Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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OCTOBER 24, 2012 9:25AM

It's not always easy to set someone free

Rate: 27 Flag


They say if you love someone, set them free.  Growing up with two loving but controlling parents, often, to be set free was all I wanted.  I wanted out of obligations, I wanted to be able to go out of state for college, and out of the country to explore.  Breaking free wasn’t always easy –it involved things like surreptitiously searching for my passport, which my over-protective mother had hidden in her room, or trying to explain to my family-tradition-oriented dad that I had finals and couldn’t come out to New Jersey to attend the wedding anniversary of my step-mom’s second cousin. 

I resolved to live my own life with as few demands on others as possible.  My best, longest-lasting friendships are with likeminded people.  I couldn’t imagine having a friend I was expected to see on a regular basis.  I don’t do well with pals who expect me to arrive on time for an informal get-together.

In a romantic relationship, things are, by nature, a little different.  For one thing, the boyfriend and I are monogamous, so that’s a commitment – though not one I feel bad about keeping.  For another, we live together, which means that in order for things to run smoothly, chores must be done, projects like the remodeling we’re currently wading into have to be undertaken.  And then of course there’s the plan to have kids, which will bring on a whole other level of responsibility.

But besides those foundations, the rest of the time, the boyfriend and I don’t make too many demands on each other.  Often, we’re happy to sit on the couch together, each doing separate things.  When we go out to see friends, it’s usually not together.  Even our passions are individual affairs: I write, and he either plays video games or sews uniforms and accessories for Napoleonic battle reenactments, where audiences aren’t welcome (though the major bicentennial reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, scheduled for 2015, will be an exception). 

Life is good for our individualistic duo.  When one of us wants to go somewhere, be it to the movies, or on a trip, if the other one doesn’t, the general solution is for the person hankering to do the activity, to do it on his or her own.  This past weekend, for example, after watching “The Bourne Legacy” and finding it dreadful, I bowed out of a screening of “Taken 2”, and headed home, while the boyfriend stayed at the Cineplex.

But low-level obligation friendships and relationships do have their disadvantages. There are the moments when you feel inadvertently hurt, or lonely.  Usually, I can shrug off these things.  But something that’s happened recently has thrown my way of life into question.

For years, I’ve dreamt of having one of my siblings come to visit me.  So when my brother called a few months ago to tell me he and his girlfriend were coming to Paris, and also wanted to see some other European locales, I was thrilled beyond words. 

We started planning the things we’d do in Paris, and organizing a trip to these other places.  My brother, his girlfriend, and I, were getting more and more excited.  They’ll be coming at the end of March, but already we've been picking cheap-but-charming Italian hotels, and figuring out which museums to pre-order tickets for. 

In the back of my mind, there was one little troubling thought, though: The boyfriend doesn’t really like to travel, and isn’t a huge fan of Italy, where we’d be spending two weeks. The more I brought up these plans, the more I could feel his stress and unhappiness. I realized that, excited as the rest of us were about the trip, the boyfriend would only be coming because he felt obligated.    

Though I know him well, I still felt shocked and hurt by his reaction.  He’s supposed to love me, and likes my brother and his girlfriend.  He isn’t a huge fan of Italy, but we’d be going to some places he’s dreamt of visiting, like the ruins of Pompeii.  Why wouldn’t he want to come along? 

Another part of me felt panic.  My brother and his girlfriend have never travelled in a foreign country before.  While I can get by in Italian, and while I’ve been to Italy enough times to basically get around without any issues, it would be nice to have someone like my boyfriend, a European citizen, fluent Italian speaker, and much more level-headed train-ticket-buyer, around.  There's also the communication issue: The trip involves a lot of travel to different sites and cities, so I'll have to pack light, and won't be taking my laptop. I'm also not sure that my cheap cell phone plan will allow me to make or receive calls or texts while abroad.  It seems almost impossible to imagine we'd be able to speak to each other every day, let alone every three or four days.

