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Q. I overheard my boyfriend telling a few family members that he’s planning on popping the question, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But here’s the thing: I’m not ready for marriage yet. I feel that while our relationship is steady, I’m still young, and I’m early in my career. Settling down to get married simply isn’t something I’m ready to do just yet, and the mere idea of it stresses me out — although that has nothing to do with my feelings for my partner. Is that normal? And if so, how do I tell him that without hurting him?
A. It’s very normal to have doubts and to not be ready to settle down into a lifelong commitment, particularly when you are young and early in your career. You might feel like there is more that you want to do and experience before you commit to marriage.
There is also research that suggests that it is better to marry late than early. One study of 405 Canadian adults surveyed as high school seniors (age 18) and again in midlife (age 43) found that those who married late, as compared to their cohort, had fewer symptoms of depression in midlife (Johnson, Krahn, & Galambos, 2017).
On the other hand, when you are ready to move forward and to make a commitment, I think that you will find that life takes on shared meaning and additional purpose once you do so. Marriage and family are not easy, but they can be immensely rewarding.
So how do you tell your boyfriend that you are not ready to get married without offending or hurting him? It may be impossible, but you can minimize the pain and the damage by being proactive. If possible, I suggest that you try to have the conversation with him before he pops the question, in order to avoid embarrassment on his part.
One technique you can try, called softened start-up, involves talking about how you feel and what you need without blaming or shaming. Talk about how you feel about the situation, trying to describe the situation as neutrally as possible, and about what you might need in your life at this time. Try to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to prevent defensiveness.
It doesn’t hurt to also include some validation and appreciation. You can express your love for him, and validate that this must be very painful for him, while still stating clearly that you are not ready. Don’t try to persuade or convince him, just help him to understand how you feel, and do your best to understand and validate how he feels.
Johnson, M.D., Krahn, H.J., & Galambos, N.L. (2017). Better late than early: Marital timing and subjective well-being in midlife. Journal of Family Psychology, 31/5, 635-641.
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