Dear Wendy: “I’m Afraid To Date Because I’m $190,000 In Debt”

I’m a 31-year-old, single guy in Chicago. I’m at a point in my life where I’d like to find a great woman and think about settling down and perhaps start a family in the not too distant future. Unfortunately, I have a terrible secret that is making it difficult for me to get close to women: I have $190,000 in student loan debt (no, I am not a doctor). Aside from that scary number, I am financially responsible and have a promising career with a high income trajectory ahead of me. How I arrived at that $190,000 is moot, but what isn’t is the psychological handicap I’ve developed. I am ashamed and embarrassed to be burdened by such student debt, and I can’t help but feel most women would be scared off by it. As a result, I’ve basically stopped dating or even trying to meet that special someone. I can’t bear the prospect of getting close to someone only to scare her off because of my debt. I feel like a leper. But, am I over-reacting? If so, what advice would you give about broaching the topic with a potential girlfriend (timing, method, etc)? — Debt Leper

Look, I’m not going to lie to you; there are certainly people out there for whom your debt would be a dealbreaker, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dealbreaker for everyone. There are far worse things to be saddled with than a lot of debt (and if you don’t believe me, just read through some of my previous columns from readers with psycho exes, racist families, chronic illnesses, etc.). And the bottom line is that you’re able to manage your debt, right? You’re financially responsible and you foresee a high income trajectory in your future, so those are wonderful things. I understand that you’d feel insecure about your debt, but you’re in no way, shape or form a leper. You are not destined to a life of solitude and loneliness because of outstanding student loans.

If you’re a kind, caring person with a lot to offer someone, there’s no reason to believe you won’t find long-lasting love with someone you can build a solid future and happy family with. So, get out there and start dating. Don’t feel like you need to tell every woman you go out to dinner with that you have debt. It’s none of their business. Frankly, it would only become someone’s business if you start getting serious enough that you’re talking about a future together. Certainly, before you, say, propose marriage you’d want to disclose that information about yourself. But it’s not something that has to be shared early on. Wait until you feel comfortable with the woman — when you’ve had a chance to get to know each other and she’s had a chance to see what you have to offer and how well you manage your finances. When you feel ready, tell her that you’ve grown to care a lot for her and you can see yourself being really happy with her for the long haul and you hope she’s starting to feel the same, too, but you have information you feel she should know before you begin making future plans together. And then just tell her. Tell her you have a large amount of debt, and then share your plan and timetable for paying it off as well as how you’ll contribute to a family.

Yes, your debt may scare off a potential life partner. You may get close to someone only to have the relationship fail. But that’s a risk you’d take regardless of the debt you carry. If you truly want to find love, you’ve got to get over your fears of rejection. You have to accept that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s OK. And you have to accept that it may not even be your debt that turns off a potential mate, but something else that simply doesn’t click or work. But that’s how dating goes. We all have our “$190,000 debt,” so to speak. We all have some monkey on our back that makes us feel vulnerable, but it’s in building trust with others and sharing our vulnerabilities that we really begin to grow lasting relationships.

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