Dear Therapist: We Set a Deadline to Decide About Marriage, and We Still Don’t Know

It’s been almost two years; am I wasting my time?

An illustration of a man sitting on a tearaway calendar and a woman trying to hang on to it
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

My boyfriend and I have been dating for about a year and a half. About six months in, I could tell he was uncomfortable with the subject of marriage—he is divorced and a bit jaded by the experience. A year into dating, we sat down and talked. He said he didn’t know whether he wanted to get married again, whereas I knew I wanted to get married one day. We agreed that two people should know whether or not they want to get married after two years of dating, so one year from that conversation was going to be our deadline.

Since then, we have tried to determine if we are suited to marriage with each other. There is so much that is going well. He treats me very well, and does romantic, kind things that I imagine only someone who truly cares about me would do. We were friends before we started dating, and I treasure this friendship and love the time we spend together.

However, marriage as a topic still makes him uncomfortable. We are now six months away from our deadline for the marriage decision. When I ask him to imagine a future together, he says he can’t think about that, because he’s so focused on his job.

We haven’t talked about some big things, like whether we want to have kids, or to live in the suburbs or the city—things I believe we should discuss to be able to make the decision to build a life together. I try asking questions like “What kind of sports would be fun to watch our kids play?” or “What country have you never traveled to that you have always wanted to go to?” and he always says, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.” So I say, “Think about it now!” and he just says he doesn’t know again, or that he can’t think that far into the future.

I am 30, and I don’t imagine that in six months he’ll suddenly be able to think about the future in the way that I need to. So I have been slowly preparing myself to be disappointed by what happens at our two-year deadline.

My friends think I am just delaying an inevitable disappointment once the deadline is here. Is two years an arbitrary deadline, and should I give him more time if he is not ready? Or did I already give him too long, and should I try to get him to decide these things now? Am I wasting my time?


Dear Anonymous,

I can hear how anxious you are about what might happen when your deadline arrives, but I want to suggest that the deadline is almost beside the point. You’re right that you and your boyfriend haven’t talked about “some big things,” but the biggest thing you need to discuss is the pattern going on between you two.

The pattern looks like this: He avoids. You collude with his avoidance by attempting to bring things up obliquely. He feels pressured and avoids more. Hoping for an answer, you push him (“Think about it now!”), and the one clear answer he gives you—that he doesn’t want to think about the future—leaves you feeling anxious. The more anxious you get, the more you push for an answer, and the more he shuts down and says, “I don’t know.”

So the cycle continues, with you becoming ever more anxious and trying to get information that he isn’t able or willing to give you. Maybe he truly doesn’t have an answer, but it’s also possible that he does have an answer and fears you’ll leave if he shares it with you. Or maybe he suspects that you’ll stay with him anyway, which creates a different dilemma for him: He knows this isn’t fair to you and doesn’t want to hurt you, so he convinces himself that he doesn’t know the answer when indeed he does.

Avoidance is an attempt to cope with discomfort by not having to cope at all. I see both of you engaging in avoidance—if we don’t voice the truth, we can pretend it doesn’t exist. But the truth doesn’t change based on your ability to acknowledge it. The truth is still there, even as you both avoid it. At the one-year mark, you both spoke your truths: You want to get married; he might not want to marry again. Then, like turtles pulling their heads back into their shells, you both decided, subconsciously or not, that you would buy some time by setting a deadline, but without any real plan for how to use that year to understand more about yourselves and each other. Your plan has been I hope he decides he wants to get married in a year. His plan seems to be: I hope she’ll stay with me even if I haven’t figured it out by then.

But the two of you don’t know how to be honest with each other. And that matters far more than the question of whether you should give him more time, as I imagine your goal isn’t just to get engaged but to have a happy long-term marriage, and honest communication is the core of a happy marriage.

All of this is to say, more important than the answer at the two-year mark is the talk you need to have right now. You might approach your boyfriend by saying something like this:

Honey, I love so much about our relationship, and I also feel like we have some difficulty talking about sensitive topics together. I want to have a real conversation about how I’m feeling and learn more about how you’re feeling about us and our future—not just about marriage, but about how we interact with each other. When we talked after a year of dating about my wanting to get married and your ambivalence around it, I thought that setting a deadline would help me contain my anxiety and give me the comfort of knowing I wasn’t wasting my time. That hasn’t really worked, because I’m just as anxious about our relationship as I was then. I’m starting to realize that even if we hit the deadline in a few months and you propose, I won’t feel completely comfortable, because as much as the marriage question weighs on me, so does the fact that we both avoid having hard conversations with each other, something we’re going to need to get better at in this relationship or any relationship we’re in.

I don’t think we’re going to learn how to have healthy, open conversations by doing nothing, and I think the next few months would be much more helpful for us if we could use the time to go to therapy, either individually or as a couple. I think we’ll learn a lot about ourselves and each other and make more informed decisions about our compatibility by getting some clarity with some outside help. How do you feel about that?

Note that you’re not asking him to answer a question about the future—something he doesn’t want to think about. You’re asking him how he wants to spend time with you now—either getting help to improve communication between you (whatever the outcome), or continuing to avoid self-reflection and keeping things in an ambiguous holding pattern that leads to anxiety and frustration.

Through therapy, he might be able to articulate what makes thinking about the future so hard for him. He might gain a better understanding of what it is about his history—whether it’s his childhood or his previous marriage or something he hasn’t shared with you yet—that stands in the way of him getting in touch with what he wants. And if he is in touch with what he wants, what is it about marriage that gives him pause? Similarly, through therapy, you can learn why your communication style has been as avoidant as your boyfriend’s, and on a practical level, therapy can help you figure out not what deadline to give him, but what deadline you’d like to give yourself so that you’re taking care of your own needs, regardless of what he does or does not decide.

By asking him to be proactive with you in the present instead of passively waiting out the deadline together, you’ll learn what kind of commitment he’s willing to make to this relationship now instead of at some future date. This is important information, because if he’s not interested in addressing the current issues you two have with avoidance and communication, or in doing some self-reflection, you’ll have the answer you’ve been looking for. Better yet, you’ll have finally asked the right question.

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.