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Carolyn Hax: Single mom’s boyfriend is (too) okay with how busy she is

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: My ex and I divorced when we had a toddler and an infant (do not recommend). I began dating “Ben” about five years later, and we have been together now for almost three years.

After all the horror stories I heard about what it would be like to try to find love as a single mom, I thought I had REALLY lucked out with Ben. He has never been competitive for my time. He understands how busy I am as a mom and has always been fine with the fact that our quality time together has to happen once a week when the kids are with their dad. He is nice to the kids but has never tried to step on our toes as parents. I thought all of that was the dream.

So this year, I brought up the idea of moving in together and/or getting engaged. I also brought up that I would like for him to spend more focused time with me and the kids as a family.

This is when I learned that, in Ben’s words, the beauty of our relationship is that I have so much else going on and he is able to have time for himself. He doesn’t see himself as a stepparent and has no intention of being one. He did say he would love to move in together once I have an empty nest … but that’s 11 years away (at soonest).

I don’t know what to do. I love this man. But I have basically just been told that what he loves about me is that I don’t have time to demand too much from him and that he doesn’t have room in his life for my children. Is it possible for a single mom to have a solid, serious relationship that does not compete with motherhood, but also has room to grow?

— Bubble, Burst

Bubble, Burst: That’s not the question I expected.

The answer to the question you asked is, of course it’s “possible.” There are 8-ish billion people on earth and so far you have dated (and step-paternally struck out) with only one of them.

The question I expected was more of a what-do-I-do-about-Ben? thing. Because that’s a fascinating one, and not obvious from any angle I can see.

Unless you couldn’t accept his terms and already broke up without regrets. That would be kind of obvious.

Otherwise, from my position of safe detachment, I’m not as alarmed by what Ben said, and even see some beauty in it. Peeking out from the wreckage.

The glaring issue is that you two were able to be together romantically while conceptually so far apart for so long. Who wasn’t talking to whom? Who wasn’t listening? Who was wishfully thinking the hardest? Was anyone misled on purpose?

These are not small concerns. If you’re still with Ben by the time I’ve received, read, mulled, responded to, filed and published this, then I hope you have already spent some of your quality time sorting through and solving your miscommunication.

As long as you are able to work that out, though, and no one was lying to anyone, there may be a deceptively good relationship in it for both you and Ben.

The reason for that is the relationship itself, as-is, or what it was all along and up to the point of Ben’s bomb-drop. You were both really happy with it. Such loving compatibility is a bit of pretty-greatness that I fear you’re not giving due credit. Think about it: You’re upset you and Ben don’t share the same vision of what your togetherness could be. Which means, by definition, your disagreement is over something that wasn’t yet and may never have become real. At least find out whether changing your envisioned future changes what you have in the present.

Plans do affect how we feel about now. But the starting point is the extension of what we have — basing retirement savings on current spending, for example. So maybe both of you, in each other, can look forward to a partner who keeps meeting your emotional needs — and keeps leaving you enough room for yourself.

Who’s to say: 1. That won’t hold true when your kids are grown, in evolving form? 2. That he’s the only one who benefits from your airy arrangement?

And who’s to say, on the negative-projection side, that you’ll still like Ben as much if you don’t give each other this space?

Believe it or not, I tucked into this answer with thoughts of alt-romance. You and Ben came across to me as a couple who stumbled on a nontraditional arrangement that elevates you both. Then I wrote my way into a treatise on embracing cynicism as your matchmaker.

Plus, I don’t have room to what-if the possibility of adult boomerang kids in your someday shared home with Ben.

But even if Ben’s not the guy, I still think there’s a really good question here: Is moving in and co-raising children the only measure of “solid, serious” growth potential there is?

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