Like with anything in life, relationships have stages. And although a guidebook that pinpoints the exact right moment for every milestone would be mega helpful, the truth is, every duo moves at a pace that’s right for them. That’s why it can be a very tricky situation when you’re ready to cement your lifelong commitment with an engagement—and your partner isn't quite there yet.
The healthiest and happiest of relationships thrive off of communication and the willingness to discuss every nook and cranny of your mind and heart. But even if you and your number one are incredibly open with one another, bringing up the, "Hey, should we put a ring on it?" discussion can cause jitters in anyone. Psychologists weigh in on how to navigate this chat, so couples don't have to stress.
Why the Conversation Is Difficult
You and your person have been together for so many years, you both lose count. Or you’ve only shared one lap around the sun together—but it feels like you’ve known one another forever. Whatever the case, when you move from being boyfriend-girlfriend (or BF-BF and GF-GF) to engaged, you up the ante on intimacy. And that’s scary.
As a licensed professional counselor specializing in couples therapy, Crystal Bradshaw explains, the concept itself comes with built-in vulnerability and the possibility of rejection. “You're laying it all out there and your partner may not feel the same. What if you don't see eye to eye? What if your partner wants something different? What if they have a different vision of what the future looks like?” she continues. “You might discover you are not as ready as you thought. In having a conversation about getting engaged, there is the possibility of disappointment because you both may discover you are not on the same page after all.”
Some parties within the relationship (mostly women, Bradshaw notes) avoid discussing the topic at all, since they don’t want to be perceived as a "nag," or come across as annoying or pushy. Most ladies traditionally want to be proposed to as well, so they worry about announcing they want to get engaged because it could ruin the element of a romantic surprise.
No matter how anxious it may make you—or that person you wake up to every morning—Bradshaw deems the convo as healthy. And having conversations about the future is something to practice time and time again—think of it as a check-in. “It's not a one-and-done thing, it's many conversations over time,” she says. “You'll be confident in your future together once you've discussed engagement and marriage thoroughly and clearly define where you both stand on the subject and see how you view your future together.”
Be Mindful of the Timing
No, Bradshaw doesn’t mean a certain number of years or months of dating, but rather, your surroundings and what’s happening in your personal lives. As she puts it, a dinner party isn’t the smartest setting for a super-serious, are-we-going-to-get-hitched discussion. She also suggests easing into the topic by having a candid chat about where you both see your future is heading. After all, marriage at its core is about joining two lives together—not just a sparkly diamond or big party.
“Maybe you're ready to plant roots and want to move out of your apartment and into a house that's in a good neighborhood with a great school. Maybe you want to ditch the two-door sports car and get something more practical for a life that is evolving. Maybe you want to take that trip that you know will not be practical if you have kids, so perhaps discussing that dream trip is how you start that conversation,” she says. “The bottom line is that timing will help you, as well as the entry point you choose to bring up the conversation.”
Acknowledge It’s Weird
Because it may feel that way at first. As psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. explains, getting the "I know this is difficult to talk about but...” out of the way, in the beginning, can make it easier to speak freely. “Express that it seems like the time has come, at least for you, to express how you feel about your significant other and where you feel you are in the relationship. By letting your partner know this is hard for you to talk about too, it may encourage them to also have the courage, to be honest back with you,” she shares.
Talk About Your Relationship Dreams
Or in other words: Express your love. The desire to get engaged really boils down to the fact that you can’t imagine your life with anyone else. Especially if you fret over coming across as clingy or naggy, being straightforward about how deeply you love your partner can send the right message and illustrate how well you work as a team.
“Share your dreams with your partner. Those dreams can be visions of vacations, where you'll live, how you'll celebrate special occasions and holidays, how you envision spending your free time together, things you want to do together that you have yet to do, and things you are looking forward to doing,” she says. “By talking about your dreams, you are indirectly stating that you see both of you together for the long haul, and that can segue into a conversation about marriage.”
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Since you’re fishing around to better understand where your partner is on your relationship journey, open-ended questions can help you arrive at answers. But Bradshaw warns against being hypersensitive toward their answers, since sometimes, it doesn’t have anything to do with you, but a notion your partner has come up with all by themselves.
“Seek to understand their reasons for it versus taking it personally. It's just a different opinion at the moment of discussion and is not necessarily a reflection of the status of the future of your relationship, nor is it necessarily a direct reflection of you as a partner,” she adds. You want to be able to directly communicate your reasons for wanting to get married, why taking your relationship to the next level is important, and why it feels right to you. If you are able to clearly express your reasons for this, your partner is more likely to be open to hearing your thoughts on the subject.”
Here are some questions Bradshaw suggests to get the chat flowing:
- What does marriage mean to me/you?
- Why is marriage important to me/you?
- How does our experience from our own families and childhood shape our views of marriage?
- How will we keep our relationship strong through the years?
- What areas are we aligned on?
- What areas do we differ on? How will we negotiate/reconcile those differences?
- What do you want our marriage to look like?