My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer


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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help :)



Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

9 thoughts on “My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer”

  1. Hello-
    I know this post is a few years old but last year my boyfriend’s mother passed away from cancer and I searched desperately for advice from others as to what I should expect and prepare for. I spent the better half of my senior year of highschool very depressed because of how much stress I had due to this situation, and feel it is my duty to pass on what I know now to others who might be going through this. You are not alone, your feelings matter, and everything is going to be okay. I can’t tell you exacts as to how the grieving process works, or if it’s even relevant to everyone, and I know I don’t know you or your boyfriend personally so I can’t tell you what is going to happen, but the best thing you can do for him and yourself is to trust that it will get better someday. For me at least, not that I didn’t love my boyfriend’s mom, I was more upset for the fact that my boyfriend and his family would have to live life without their mother, rather than the fact that she passed away. I believe that she is in Heaven, fully healed, and at peace now, and the only thing to be sad about is how much they miss having her in their lives. It breaks my heart that he doesn’t have her around anymore, but life does go on. I was very worried that this major life event would cause us to break up, and although it does happen in some situations, it did not happen in mine. Just because your boyfriend’s mom is dying does not mean that the world has ended, but it does mean that you may need to give him space, time to spend with her, and to be patient with his grieving process. My boyfriend’s way of grieving is being very matter of fact about the situation- hardly ever becoming emotional in front of me (I would consider myself the closest person in his life), or seemingly in private as well. He occasionally has sleepless nights and pent up emotions, but overall his grieving process seems unorthodox and causes worry to those who don’t know him well. The best thing you can do is be there for him. Do not pressure him to stay with you if he thinks breaking up is best for him, do not pressure him into grieving a different way than he is, and make sure that he knows he is loved, and that you are there for him if he needs anything.
    Aside from that, people will probably go to you to ask about him, so be prepared for that, even if you are still grieving as well. Many people will feel awkward around him, so you are (likely) the easiest way to get information. Another thing to be prepared for is the uncomfortable situations you might have with your boyfriend, for example, when we were shopping and someone suggested he buy perfume for mothers day. There will be random moments that bring the pain back, there will be people who don’t know about the situation, and people who don’t know how to act in a situation like this. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone really knows how to act or what to expect in these situations, but I do know that life goes on, and it gets better.

  2. Hi I know it’s been awhile but, I’m going through the same thing as G. Just the role are reversed. My gf’s mom has breast cancer, and she just doesn’t have the time to be in a relationship.

    Anychance of G getting in touch and asking how she got on with the situation?

    Kind Regards


  3. I’m quite thoroughly with Cary on this one. As long as the LW wants to stick with this guy, she should do so, but without expectations. Do her best to be the kind of friend she would want in the same situation. Once the crisis is over, the relationship may work out, or it may not. But that was always the possibility. “Be a good person”, most especially to someone you care for. It’s the best one can do.

  4. I think everything depends on what the truth is. And we don’t know, regardless of LW’s descriptions because people often deceive themselves in hopes for a different scenario than the one they fear. I agree with “butitsnotfair” that there is cause for mourning the loss of what might have been. I think the wisest course is friendship at this point. Sexual love and the tremendous amount of oxytocin (the “bonding hormone”) it produces, will create too much need and longing for LW to be the kind of friend required. In asking “how can I…” LW is really saying “I want…” Now is not the time to need/want anything from the man and that may not be possible for LW. If not, it’s time to practice letting go and put some distance between them.

  5. I agree with the above comment by butit’snotfair. I think this man is being selfish. Something about the make love all night – but be annoyed and distant in the morning – was profoundly not right.

    Having a close relative with a terminal illness is indeed sad, but it should not turn one into a selfish exploiter of others. It also struck me that the story of his mother’s illness might even be something contrived – has the non-girlfriend actually met his mother and family – most probably not.

    LW, I think this man is just not into you, and I think you should make no more plans to see him. If he reaches out to you, then you might meet on a light note as friends, but make it clear that there is no sex on offer. As there is no relationship, you cannot be involved physically. Otherwise, you are just a booty call.

    Look for someone else, who will respond in an appropriate was to your generosity and compassion.

    1. People are not simple repositories of ideology. Men are flawed human beings just like women. Sex is often a source of profound comfort (i.e. the all-night lovemaking). Feeling confused and upset that you had perhaps violated the new boundaries afterwards when the real world (i.e. dying mother) intrudes the following morning are also understandable. The man’s mother is dying, the new relationship was slowly developing, but was understandably steamrolled by real life. None of this makes him a “selfish exploiter”. In fact, he was open about what he could give her at this point in time post diagnosis. He gave in to their mutual attraction and then regretted, all perfectly human. She does not have a dying mother and other crashing conflicting priorities, and is in love with the guy. I say follow Cary’s advice to the letter and try to let events unfold as they will, as difficult as that is. There is nothing wrong with waiting a little while in hope if you’re in love and it doesn’t become untenable.

      1. But it is not clear that he has a “dying mother”. The description of the illness is vague: “he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.”

        According to that, the cancer might or might not respond to treatment. There is something slightly unreal about it, to me.

        1. Yeah, but when someone says “cancer”, it’s like the Grim Reaper just swept by, scythe in hand. Whatever the mother’s actual chances, her son’s obviously freaking out. Btw, that phrasing of her condition sounds pretty damn bad and possibly untreatable to me.

  6. While I may despise it, I know Cary is right. But damn, someone should mourn with this poor woman the relationship she had and now does not. It is true, she doesn’t have it anymore and I, for one, am deeply impressed by her selflessness and caring nature.

    When I read that he seemed annoyed the next morning, I felt very angry for her. He may be losing his mother, but that is not license to give no thought to her feelings.

    I think you are wrong this time, and I say this as someone with a probable personality disorder, but also as someone who thinks you have to set boundaries in order to keep others treating you with respect. I agree he deserves patience and understanding. However, I do not agree with your idea that she should not expect common decency and/or thoughtfulness on his part.

    I feel as if he is being selfish.

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