Dear Thelma: He used to talk about marriage but now he avoids it

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Dear Thelma,

I have been in a three-year committed relationship with my boyfriend whom I met in college.

He had asked me out for dinner on New Year's Eve and I had agreed to it. We had an instant connection.

I was both physically and emotionally attracted to him, which came as a surprise seeing that I did not take him for my type.

Four days later, I confessed to him that it would be hard for me to stay friends with him when I clearly felt another way about him. He confessed to me that he liked me that way too.

Seventeen days later, after several dates, we got into a relationship. At first, I was hesitant about us continuing to date. He would finish his exams in a couple of months and then move to a new state to pursue his studies.

I, on the other hand, had two more years to go before I graduated.

So to meet in the middle, I told him we would date for another eight months and then review the relationship. We were both 23 at the time. I was only his second relationship and he was my first.

We agreed that if it was too difficult to continue a long-distance relationship, we would part ways amicably.

During those eight months, we got to know each other better, and fell deeper in love. Several times he even hinted at wanting to marry me and start a family together in his 30s.

Being a sceptic, I brushed this aside, thinking that it was too early in the relationship to determine such things.

I have had very clear opinions about relationships. I could never casually date, I dated for marriage. If my partner did not meet my expectations for a kind, caring partner, I would not pursue the relationship further.

But over the course of the eight months, he grew to become a very important person to me. He was funny, smart and generous. He had a thirst for life that matched mine. He was also equally ambitious.

Sure, we differed on certain matters like shared interests (I am an avid reader, he is a gamer) and our dessert preference (I have a sweet tooth, and he prefers savoury). However, our perspective on life and moral views were very much aligned. It made it easier to respect and understand each other.

As time went by, our long-distance relationship was hit with many obstacles. We dealt with him keeping me a secret to his family for the first year of the relationship because his last toxic relationship had left a bitter taste in their mouths.

We struggled with being isolated in our family homes during the Covid pandemic.

We faced the emotional abuse that was perpetrated by my own family towards me and him because they suffered from mental health issues and I come from a dysfunctional family.

We went through exam failures and job failures.

We stuck by each other when I relapsed into my depression and my anxieties worsened from staying with my parents.

Yet, through it all, we consciously worked on the relationship and put effort into improving ourselves as partners. This was when I knew for sure that he was someone I could get married to and start a family with in the distant future.

I understand that marriage is a huge undertaking. Which is why if I did get married, it would be in my 30s. At that point, I would be more financially secure, experienced and mature to take on the responsibilities of being a wife and eventually a mother. But before I committed to this idea, I needed to know if my boyfriend was on the same page.

Up until that point we had used labels, such as committed relationship and life partners to describe our relationship. So it came as a surprise to me when he recently refused to discuss anything related to getting married.

Every time I bring up the matter – such as, when he thinks it is a good time, how many children he wants, how we would raise them – he avoids it or our discussion escalates into a full-blown fight.

His response is that it is too distant in the future to think about. This however is inconsistent with his inclination to constantly discuss the future in terms of our financial goals and career paths (we have even started a business together).

I have noticed the reluctance to discuss the future is only in regards to the topic of marrying me. Mind you, I am not asking him to marry me now, just be open to talking about it to me. I am 26, and my 30s aren't too far away.

Having a family is important to me because I never had a proper familial life of my own. This is converse to what he has recently expressed to me that he wouldn't mind not ever getting married or having children.

We have realised that we both cannot discuss this in a neutral manner.

So I have decided that seeing a relationship counsellor is the best thing to do. But due to our poor financial situation now (we were hit quite badly by the pandemic), we can only afford time and money for counseling in a year or more. Herein lies my dilemma.

Do I weather this uncertainty, bury my questions and maintain this relationship until we can get help or do I put a pause on the relationship and focus on myself and my career first, and only when we get help do I once again commit to this relationship?

Both seem like bleak options to me. The first being my committing to a man who is not interested now in committing to me. The second is not participating in a relationship that has brought so much joy and support in my life. Please help.

Uncommitted Partner

Thank you for your very clear letter. It boils down to this: You want to date, marry and have kids on a schedule. When your partner was younger, he also wanted this. But as he is maturing, he is no longer sure if that is what he wants.

This worries you. However, people change as they add to their life experience. It's healthy. It's normal. It's inescapable.

This is why we date. We meet lots of different people, figuring out what we want in a life partner as we go along. And as we date and mature, our ideal match typically changes along with life changes such as leaving school, going to college, and getting our first job.

Your partner is evolving and there is no knowing where his thoughts will take him. Maybe he wants to be your business partner but not your husband. Or he may decide that he does want marriage and kids. With you, or maybe with someone else. At his age, he's just not sure yet, and that's perfectly normal.

He says he needs time to think and you should respect this. Furthermore, you should take this as an extremely positive sign.

Your partner could very easily have made lots of promises he isn't sure about. His actions show him to be a man of integrity and courage, and he is an open and authentic communicator.

Couples therapy may reveal some inner thoughts for both of you. However, I think you should first go and talk to someone by yourself.

You long for a partner, a family and kids. That's a reasonable dream. However, you started a tick-box plan at age 23 and now at age 26 you're desperately trying to control what happens more than four years from now.

This attitude is neither workable nor good for your long-term mental health. I say this because the world is a complex and surprising place. As you're seeing now, your partner is evolving, and this is making you upset and angry.

This will happen in many different areas of life. Therefore, your rigid attitudes, black-and-white thinking and need for certainty are likely to cause more difficulties for you down the road.

As you're from an abusive family, this is likely the source of your mindset. People who come from homes with little love and lots of upheaval often compensate by trying to control their environment.

A therapist skilled in dealing with abuse can have a good chat with you about how those dynamics have affected you. She will also help you work out what attitudes and behaviour you want to keep and what you want to change. If you haven't sorted your depression and anxiety, you can work on that too.

Take six months of regular sessions to unravel all this. Then, once you understand yourself better, and he has had time to think, you can see where you want to go with this relationship.

Whatever happens, talk kindly with your partner. You have a long history and too much goodwill to kill it by quarrelling. Also, even if you two can't take it to the next step, I think it should be a comfort that you picked a good man for your first relationship.

Good luck and know I'm thinking of you.

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