He does not want to get married

-- Question for John --

My boyfriend and I are both 30. After dating for 4 years, surviving 2 years of long distance, and living together for the past 9 months, I am becoming more and more focused on marriage and (eventually) starting a family. My boyfriend agrees that he wants a family some day, but his reaction to marriage is not what I’d hoped.

We’ve talked about it for a long time (basically over the past 2 years), but he says that he is very committed to me, and he knows I am the only one with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life. But he says that he doesn’t think that we need to be married to be committed. He has even hinted that he would be willing to have children before being married (which, for me, is not an option!) When I argue that I strongly value marriage, he says that he will marry me someday because I want to, but that is not the answer I really want to hear, and I fear he is just telling me that to quiet my insistence.

Perhaps he is afraid of marriage because his parents had a very, very bitter divorce, and he wound up in the center of it as a teenager. (Although I have gently asked him if this is the case, and he tells me it is not.) I am a very romantic person, and I come from a very loving and committed parents who are still very much in love. It would mean so much to me to have him ask me to be his wife, not because he thinks it is what I want, but because his feelings are so strong that he cannot fathom life without me (because that is how I feel about him). I look into his eyes, and I see our future children!

I want to be with this man more than anything. I have never had such a satisfying relationship. We workout together, play together, cook together and share the same sense of humor. I feel really lucky to have him in my life.

I will be 31 in the spring, and I don’t want to wait forever, especially because I want to have children. My question is, am I doomed to be disappointed in the marriage department? A couple of people have told me I should give him an ultimatum… but for 2 reasons I don’t really want to: 1) I don’t want to “threaten” him into marriage; and 2) If he doesn’t meet the demands of the ultimatum, I will have to stick to my end of the bargain, and I do not want to leave him!

Some other friends have told me to go ahead and start a family, and marriage will eventually follow (note: but I am not referring to getting pregnant on the sly… I would NEVER do that!) but I my values are strongly in the “marriage then children” direction.

Do you have any comments or suggestions?.

-- Answer from John --

It could be that he is perfectly serious and committed already without the ceremony that he fears. And it could be that if you went ahead and acted married, he might well eventually do the ceremony. Assessing that really takes some honest discussion. I don’t hear from you exactly what his issues are around marriage, so I’m assuming that you two have not communicated about this as deeply and openly (and without emotional charge) as I would hope you might eventually do. That could be hard to do, especially if you are charged about it. I can’t tell from the tone of your email voice what you sound like to him when you discuss this.

Bottom line, at this point, I don’t know what to make of him, in particular, unless I were to actually talk with him. I do sense there is enough positive longterm potential in this relationship that I am very reluctant to lay some sort of generalization on you, like he’s commitment-phobic or needs a back door, etc.

Whatever the divisive issue is, we often start the work by saying: “You obviously cannot make a mutual agreement on this matter right now.” Trying to settle this issue is deepening the polarization and putting more pressure on each of you to take a stand (your own side of the polarity). In effect, it is even magnifying the difference. If you keep looking down that path, you will see yourselves just getting farther and farther apart, unless someone “caves in” and gives up who they are at the moment, which, in itself, is also a bad idea in the long run.

So we suggest you put this particular issue (marriage in your case) on the back burner for 6 months and focus on what is rapidly becoming the MORE IMPORTANT LONG-TERM ISSUE.

That more important long-term issue is the skill set and type of thinking you are both bringing to the table as you try to resolve this polarity.

Make a 6 month contract with each other to put the question of marriage on hold. Instead commit yourselves to working on improving the way you handle issues, with this issue as the first test case. Your relationship is likely to encounter more polarities and issues down the road (ain’t life grand?) and unless you increase your skill set, you will still be looking for the simple answers that don’t work (like giving in versus giving an ultimatum).

In short, I don’t suggest that you give him an ultimatum right now. And I don’t suggest that you give in on your values either.

To be very specific, I’d suggest the two of you make a 6 month contract to get outside coaching (counseling) with the goals of (1) increasing your skill set for dealing with this and any other future issues, and (2) looking at this marriage issue with a more mutual, non-polarizing perspective, so that you two can actually get some resolution on it.