I struggled with all of this.  I struggled with wondering why the prospect of spending two weeks’ vacation with me wouldn’t be irresistibly fun.  I struggled with my lack of comprehension at anyone not wanting to go to Italy.  I struggled with a lot of other things, including the more fun-loving person I wished my boyfriend could be.  But I had to let those things go.  As much as I struggled with those ideas, I was against the idea of forcing my boyfriend to come with us.  I know so well what it’s like to dread a trip you don’t want to take.  I know the anxiety, the annoyance, the desperation to get out of it.  I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way.  And so, since I love my boyfriend, I set him free.

Now I’ll be going to Italy alone with my brother and his girlfriend.  And while I’m still ecstatic about it, the idea has lost just a bit of its luster.  I won’t get to stare out at Venice's Grand Canal while holding my boyfriend’s hand. I won’t get to see his fascination as we explore Pompeii and Herculaneum and the archaeological museum in Naples.  I won’t get to fall exhaustedly but happily into bed beside him, or wake up and hold him for a while as we prepare for another day.

There’s another part of that saying, about loving someone and setting them free, a part about that person coming back to you.  Though the boyfriend will be here when I get back, he isn’t taking back his resolution not to come.  Sometimes I wish I could use guilt and obligation to make him do what I want. I'm almost certain he'd ultimately have a great time on the trip. 

I guess this is how my parents felt all those years ago, when I was trying to fly away.

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It certainly is a sticky wicket, balancing individuality and a romantic relationship. Differences in taste, arguments, and unintentionally hurt feelings can raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions. But there is this: if, despite all the headaches and squabbles, the other person still wants to be with you then you know his or her attachment to you is stronger and more reliable than if such things broke you apart. Also, bonus, clearly there's plenty of trust here because TBF isn't concerned about you running around without him in ubber-romantic Italy. Now that's trust :-)
Why don't you have him meet you when you're in Venice and avoid the rest? Just thinking out loud.
I have never been able to negotiate these issues at all well with a partner, which is why I live alone as an old man. I must say, Alysha, that you describe the ins and outs of this conundrum so well that it becomes a universal. I understand your feelings about this. I understand your boyfriend's position as well.

He is fluent in Italian and yet, dislikes Italy? How interesting.
Well, shit, come to think of it, I myself am somewhat fluent in American English and yet dislike spending time in the United States. It is entirely possible that your boyfriend dislikes Italy because he is fluent in Italian.
Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, sometimes your partner does. You didn't explicitly explain why he does not want to come, just your assumptions. If not done already, I would attempt to reason out the why and see if what's bothering him can be accommodated. Letting go is one thing, not opening up is another.
Having a one and the same I think it is the wisest decision that you travel with your brother etc. I know what a miserable experience it would be other wise. We love them but sometimes for our own sanity we have to say bye bye for a week or so.
Trust me on this one..
I think you've reached a level of wisdom and maturity that even many long-married couples don't reach.

We all have our own preferences and comfort levels, and sometimes those things are completely inexplicable, even to ourselves, let alone anyone else. People who love and trust one another can deal with the differences. Forcing someone else to conform to your idea of what's right or normal is very stultifying.

