Ask Helen: Taking dating issues one at a time

Dear Helen:

My son went through high school without a single date. He’s a good kid, a geek and never needed much from his peers. Now in his second year of college he’s been dating the same girl for more than a year. She’s lovely, and they’re both 4.0 pre-meds. He seems so happy with her, and, I am pretty sure, no longer the only virgin he knows. But I want him to have more experiences in life. We have no problem with her visiting and sleeping over, but her parents, who live two hours away, are very (I think overly) protective. We’ve never met them, but she talks about them in the careful way my students use when there’s family dysfunction. I just got a post-holiday gift basket with a note saying, “We hope our daughter has her own room when she stays in your home.” How should I reply?


Dear Gifted:

You have two interlocking issues. Your son seems to be making up for lost time very nicely. Relationships between college kids may seem serious, but if they’re both aimed toward med school, the chances that they’ll stay together are pretty slim. As long as he seems happy, let life take its course.

As for the parent, reply: “Dear Mr./Mrs. (name): Thanks for the delicious gift box. How kind of you. We’ve enjoyed getting to know (daughter’s name). She is a lovely person. I’m sure we’ll meet if they continue to date. When she visits us she’s treated like an honored guest.”

That shows you’re supportive of the relationship, without disclosing enough to start a fight. Their presumed dysfunction isn’t your problem to solve.

Dear Helen:

I’ve been single for several years. I’d been in a serious relationship that fell apart when I realized my partner had been self-medicating a serious depression for a long time. It’s not that he didn’t talk about his problems. In fact, that’s mostly what he talked about. But he was secretly drinking and taking pills at a rate that would have felled a lesser man. I tried to get him to go into counseling, rehab or a 12-step program, all of which he refused. So I ended the relationship.

Now I have started dating someone new, and I am seeing symptoms that scare me, but I cannot tell if I’m just suspicious because of my prior experience. We agreed not to dissect our pasts in the first three months. Should I say something now, wait or … ?

Once Burned

Dear Burned:

There’s a difference between not talking about exes or why previous relationships fell apart and not talking about something that would be an immediate deal-killer to how the two of you are relating now. Even business contracts have cancellation clauses, so it’s not like you must stay in this relationship for the full three months before having a discussion about medical or substance-abuse issues. You have a choice about relaying how your relationship history touches these topics, but do not wait to bring up the subject.

I’d start with something such as: “I’ve noticed that I respond with concern, apprehension and curiosity when I see you do x, y, z. (Notice so far this is phrased in “I” statements, as most counselors suggest.) Are these issues you’ll discuss? Am I misreading something?” Then see how he responds and how you respond to how he speaks and acts. The bottom line on this and any relationship is always good communication over troublesome topics, no matter how well you enjoy the good times. No one deserves to have the shadow of an ex looming over their future happiness. You or him.

A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen is a member of Temple Beth Israel, where she studies and speaks on Torah. She claims to have black belts in schmoozing, problem solving and chutzpah. She’s a writer and an artist ( Please email your questions to

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