Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m in a four-year long relationship with my girlfriend and we recently just moved in together. A few nights ago she was upset at the fact that we still aren’t married after four years. I keep telling her that I’m not ready to be married until I am at a certain financial level. I reminded her how far I’ve come to fulfill that goal over the past four years and that got her to calm down again. My concern is that she’s done this a few times already and I have to keep reminding her as to why I am not ready yet. I feel like she’s pressuring me into marriage due to the fact that her mother does not approve of us living together if we’re not married. Also, I think she feels guilty for disappointing her mother. I explained to her that living together before marriage is a great way to truly know each other and see if we both are ready for marriage. She also tells me that she’s impatient with waiting what she thinks will be years before I am at the financial level I wish to reach. We both love each other and I don’t want her to feel like I never want to marry her. How should I handle this situation without making her think that?
There was once a short-lived talk show called “The Greg Behrendt Show.” I only ever caught a single episode of it, one weekday afternoon when I was home sick from work. I was on my couch, an overstuffed bright blue couch with silver embroidered pillows that my boyfriend had helped me purchase. I’m lying there, flipping through channels and eating cheddar goldfish, when I come across this new talk show hosted by a blonde, spiky-haired man who I recognize as being a co-author of that book He’s Just Not That Into You. He’s taking questions from the audience and a young, gorgeous, woman stands up and speaks into the microphone. “My, um, boyfriend? We’ve been dating for three years, and he hasn’t proposed yet. What can I do to help him along?” Greg sits on a couch and shakes his head. He clasps his hands together and replies, “If he isn’t proposing, he doesn’t want to marry you and you should move on.”
I sit on my blue couch and blink back tears. I’ve been with my boyfriend for four years. I want to marry him and I think he wants to marry me but we’re not married and why is Greg Behrendt trying to fuck up my life like this? I angrily change the channel, but my mind continues to chew on Greg’s answer. What bullshit, I think. The idea that her boyfriend doesn’t want to marry her. What about waiting for a good time? What about living together first? What about sticking it out? To just dump a man because he isn’t proposing this exact second, it’s cruel and reductive.
I hated the duality that people either get married or they break up and there’s nothing in between. I hated the idea that if my boyfriend wanted to marry me, we would, but since we weren’t, he didn’t. It felt too narrow, too black-and-white, too unforgiving. I refused to accept it.
And then, my boyfriend and I moved in together. I mentioned marriage, he replied that he wanted to live with me for a year first. A year went by but then there were new reasons: He wanted to save up some money first. He wanted to make sure I was OK with the idea of never having children first. He wanted us to stop fighting so much first. He said that he did want to marry me, but never now. Marriage was always just beyond the horizon, off in some distant, more-perfect future.
So, you see, I used to be your girlfriend. I would ask my boyfriend about marriage – he would reiterate his reasons for delaying and underline his opinion that we were in love and doing great. The conversation circled around and around again. Each time we had it, less progress was made. Each time we had it, I grew increasingly panicked that this wasn’t going to happen, he was never going to want to get married. Each time we had it, he grew increasingly frustrated that I wouldn’t just fucking relax already. The conversations built up a pressure inside of our relationship until there were only two ways to relieve it: get married, or break up.
When we broke up I was so overwhelmed with grief that I stopped eating for a while. I didn’t know I could cry that much. But also, even in that deep despair, there was a lightness. The pressure had been relieved.
People who want to get married get married. People who don’t want to get married don’t get married. Today, on this very day, you do not want to marry your girlfriend. You’re assuming that you’re going to want to marry her one day, in the future, when you have a certain amount of money saved up and you guys know each other really well from living together. This is how you’re trying to reassure your girlfriend, but it isn’t working because these points aren’t actually reassuring.
She’s saying “Are you stringing me along?” and you’re saying “Here are my super good reasons for stringing you along.” Her desire to get married isn’t going to go away, and I’m not sure what’s going to change your desire to not get married. “Calm down,” you’re telling her, “I’ll want to marry you in the future.” But the thing about the future is that it turns into the present, and you can only stall her with vague timelines for so long.
Two super important questions: What is the exact dollar amount you want to have saved up before you’re ready to get married? And on what day do you estimate that you’ll have that much money saved up?
If you don’t know the answer to either of these questions, then you for sure don’t want to marry your girlfriend. I’m not trying to say that you’re a monster for leading her on, but I want you to understand that you’re not being honest with her, or yourself. Betting that you’re going to want to marry her in the future isn’t the same thing as actually wanting to marry her. Not wanting to break up isn’t the same thing as actually wanting to marry her.
There is nothing wrong with not wanting to marry your girlfriend. Who you marry is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life and if you aren’t sure you really shouldn’t do it. Do not get married just to make her happy, but also do not assume that you can continue to live together as you are now. The pressure is there, and it’s not going away.
She legit wants to marry you. It isn’t her mom, or society, it’s her, the woman who loves you, genuinely wanting to spend the rest of her life with you. The fact that you attribute her desires to other people tells me that you’re not taking them seriously, which means you aren’t really considering that this is a watershed moment in your relationship. You guys are going to get married, or you’re going to break up. Which do you want? I know, “neither,” hence you hedging your bets and trying to reassure the woman you love that you want to get married (which you totally don’t) and she doesn’t want to get married (which she totally does).
You can make this woman you love feel like you want to marry her by giving her some concrete information about when you’re planning to marry her. So, here’s a script:
Script 1: I don’t want to get married right now, but I know that you do. I want to be financially secure first, which for me means having X dollars saved in the bank. At my current rate of savings I’ll have that much money in X month of X year, so we can anticipate getting engaged then.
But only say this if you fucking mean it, because in X month of X year you’re either getting engaged or you’re getting your own apartment.
If the idea of providing a specific timeline made you least little bit queasy, then you gotta go with script #2.
Script 2: I don’t want to get married.
Oh no! you may think. But if I say that she’ll break up with me! If the truth is going to end your relationship then it’s time for your relationship to end. You can run through a cycle of love and come out on the other side neither bitter nor depressed. You can come through separate yet happy to have had the time together. When I reflect back on my failed quest to get married I am so, so grateful. Because I got to experience love, I learned an absolute fuck ton about myself both during and in the ashes of that relationship, and loving another human being only enhances your life, even after you have to part.
Marriage isn’t a line to cross – it’s a portal to step through together, joyfully. So, first, be honest with yourself. Then, be honest with her.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.