Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: I’ve been with my girlfriend for five years, and we’ve lived together for about two. People always ask us when we’re going to get married, but after a bunch of open discussions, we’ve both decided that we’re happy where we are — and we don’t plan on getting married any time soon, or likely ever. People are generally shocked and appalled by that answer, but it’s the truth, and we love our relationship as is. Can we still have a future together if marriage isn’t in the question? And what can we say when people ask about it?

A: You and your girlfriend are discovering the wonderful truth that you as a couple get to decide what kind of relationship you will have, and it sounds like you’re not being swayed by the opinions of people asking questions from their own values and expectations. While the Gottman Institute has established key components of lasting love, based on observing thousands of couples over 45 years and trying to discern the patterns of happy love, there are many ways of being in a healthy, lasting love together. Each couple uniquely creates their own “Story of Us.”

Your question gets at the heart of an essential quality of lasting love: commitment. For many (if not most) people, marriage is a tangible symbol of their commitment to each other. Commitment is when you say, “For better or worse, this is my forever person. I choose you every day.” Lisa Lund, a fellow Certified Gottman Therapist, defines commitment as, “Taking your partner with you wherever you go.” And yet, many people who demonstrate deep commitment to each other are not married, and many married people never fully commit to each other.

It seems from your question that you two are fully committed to each other, but in a way that does not require the institution of marriage to solidify or even symbolize your commitment. As long as your discussions have resulted in you both feeling understood and valued for what matters most to you in terms of staying together without getting married, then this bodes well for your future as a couple. In terms of what to tell people when they ask, you might try something like, “We love each other and are deeply committed to our relationship, but neither of us believes in marriage as necessary to demonstrate our commitment. We feel content as we are.”

It is essential that you remain intentional about staying together, and about defining who you are as a couple. Galena Rhoades, Ph.D. and Scott Stanley, Ph.D., in a report titled “Before I Do,” sponsored by The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, identified that in past generations, people were much more intentional in their decisions to get married. You and your girlfriend seem quite intentional about not getting married. I encourage you to keep the dialogue open, and to feel free to revisit your decision as the months and years go by. After surveying more than 1,000 American couples, Stanley and Rhoades came to the conclusion that couples who are intentional in their choices, rather than merely coasting along and following others’ expectations, fare much better over time. Just because all those around you are implying or even overtly stating that marriage is the next logical step, if it’s not for you, then your wisdom in following what is right for you two will likely result in more peace and harmony between you as you make your way together going forward.

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  • Jonathan Shippey

    LMFT, Certified Gottman Therapist

    Jonathan Shippey is a Certified Gottman Therapist and Master Trainer with The Gottman Institute. He lives in Louisville, KY and has been a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice since 2000, specializing in couples therapy and also personalized multi-day couples intensives/private retreats. Prior to becoming a therapist, Jonathan was an army officer in Germany, serving first as a combat medic platoon leader and later as the company commander of the Heidelberg Army Hospital during Operation Desert Storm. If you would like more of these tips, visit Jonathan at www.jshippeylmft.com.