The boyfriend is lucky to have you.
How interesting to read this intimate peek into how you and your boyfriend handle life as loners/individualists together! I found myself nodding at the way you two negotiate and handle different movie likes, friends, etc. Husband and I are quite similar, and we also know each other's 'wall' -- where he'd just have to show up for me, where I just have to show up for him.
But Italy? I'm not clear if you sat down and worked out how the trip might be best for both of you first, then realized it wasn't going to work for your boyfriend or whether you said 'you don't have to go' he clear on how much his presence is wanted?
I'd have to ask my husband to go on this one, that's too big a trip to miss! so I don't know what to offer there -- but I'd make it clear to yourself how you will be thrilled at Pompeii whether he's there or not, beforehand.
(I kind of hope he comes around for this one -- he'll miss the Grand Canal! )
But I also know how not-fun it is to be jolly while a morose partner is dragging along, refusing to smile....a note on my partner, not how I assume yours would be : )
Regardless -- it sounds very fun and that you have a sibling coming to visit makes this a very exciting time!
Having traveled the length and breadth of Japan with a friend, her sister and brother-in-law (all Koreans born in China who'd legally immigrated to Japan), I can kind of understand your boyfriend's reluctance: My friend and her relations were planning to go to so many museums, castles and such that I had no desire to see, that there were days when we simply parted ways. I'd go off to a monastery in the mountains while they went shopping... I came to Japan to see Japan and wasn't interested in museums or castles. My favorite moments on that trip were the evenings when we'd sit and eat at a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop or sushi bar, drink beer and saki and talk, comparing our lives and adventures.
You'll have a wonderful time, and he'll miss you and maybe next time he'll want to go. But meanwhile you took the trip and that is important in so many ways. All your dreams of holding hands and all may never have happened.
I traveled solo in Italy and much of the world and didn't miss a hand during that time. So much to see and do. And when you come home, his hands will reach out even more, I'd guess. Enjoy!
(And guess what? We're coming back to Paris over Christmas! Hope we can share some time again.)
Didn't you go to New York on your own or was he with you? I admire you for having a relationship. It is not easy and takes lots of independence and love. Love....that is such tricky stuff.
Perfect couple-hood and perfect individuality are by definition at odds with each other. There's no way around it; they represent two distinct and exclusionary forms of being. Ultimately, perfect couple-hood is achieved only through resignation, and perfect individuality is achieved only through loneliness. Between these two poles, the middle ground is fraught with tension, struggle and a continuously shifting scrimmage line.
I have to say it again: You're so lucky to have the Internet and social media to capture all of your impressions about life abroad for posterity. I so wish I'd had these communication tools available to me when I lived in South America in the late-70s and all through the '80s. ... Just think about your happy reunion when you get back from Italy. Until then, enjoy your time with your brother and his girlfriend while traveling through Italy.
Maybe, if you leave this post sitting out, he'll see that it means more to you than he thought and he'll volunteer to go. And then you can let him off by insisting that he only go for a portion of the trip.
Another exquisite self analysis that pulls in universal themes.
I have avoided close relationships all my life, alas, til lately.
Seems people out there love me.
This means I gotta share time with them doing stuff I do NOT at all wanna do.
I am a sedentary soul, to put it ridiculously mildly.
The trip will be exquisite if you blot out your disappointment about
what might/could have been w/boyfriend along.
This simply is a non Boyfriend thing.
You live to please others , this I know. Yet you get angry when others do not go to the extreme lengths YOU do in order to placate.

Well, fuck em.
They in a sense have a superiority of ‘’finding their no” and being individualistic & independent & whatnot, all that supposedly good stuff.
But you got the adventurous spirit along with the need to please, a killer combo that others are gonna take advantage of, but…they know not what they do, Alysa…

There is still joy and wisdom in being a people-pleaser.

If yr posts are any indication!
You alone, without BF, is perhaps what you need
and maybe BF sees this need,
in his uncanny frenchfry way?
I posted a comment. It disappeared into the ether (thanks, OS). I'll try again.

I love this post. My wife and I have survived 28 years by allowing each other to do his or her own thing - separate friends and activities that only occasionally intersect. Works fine, as long as you don't need constant attention. I understand the boyfriend's resistance - two weeks is a major commitment of time. Have you suggested having him join you in Italy a few days and then letting him return to Paris? I would consider that a reasonable compromise.
get another boyfriend. replace him with three or four, in fact, so one will likely be available for any activity. consider widening your romantic range to include women, these are the best shopping companions, after all.

it's the 2st century, broaden your horizons a bit more...
Off you go, Alysa. There is the off chance you will have a really fun time. Make it a point to do so. What will you do that he doesn't like to do?

If you don't think you can, let me know and I'll go in your place!

Bon voyage. You'll be back very soon.
He's incredibly lucky to have your love. So lucky, in fact, that he should be a tad more considerate, especially with something so important to you.
[r] nice read! best, libby
I am the last person who should be giving relationship advice to anyone, but my better judgment says this is something you two should discuss. He should know how making allowances for his preferences is causing you to feel. I know I would feel hurt if my life partner wouldn't want to help me entertain my family. And you need to understand better why he doesn't want to go. There must be a reasonable compromise somewhere in there.

Talk to him about it. If you understand his reluctance, it will at the very least stop you guessing the motivation for it.

Have a great time in Italy.
Your article made me tear up. It hurts to allow the adults in our lives to be adults... it hurts on all sides! You said it perfectly here in one story.
What's going to happen when your (future) children want to go to Italy ... and Dad doesn't? Or when it's time for a parent-teacher conference and that just isn't Dad's thing? Will he get a pass on that too?

