Q: Last May I proposed to my boyfriend, and while he didn't turn me down, he couldn't say yes, either.
We are both in our late 30s, met in college, and reconnected a year and a half ago and started dating. I've been out as a gay man for most of my adulthood, and while he has been out to his parents and closest friends for a few years now, he'd never been with another man—or in any relationship—before me. This hasn't caused any problems one-on-one; I've been pleasantly surprised at how naturally and organically our relationship has evolved. We are passionate about each other on every level.
There is one sticking point, and I believe this is why he can't say yes to my proposal: He is very apprehensive about being seen as a same-sex couple to the outside world.
His coworkers and extended family do not know that he is gay, and I never accompany him to his work events. He dislikes me posting photos of us together on Facebook, and he refuses to add them to his own timeline. He doesn't introduce me as his boyfriend to people we meet, and he recoils at any public displays of affection. I am friendly with his parents, but he forbids any physical contact between us in their presence. These are not deal-breakers, but it does disappoint me.
Besides his apprehension about being out -- a challenge for any gay person in the beginning -- he is a naturally shy and very private person. We've talked about it, and he reminds me that he's come a very long way in a short amount of time, and that he's come out to the people who matter to him most. All true. Nonetheless, I don't think that if he were in a straight relationship, he would be nearly as guarded.
He assures me that I'm "the one" for him. But being engaged, and eventually married, is a very public declaration of his sexual orientation, and it makes him extremely nervous. The idea of a wedding where we state our love for each other in front of others gives him tremendous stress. In contrast, I love him so much that I want to shout it to the world. I want to have a ceremony with our friends and family present. And I want that kiss after we exchange our vows.
He has assured me that his hangups are not an indication that he is ashamed of me, but that he is adjusting to the idea of being in a relationship with any man. I am mostly understanding, but there are times when I can't fathom how anyone could be so fearful about being gay and out in 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts, with both of us in professions surrounded by educated, enlightened people.
I want to give this time, as his comfort level could continue to evolve, but I'm not sure how long is reasonable to wait. I am not looking to wave a rainbow flag wherever we go, but I do want to get to a point where being seen as a couple is no big deal, and nothing to conceal to anyone.
In case you're wondering, he has zero interest in dating others or "sowing his oats" -- I asked him several times early on, before things got serious. It seems the problem is purely about his comfort with acknowledging that he's gay in public.
I've tried to model behavior to him, where my sexual orientation is just another mundane fact that makes no difference in my daily interactions. What else can I do to help him along?
– In Love With Him, Not His Fears, Boston
A: You need to decide whether you can enjoy a relationship with someone who isn't comfortable sharing his love with the world. Because his evolution is going to be very, very slow. He's never going to be someone who posts smiley couple pictures on Facebook. I'm not convinced that he'll ever come out at work. And a wedding, if it happens, might be tiny and private. Can you live with that? Does it matter?
To me, this letter is more about you than him. It's about whether you can be happy with someone who isn't comfortable disclosing your role in his life. It's OK if the answer is yes, and you decide that you want to be with this guy no matter what, but if so, you have to make peace with his personality and accept that this relationship will be about you pushing – and him resisting -- maybe for a long time ... or forever. Because his fears are a part of the package.
As for practical advice, I recommend hanging out with that inner circle as much as possible. The more comfortable he is with them, the better he'll feel about the rest of the world. And please be clear about your needs. Use those "I" statements. He should know where you are in your own process, and you need to find out how he responds when you're the one who wants help.
Readers? Is there anything he can do to help this guy along? Should he be with someone who isn't comfortable referring to him as a partner? Should marriage be on the table? Help.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith at www.meredithgoldstein.netand on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.