with parents in a small rural town? Check out the rental options in small rural towns, they aren't always that great.

    Took until last year to find a career she likes and is now employed at same place as Mom? Great! Odds are really good the world will never run out of sick and elderly people.

    Only had a few brief relationships. She's 22, how many of us had more then a few, either brief or long-term by that age?

    Studied with Mom? Awesome! From what I understand nursing school is pretty tough and she had a built-in study buddy for exams and state boards.

    Never traveled outside the country. Again, only 22! Hell, I've only ever been to Canada (besides the US) but I've been to 47 of the 50 states and I'm pretty sure at some point we drove through Washington D.C. on a trip . . . And if they get married and she has kids by 23–the kids will be gone when she's in her mid 40s and they can travel at that time.

    She's very religious and dates a guy she met at church. OK, she lives in a small, rural town and is a nurse at a retirement home. Where's she going to meet a potential mate? The hardware store? The retirement home? Church?

    She's only 22 and he's a few years older. So he's 25ish? That doesn't seem like a big difference.

    BF has friended her mom on FB after only 2 weeks of dating, calls her Mama and sent her flowers for Mother's Day. Eh, fast but "Mama" has the option of refusing friend requests and saying FYI, I go by NAME. And maybe they knew each other for quite awhile before starting to date.

    He's fast tracking marriage and babies. If it's just him, then yes, this might be a concern. But if Sis has the same ambitions and wants to start young, that's their business.

    In photos he looks like a creeper. Hmmm, well, he's probably in the same club I belong to: The International Society of Plain People who Photograph Badly. I'm also a member of the sub-group: Plain People who Normally Photograph Badly Yet have Fabulous Drivers License Photos.

    I get that you're worried but you admit you've only met her a few times and neither you nor your boyfriend have ever met her boyfriend. If it makes you feel better, do what other folks have suggested and snoop around to see what you can find out. Or better yet, email, text or write her and congratulate her on all the interesting things in her life, and if a trip to your BF's hometown isn't in the near future, see if she'd like to introduce you to her BF via Skype or some other technological communication thingy. She's 22 and from your description, she seems pretty together.

  • MizShrew says:

    I think Sars and others are right on with leaving this one alone. I'd just like to add from personal experience that sending self-help books will only make her resent you (when she discovers it's you, and she will.) My MIL used to sneak religious tomes into my luggage when we'd visit — I'd discover them when we got home. Then she started mailing them, and then leaving them in our house when she visited. Made me angry, was a waste of her money, and I did not read them. It just confirmed that she was/is judgmental about my beliefs (and lack of a specific religion, but that's another story.)

    Religious books, self-help books, exercise guides, whatever: Sent unsolicited, they all send the message, "you need to change to be acceptable to me." Not cool. Don't do it.

  • Jane says:

    If they're talking about marrying in April, it sounds they'll be together for pretty much a year come the wedding. That's not exactly lightning-fast.

  • Paula says:

    Yeah, I think "back off" is the thing to do. Maybe she's horrified by your dating-not-marrying big-city lifestyle!!

    And knows what she wants to do job-wise at 22? I still don't know, and I'm 37!!!

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    Wondering, I want to add that it's a brave and thoughtful act to bring your question to Sars and the nation. As others have mentioned around past posts, this is a group that tends to skip any sugar coating on opinions and advice. You're worried about someone and want what's best for them, and in my opinion, that makes you darned good people. Check back in with us when you've had a chance to meet the BF and talk with the Sis about how her life is going. I'm pulling for you and for the Sis that everyone ends up happy, even if the lifestyles are polar opposites.

  • Sarahnova says:

    @S: Huh? Well, sure, he might be bad news. So might anyone. Without stronger evidence, speculation is useless, especially since the LW doesn't even really know this girl, and has never met the dude in question. And one experience with a sketchy dude does not an 'easy mark' make; most people have had multiple such experiences by the time they're 22 or so.

    Wondering: the bit that jumped out at me was indeed the bit with the teacher. When she got into an iffy situation before, she handled it – handled it better than many her age would've, in fact. You say she's sheltered and you're worried she might be easily controlled, and you plan to remedy that by… telling her what's right for her, some more? If she is indeed sheltered or naive, she will only learn not to be that way through experiencing the consequences. Your intentions are good, but I'd honestly ask yourself: what are you getting out of investing yourself in this situation? A way to bond with Boyfriend? Someone to use as a "well, at least my life isn't like that" benchmark? Validation of your self-image as Someone Nice Who Cares? I don't know; I'm not accusing you of anything. But unless and until you see specific things that worry you, this is one for you to work through yourself.

    If you do see those things – well, it's still important to respect her autonomy, lest you make things worse. Be friendly with her, keep your eyes peeled, but keep quiet too, for now.

  • Megan says:

    Just for the record, I support your concern, Wondering. Not about the guy, since I don't have enough information to go on. But because I believe that choosing a life after exposure to many options is better than choosing a life after exposure to few options. She might know herself to be a small town person, or there might be options that would give her more satisfaction that she doesn't know enough about to consider.

    Your boyfriend has very little sway in this and your influence is even more attenuated. I would say that if you want to do anything, invite her for a weekend and show her at least one more way she could live a life (look! your church is here too!). If it appeals to her strongly enough, she'll take action. But I think that's about the most influential thing you can practically do. The rest? People just have to live out their choices.

  • Jo says:

    Leave it alone for now. As you said, you don't know her well. If your bf is really concerned, he should talk to his parents, but I think you should stay out of it.

    The guy could be bad news, and she could wind up a 24-year-old divorcee with a kid who regrets being dumb and sheltered at 22.

    Or, he could be just a weird guy and in 40 years, they'll be someone's "friend's parents who got engaged at 22 after knowing each other a few months and now have 4 decades of happy marriage."

    Or they'll have an OK marriage, and in 20 years, she'll realize how sheltered she's been and after the kids go to college, she'll ask for a separation and move to Spain.

    The fact that the guy's religious sticks out to me. I knew a lot of evangelical Christians when I was growing up in a small conservative town, and a lot of them got married very young. I have two friends who got married at 17 — one to a guy who was 23 at the time — and both are still married now at 33 (one with 8 planned children). Sometimes in strict religions, relationships move fast because 1) women feel rushed to start having kids and 2) If you can't have sex until marriage and you think you're with the person you want to have sex with, you want to rush the marriage. If this is a young religious guy raised by religious parents who got married young after a short courtship, he might not know any better. (I'm a little weirded out by his relationship with Mom, but mom is a grownup who could stop it if she feels weird. And I'm reminded that my prom date, who I wasn't going to date beyond prom, brought my mom flowers because prom was the day before Mother's Day. It was sweet).

    Also, not every fast relationship is bad. My parents moved in together the day they met, got married a year or so later, and have been married 38 years, very happily.

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