Before anyone starts slammin' me for dissin' the boyfriend, I'll share this about myself. There was all sorts of things that bugged the crap outta me when I was single and then married-and-childless. But it's amazing how things change when your child arrives and how the focus becomes your kids and not yourself any more. (And you can grow to love it!)

If this boyfriend is as special and perceptive as you've written about for years in OS, perhaps he realizes that his life will change profoundly after he becomes a father. And that until then, it's a me-first mentality, because the family-first/me-last mindset is not too far off in the future.
I know where you're coming from. I've been married for 48 years!! and we've been together 50!!! We are soul mates, but Joe is eccentric and kind of anti-social. As a result, I've had to carve out my own separate social life. He wouldn't want to travel to Italy with friends or relatives either. If your core relationship is worth it, just accept the eccentricities and go with it. Have fun in Italy. Sometimes it's good to be free and do what you want.
I'm sorry this situation is so disappointing for you, and do hope that you'll at least be able to keep in touch with the Boyfriend easily while you're traveling and he's at home. (Being out of contact would make me uneasy, too.)
There are indeed mixed blessings in a relationship where the two partners have such separate interests. Lady Lucia and I are still struggling with that issue (made more difficult by our location, which makes it hard for me to go places without Lady L at night - for safety reasons - 'though she, being a driver, can go wherever/whenever she likes). Sometimes we're doing separate things because schedules dictate that we be apart (a couple of weeks ago, for instance, I did one of my Shakespeare readings without Lady Lucia in the audience, because she was at a training session with the Civil Air Patrol that day.) Sometimes I go to her Sherlockian gatherings but I don't go to all of them with her because my interest in Sherlock Holmes is minimal and there's only so much of that a non-Sherlockian can take without getting bored and irritated. (On the other hand, I sometimes say yes because I'd rather be at a Sherlockian event with her than sit home alone, staring at the walls; it's really depressing that I'm so trapped here. If I were in Manhattan I could just hang out with another friend but I have no friends in Brooklyn). Anyway, enough about our situation. Just saying that I do understand the complications and hope it can get easier for you to negotiate!
Sometimes it is hard to understand that there is this real individuality. It exists, even in relationships. I think you are doing the right thing for each other.
I'm sorry your boyfriend won't accompany you (isn't there any way to compromise though?) but I understand. I was married to a man who never did anything he didn't want to do and laying guilt trips on him, citing obligations, making threats, tears, stomping my feet and throwing things were to no avail. Neither was the silent treatment; in fact, he liked that. :)
Don't judge The Boyfriend too harshly, Alysa. I obviously don't know him personally (although his Napoleonic reenactment hobby suggests he's a bit of a loner), but it could well be that he isn't thrilled by the prospect of a group trip to popular tourist destinations. If that's the case, I feel his pain: I love travel (and Italy), but prefer to do it on my own, where I can actually experience things and meet new people. When you travel with a partner, and certainly when you travel with a group, you are essentially packing the relationship with you the whole time, and in my opinion the travel experience (as opposed to the relationship experience) is severely reduced. This is a sensitive issue I have with The Girlfriend, by the way: She loves to take trips, but always wants me along. Yes, that's very nice on one level, and yet I long for a nice long trip alone somewhere, like in the old days. Top of the list: Morocco again and Senegal - just me and my knapsack, so I can let the trip take ME.

Wow, Alysa. A topic that definitely hits home for me (as you know). It would be great to have an open discussion with him, let him know how much you would love him to be there, and get his response. My husband and I sometimes make decisions to go it alone when it comes to family because it can be so hard on the other person. Ultimately, as long as you know you can lean on him when it counts - that's what matters. xoxo

Beautifully written.
Thank you all so much for reading, and for sharing your thoughts on this. It's so interesting and insightful to see what people in all different kinds of relationships think about this.

I'm so sorry not to have responded sooner - and even now, not to respond completely to everyone - shortly after posting this, things got insanely busy in real life,and then I got a flu/sinus infection thing that laid me for a while (still getting over it now). But your comments have really given me a lot to think about. Thank you all so much again....