Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I am in my 30s and have been dating a man for three years. He is wonderful. Since we began dating, I have told him of my desire for marriage and family, and he's always gone along with me. But he never really seemed to share the same level of conviction. Many times I raised a concern that we weren't really on the same timeline. Six months ago, he assured me that very soon things would begin to move forward.
As the months past, I expected a proposal, and instead, he did nothing. He told me that he got scared and paralyzed and unsure. I was extremely hurt and decided that I could not deal with the uncertainty, or wait any longer for a real commitment. So I broke up with him.
In several days, he came back saying that he'd made a mistake, he knows he wants to be with me, and that he was planning to propose this fall. I told him that he needs to propose within the next two months. Now I am scared that I have pressured him into doing something he's not ready for or doesn't want, and I worry every day that he will change his mind. Have I forced him to make a decision that will end in disaster?
Also, he has floated an idea of having us live together first, in order to ease his transition into marriage. Is that a good plan?
It isn't wrong to give a serious dating partner an ultimatum at the point that you two have reached. If he isn't ready to make a commitment after three years of dating, and after having expressed the belief that the two of you are right for each other, then giving him more time to come around on his own isn't going to make a difference. We say this in light of our many years of helping other people facing the same issue.
There are many people who have trouble making the leap of faith to engagement and marriage. This is more a product of the times we live in than it is on the quality of the relationships. Certainly, some of these people have trouble because beneath the surface they realize that the other person really isn't right for them. However, more often, the recalcitrant person has been dating someone with whom they can build a happy and rewarding life, and even though they realize this, some fear or issue holds them back. It takes a bit of inner strength for such a person to say, "I could use some help finding out why I have this problem, and in dealing with it." Fortunately, most of the people who admit this and go to therapy are able to go on to celebrate their engagement and marriage.
It appears that this man needs a little push, and not just from you. He needs to talk to someone who can help him deal with whatever fears and unresolved issues may be holding him back from proposing and beginning a life together. But first, he has to acknowledge that he would benefit from this kind of help and decide that he wants to get it.
We suggest that you speak with him about our suggestion, and ask if he is amenable to working with a therapist. He should look for a therapist who specializes in short-term, goal-oriented therapy, or a cognitive behavioral therapist.
We also suggest that he find a married person whose judgment he trusts to serve as a hand-holder and mentor during this stage of the dating process and during the engagement that we hope will follow. It is very common for people who are about to become engaged, and people who are about to be married, to experience bouts of anxiety, in spite of the fact that most of the time they look forward to their wedding and to the life that will follow. In fact, the majority of engaged people in their 30s experience at least one such episode of anxiety! They need reassurance that the anxiety is often a normal part of the engagement process, and it usually doesn't mean there is anything wrong. A hand holder and mentor can give them this reassurance.
We'd now like to address the idea that the two of you live together. First, it is clear that Jewish law requires people to wait until marriage to live together. Beyond this, however, there are also practical reasons why it is not advisable to live together before marriage. The main reason is that a husband and wife view their life together, from the outset, as a partnership, and they divide responsibilities, arrange finances, develop social lives, and make decisions based on the view of marriage as a joint enterprise. There are many challenges to balance their new life as a couple with each person's friends, interests, careers, and families. Each person must learn to make compromises that he or she wouldn't make in other situations, because they want to further their common goal of building a home and family.
The first year or two of marriage is a mixture of the wonder of sharing a life with another person, and the challenges of adjusting to life with another person, and there are many ups and downs. Sometimes, as they weather a challenging transition period, what carries the couple through is focusing on the big picture of having made a commitment to each other.
A couple who lives together without having made this commitment faces two handicaps. One is that neither of them is fully invested in the concept of laying the framework for a life together. The decisions they make, the way they structure responsibilities around the home, the way they handle their finances, and even the way they balance their social lives are different than it would be if they were married. At the back of their minds, each person may be thinking that this is a trial, and if it doesn't work out, they have an "out." So they do not feel compelled to make the same compromises if they had a long-term goal in mind.
Sometimes, this lack of commitment leads to a great deal of dissatisfaction, since each person is more invested in his or her own agenda than in their life together.
Alternatively, when the living arrangement seems to be working and the couple eventually decides to marry, they are often surprised that what they had in the past doesn't work any more. That's because once they are married, their views of the relationship usually change. The transition is often not an easy one, and may not work. In fact, based on both statistics and Sherry's work as a divorce lawyer, a strong predictor of future divorce is that a couple has lived together before marriage.
We hope that you and this man address concerns about commitment, and that if you are fortunate to become engaged, you concentrate on laying the framework for the life you will be building together as husband and wife.
And if he can't or won't take the steps he needs to take in order to make a commitment, within the time frame that you've specified, we hope that you have the courage to move on.
Rosie & Sherry