Today we introduce a new series: Ask A Psychologist! Here at APW, we believe there is a huge need for real and helpful information on mental health and relationships, especially when it comes to finding out the basics: when is a relationship in real trouble, and when are you just having a fight? When do you need to see a therapist? What pop psychology is actually total bullshit? To submit a question for Ask A Psychologist, select Advice from the drop down menu when filling out our guest submissions form.
Q: I need some advice on how to proceed with my relationship. My boyfriend and I have been dating for one year and eight months. Our relationship is fun, loving and satisfying. I have to mention our age: I’m thirty-eight and he is forty-eight. We have been causally discussing our future together for a few months. Actually, I finally officially asked him where the relationship was going five months ago. His was a little freaked out and said he wasn’t nearly ready for that kind of commitment. He proposed to his ex two years ago and she ended up cheating on him, and they broke up. He said he needed more time, but it should be less than a year. I tried to be very supportive and patient. Five months later I asked him again about how he felt about moving forward. He said he had made progress by spending more time with me, but he still needed more time. I asked him how much time he needed, but he wasn’t comfortable giving me an answer because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to live up to the promise. I am beyond frustrated at this point. I want a family, and the idea of waiting potentially indefinitely is soul crushing. Instead of discussing the time frame of our future together, he switched the subject to what we can do to strengthen our relationship together. I was furious at that response. I love him and I think we are very good together. He is a great boyfriend and a great person overall. But I feel very insecure about our future together. Part of me wanted to give him more time, and part of me wanted to end the agony with him and stop wasting time. I really need some advice on what to do.
A: You bring up an important concern, and my guess is that many readers identify with your experience in some way. Being on the same page as our partners can be challenging. You have found a wonderful man with whom you hope to spend the rest of your life. This is awesome. At the same time, you are ready to move forward in a way that, right now, he is not. It makes sense that you’re feeling frustrated and upset. The good news is that many couples figure out a way to move forward from a conflict like this. Sometimes it involves working out a creative solution that you haven’t yet thought of; sometimes it involves compromise; and sometimes it involves both.
Sometimes it might mean a relationship ending and going your own ways, but it doesn’t have to. There are many angles to consider, and the important thing, uncomfortable as it may be, is to allow yourself time to be in the grey area. That is, to think less in black and white terms (e.g. If _________ doesn’t happen [by this time], this relationship won’t work) and more in the grey (e.g. If _________ doesn’t happen, we could do A, B, or C to make the relationship work or choose a different solution/we are doing the best we can).
We tend to fall into black and white thinking because it’s easier and we want to make quick conclusions. The grey is less pleasant, but most of reality is in the messier grey area. Allowing yourself some time in that middle ground is a tool that will serve you well throughout your life—and ultimately, it will probably help you to feel better. Here are my thoughts about your concerns.
First, it’s important to remain open with your partner about your feelings and concerns. It sounds like you’re already starting to do this, so that’s a good thing. Give each other the time and space to be fully honest. It may be difficult, but it will help you to understand each other’s perspectives and problem-solve more effectively. It’s important to understand each other’s personal histories, your experiences together, and each of your hopes and concerns about the future, as well as how all of those pieces interact.
Don’t forget to acknowledge the positive aspects of your relationship. When we’re upset, we naturally focus on negative stuff. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to your concerns—they’re important, and they’re telling you that something may need to change. But don’t let them take over, especially if that’s making you feel more stuck.
Consider your needs as individuals as well as your needs as a couple. What is most important to each of you, and what is most important to you as a couple? How do you envision your future together? In what ways do these ideas and hopes overlap, in what ways are they different, and how might you work to find common ground? In what ways would you not be willing to compromise?
Weigh the pros and cons of working through a particular change in your life or relationship by using a Decisional Matrix. You draw a graph with four squares: Pros of making the change, cons of making the change, pros of keeping things the same, cons of keeping things the same. It doesn’t work perfectly for every problem, but it often helps to fully consider all your options by reducing confusion and keeping the mind open.
Your concerns about having a family are valid. If having children is something that’s important to you, your partner should fully understand that. And, if you want to have biological children, female fertility does decline after age thirty-five. That being said, there are many ways to create a family these days—more than ever, in fact, and many of which make parenting later a possibility. Many couples have success with reproductive medicine technologies, choose to adopt, or parent foster children. The options are overwhelming, and it’s important to think about what you would and wouldn’t be comfortable with, and to discuss things openly with your partner. If parenting soon is important to you, that’s something to think about in terms of your personal needs and your needs as a couple. Consider setting aside the time to meet with a mental health professional to talk things out and gain an objective perspective. A counselor or therapist is trained to help you to sort through your thoughts and feelings, either on your own, or as a couple.
Last, your question reminded me of Liz’s advice on waiting for a proposal. Something to reflect on: What is it about the idea of being engaged? If it’s to move toward having a family, would you and your partner consider having a family without being engaged or married? Is it the idea of marriage or having a wedding, or impatience? Could your concerns be resolved if you give things a little more time and enjoy your relationship now? Is there something else factoring in? Allow yourself the time to mull over these ideas. Give yourself some space and try not to be judgmental of your own thoughts.