Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

For Christmas this year, my boyfriend surprised me with a ring. It’s sapphire and silver—beautiful. But it’s not an engagement ring. Without saying so outright, he made clear that it was just a ring. After dating for a few years, and living together for the past year and a half, I can’t help but be disappointed. To make matters worse, when I went to the store to get the ring resized, the clerk kept congratulating me and asking me all about my fiancé.

I wasn’t expecting to get engaged over the holidays—my boyfriend has also said he doesn’t want to propose on a holiday, or my birthday, or some other occasion so that he won’t “ruin it” if the marriage goes badly. We’ve talked about marriage and getting engaged, but he also says he thinks we still have some things to work on in our relationship. I’ve tried to advocate for myself and tell him that I have my own timeline and expectations, but that I’m willing to give him the time he needs.

But now, with this ring, I wonder whether that’s still in the cards. I can’t imagine him getting me two rings in the same year, given that this is the first piece of jewelry he’s ever bought me. I’m worried he’s finding new ways of putting off our engagement without having to talk to me about it.

So this is my question: Is my disappointment unreasonable? I definitely feel the pull of marriage while I am still young enough to have children. I also know that I love my boyfriend and am dedicated to making our relationship work long-term. Am I disappointed because he hasn’t picked me yet, or because I have real fears about the longevity of our relationship?

Any advice or thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

Anna
Seattle


Dear Anna,

Often patients in therapy will come in and tell me something that happened, then follow the story with, “Is it okay to be mad about this, or am I overreacting?” or “I know I shouldn’t be sad, but …” And what I always tell them is this: Your feelings are your feelings. You can pretend that they don’t exist, but they’ll still be there anyway. Listen to them—they’ll give you useful information.

This is true of your disappointment. Instead of questioning it or hiding it from your boyfriend, use it to guide you. Think of your disappointment as a sign that says pay attention. Let your disappointment highlight what needs clarity—in this case, how you’re both feeling about your future together.

It seems that there are two conversations you need to have to get this clarity: one with your boyfriend and one with yourself. It sounds like you and your boyfriend have had some conversations about your future together, with you expressing your desire to get married and him explaining that he feels you two have some things to work on first. You don’t say what they are, but are you clear about the issues that need to be worked out between you? Do you share his concerns? And if so, what are you doing to work on them together?

I ask these questions because you’ve told your boyfriend that you’re “willing to give him the time he needs,” but it’s important that you two talk about what this time is being used for. I wonder how these conversations have gone so far. An unproductive way to have this conversation goes something like, “I feel like we have things to work on, so I’m not ready yet”—but there are no specifics about what’s not working or what steps you two might take (say, couples therapy) to move forward. Another unproductive way to have this conversation goes something like, “It’s not the relationship that needs work, it’s such-and-such about you.” In that conversation, there’s no consideration of what he might need to do to improve things between you. If you haven’t talked about what his concerns are and what you’re both doing to work them out, now is the time to deepen that conversation with as much specificity as possible.

You may also want to learn more about what associations you both have with marriage. For you it may signify safety, trust, and commitment, and for him it might signify something entirely different. If you get curious about what it’s like for him to contemplate marriage, you may learn that his hesitancy is less about his not “picking you” and more about his own struggle. For instance, although he says he wants marriage, perhaps it also terrifies him. Maybe he feels he can’t live up to whatever idea he has in his head about the role of “husband.” Maybe he worries that he’d be the one to disappoint you. Maybe he didn’t see a loving marriage in his own home growing up, and now he worries about making a mistake or the marriage not lasting. You may want to understand more about his fear of “ruining” a holiday or birthday if the marriage goes south. I can understand not tying an anniversary to another holiday in order to make the anniversary distinct and special, but in your boyfriend’s mind, he’s already preparing for the possibility that the marriage won’t work out. There’s more to learn about each other here: for you, what else might be going on with him; and for him, what it’s like for you to love him and live with him and get a ring from him—but not know whether you’ll be spending your future together.

Meanwhile, there’s a conversation you need to have with yourself. It’s a hard one, because the part of you that loves your boyfriend and wants to spend your life with him probably doesn’t want to sit down with the part of you that might bring up something painful or anxiety provoking. Often when people don’t get what they want in a relationship, they give the other person an ultimatum: If you don’t propose by X date, I’m leaving. But these ultimatums tend to backfire, because either you’ve pressured someone into marrying you, or the pressure has pushed that person away. Instead, the person you need to set boundaries with is yourself. How long are you willing to tolerate his ambivalence? At what point will you tell the part of you that’s willing to wait that waiting is taking too long—that you need to move forward and free yourself up to meet someone who wants what you do? The more open you are to this internal dialogue, the more likely you’ll be to do more than simply wait and see what your boyfriend does.

As a result of these dialogues, you may decide to go to couples therapy with your boyfriend, or you may see a therapist yourself to help navigate your feelings and learn to communicate more effectively in the relationship. Whatever you decide to do, these two conversations are a positive first step.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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