Dear Wendy: “My Boyfriend’s Too Close With His Students”

My boyfriend has been a teacher for about four years after going back to school and changing careers. He’s almost 31, but a young 31, and is widely known on campus for being one of the more relatable teachers. We’ve been together for almost two years, and have now lived together for one year, and something about his contact with former students is starting to nag at me more and more. He has a rule that he will not become Facebook friends with any of his current students; however, once the last day of school passes, they all start adding him. I think it’s great that they all like him as much as they do, and I know he’s effective and successful at his job, but I find it strange that he communicates with a lot of the 14- and 15-year-olds on a regular basis. Most of it is harmless, such as talking about sports or encouraging them to do well in their high school courses, but there is one former student in particular that is starting to get to me.

My boyfriend has constant contact via email and iChat with a 16-year-old former student whom I guess is almost like his protégé. She’s a budding writer who mostly wants his feedback and critique on essays, and suggestions of things to read, but I’m very uncomfortable with their level of contact. They talk every day through one medium or another, and I just find her involvement in his personal life a bit much, especially since it’s my personal life too. They even talk about meeting up to get coffee on the weekends. He swears that the girl is unattractive, and that even if she weren’t, he’s offended that I even hint that his behavior is inappropriate. He says he’s just trying to be a mentor to a special former student, and that I don’t understand because I’m not a teacher. But some of my other friends who are teachers say they would never talk to their former students in the way that he does. I have asked friends, and they mostly seem divided on whether his behavior is appropriate. I realize I may just sound insecure in our relationship, but I’d really like to know if I am overreacting in my level of discomfort. — Teacher’s Pet

While your boyfriend’s behavior toward his former student doesn’t have to indicate any romantic interest on his part, one could still argue that his intentions aren’t fully altruistic. Attractive or not, getting attention and admiration from a 16-year-old girl has to be pretty flattering for a 31-year-old man — especially if said girl is further boosting his ego with questions that relate to his area of expertise. I can certainly understand your discomfort with their relationship — their “constant contact,” as you say. But just as I can sympathize, I’m sure there are others who would say your boyfriend’s simply being a good mentor. The thing is, does it really matter whether other people think your boyfriend’s relationship with his former student is appropriate or not? Good arguments could be made for both sides.

What matters here is that you are bothered by their relationship, and rather than respect your concerns and backing off, your boyfriend is making light of your worries and suggesting you couldn’t possibly understand where he’s coming from because you aren’t a teacher. Oh, poppycock! You don’t have to be a waitress to understand that working with the public can blow. You don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate how stressful a career in saving lives can be. And you don’t have to work in a school to understand both the rewards and frustrations of dealing with young, impressionable, hormonal kids. Whether your boyfriend is acting inappropriately with his former student or not is almost beside the point. He’s acting inappropriately with you. You expressed your discomfort with a relationship he has and he’s made the decision to continue nurturing it on a daily basis. At best, he’s choosing his ego over you. At worst … well, I’m sure you’ve already let your imagination go there enough.

You asked if you were overreacting in your level of discomfort, and my answer is “no.” You didn’t ask what to do with that discomfort, but if I were you, I’d school that boyfriend of yours. I’d tell him it’s time for him to turn his attention to your relationship. If he wants a future with you, he needs to create some clear boundaries between him and his students, and that as much as you respect the work he does — and it seems apparent from your letter that you do — it’s important for you to see the same level of commitment and passion for your relationship as he shows for his job. If he can’t, or isn’t willing to do that, you have to decide whether you can deal with the side effects of his career. If you can’t, it’s time to consider moving on.

My sister is going through a pretty messy and heart-wrenching divorce. Her and her soon-to-be ex-husband’s marriage was short-lived and probably doomed from the start (getting married too hastily, namely). I have been helping my sister in whatever way I can: being a shoulder to cry on, a soundboard for her anger, a date to weddings. While I’m motivated and happy to help her, I still have an immense feeling of loss. I truly loved my soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law. What makes matters worse for me is that he has not returned a sorrowful e-mail or mournful voicemail I left when everything came to fruition earlier this year. I don’t push communicating with him, as I know he understandably wants to cut ties. However, I cannot help but feel abandoned by someone I trusted and accepted into my family.

These feelings conflict with being there for my sister. I have not told her that he ignored my attempt to reach out to him. I truly feel that the only way for me to move on is hearing from him. I know that he is in a process of moving on and healing wounds as well, but I wish he might make things easier for me by saying any parting words. I talk about how I feel to my parents, friends, and my boyfriend, all of whom understand and want to help, but I still have an overwhelming sadness. Does this make me a selfish person? How do I cope with my own feelings while being supportive at the same time? — At a loss on the periphery

I can appreciate where you’re coming from. My sister is very fond of my husband, and I can imagine if anything were to happen between us, she would be devastated if he just dropped off without reaching out to her at all. I would certainly hope he could separate any hurt feelings he had with me from the affection he has for my sister and, at the very least, return an email to her, but you know what? I don’t know that I could fault him if it took him some time to get there.

You need to remember that your BIL isn’t just potentially dealing with a broken heart here; he’s dealing with the loss of family, the breakup of his home, and the end of what likely were many dreams he had for the future. If you’re as close with your sister as you say, I’m sure you’re aware of all this. But given what you consider a slight from him on your end, it may be easy to forget. Give him some time. Try not to take his snub personally. In a few months — or maybe when the divorce in finalized — if you haven’t heard from him yet, send him another message and let him know you’re really sad things ended the way they did, that you considered him a great addition to your family, you miss having him in your life, and you wish him only the very best. And then accept that you may not ever hear back from him. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss you, too, or that your family didn’t mean a lot to him. It may just be that his ability to embrace his new life is so tenuous he doesn’t want to risk his grasp by reaching even the smallest amount toward his old life.

As for coping with your own feelings, you’re doing the right thing. Continue talking to your parents, friends, and boyfriend. Journal it out. Maybe even write some letters to both your sister and her soon-to-be ex (but don’t send them!) about your sadness and frustration. Losing a family member — even one whose relation to you seemed “doomed from the start” — isn’t easy, so be gentle with yourself. You may not be the one getting divorced, but that doesn’t mean you’re being selfish for grieving.

Follow me on Twitter and get relationship tips and updates on new Dear Wendy columns!

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at {encode=”[email protected]” title=”[email protected]”}.