Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I have been seriously dating my boyfriend more than two years, and we live together. I have expressed more than once that I want to be married, and that it is something I value and want in life, and we had a lengthy conversation about it a couple of months ago. He always tells me he’s “not ready, but maybe one day,” and says the same thing with having kids.
We’ve had our ups and downs, and lately I feel as though he doesn’t actually want to marry me or make any big commitments. I am almost 30, and don’t want to wait around forever for him to make up his mind. It took about nine months for him to just call me his girlfriend.
I’ve also written him notes to fully articulate my feelings without him interjecting, and he doesn’t usually write much back. It is defensive, or he will say something like “thanks for sharing.” I don’t know where most of his feelings lie about any of this, and I am being very transparent.
Should I just start to accept that we in fact do not want the same things?
Carolyn says: Or accept that even if you do want the same things, you won’t know that because he doesn’t talk to you. Except, apparently, to interrupt you while you’re trying to talk or to be dismissive of what you take the trouble to write down.
What you describe isn’t the absence of an engagement or of common goals — it’s an absence of intimacy. Intimacy takes two people who are being transparent with each other about their feelings for each other, and about their hopes, goals, fears, doubts and frailties. So if it’s intimacy you want, then this isn’t the person you want for a life partner, even if he proposes to you today.
And if it’s really marriage you want, by the book — the institution, the piece of paper, the vows, the filing status — then I might want to warn him away from you as well. Maybe your day-to-day warmth and intimacy are right where you both want it and you simply get stuck on this one subject, in which case, I withdraw that remark with my apologies. But judging from your letter, you’re pressing to formalize a relationship that flat out isn’t working in some fundamental ways — “thanks for sharing”? seriously? — and this says you’re due to revisit your principles on commitment.
To start at the beginning is not to start dating new people because you’re 30 and getting nervous. The beginning is to get to know yourself well. The next step is to pay attention as you get to know different people — friends, classmates, colleagues, neighbors and etc., not just dates. This is how you keep learning what does and doesn’t work. If you find someone you don’t want to go through life without, and it’s mutual, then you decide mutually on a legal coupling status of fill-in-the-blank.
Satisfaction is never guaranteed, but you have a better shot at it that way than if you decide you don’t want to go the rest of your life without marriage, then set out to find a partner who fills in the blank. A subtle distinction with often unsubtle results.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.