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Ask Ellie: Relationships thrive best between equals, despite differing pasts

For a relationship to grow, it has to be because of your feelings for your partner as a person, not their lifestyle

Dear Ellie: I’ve been dating a dentist for four months; he’s 32, I’m 26. He’s a very well-mannered person, opens the car door for me, and checks first whether I like a restaurant he’s chosen. He’s been gentle and respectful about suggesting that I sometimes stay at his place overnight.

My problem: This orderly lifestyle is all new for me. I grew up in a very restrictive home with harsh parents. I left on my own at 18. I couch-surfed among friends from school, got a job waitressing, and had a boyfriend who did drugs (lucky, I was too scared to join in, after all my parents’ dire warnings).

At 20, I got a student loan and went back to school, then was lucky again two years ago when I graduated and got a job I love, working with (don’t laugh) wayward teens in a community youth services organization. I could even afford to rent a small place of my own.

I met the dentist when he visited my teen clients as part of the organization’s outreach programs, and taught them the importance of dental hygiene.

He showed up every couple of months, did dental care of whomever was present, and talked to me about the struggles the clients had gone through.

Then he started asking a lot about me, and even asked my boss if it was okay if he asked me out on a date!

Everything has been different from the life I knew before, with my parents, or my ex-boyfriend, or the other people I knew like me, living on the edges of our lives.

Do you think it’s possible that I can live his lifestyle, despite the angry atmosphere of my growing up, the rough behaviour of my ex? I worry that his friends and family will never accept me. But I do feel warm and safe with him.

A Different Lifestyle

Focus on the man himself. For your current relationship to grow, it has to be because of your feelings for him as a person, not his lifestyle.

He sounds like a very decent man who shares your own value of helping troubled teens find their potential. He also shares his knowledge and skills by teaching teens about health/dental care, which is part of improving their self-image and makes ambitions like returning to school, more possible.

Some readers, and the community organization itself, may think the relationship is problematic. He’s dating you, someone over whom he has influence (e.g., if rejected, he could possibly threaten to harm your job security). Yet your boss who approved his request to ask you out, allowed it.

If this relationship continues, tell him your concern of potential rejection by people close to him. Ask him what he sees for the future — living together/marriage/children? Or, like the current connection — dating, intimacy, but going home to very different circumstances?

You’ve already shown remarkable insight at a young age, about how to improve your life on your own — through education, finding work you enjoy, and guiding others experiencing similar teenage hardships to those you’d known.

My point? You clearly don’t need someone else’s lifestyle, because you know how to create your own satisfying environment. In these still-early months of dating this man, you have to become sure it’s about him, not the choice of restaurants, nor fine manners — all pleasant but add-ons you can achieve yourself, if you wish.

Make sure he knows that you’re a whole person, and that the relationship must be between equals.

Reader’s Commentary: “I read your column in the newspaper daily.

“In a recent column, you referred to workbooks people could use for working on mental health and anxiety issues. I recall that the workbooks were recommended by a therapist.

“Unfortunately, I cannot locate the column. Might you be able to let me know the names of those workbooks, and possibly where I may get them, please (e.g., “All or Nothing Thinking” and other titles).”

Ellie — Thanks for being a regular reader. Many such workbooks are available through Examples: The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry and Rewire Your Anxious Brain.

In my March 22 column, other workbooks were recommended by Chicago-based psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook, a specialist in anxiety issues:

All-or-Nothing Thinking, Overgeneralization, Mental Filters, Discounting the Positive, and Jumping to Conclusions.

Most of these are also available through an online search on

Ellie’s tip of the day

Finances/upbringing may differ, but a relationship thrives best between equals.

Send relationship questions to [email protected]