Ask A Psychologist: Where Is My Relationship Going?


Do I give it more time or is this a road to nowhere?

by Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

Ask A Psychologist: Where Is My Relationship Going? | A Practical Wedding

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.

Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

Shara Marrero Brofman, Psy.D., is a psychologist who values all things practical. She studied Child Development at Tufts University and worked in case management and clinical research before earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University. Dr. Brofman practices in New York City and has special interests in women’s and reproductive mental health. She can be contacted at drsharabrofman at gmail dot com. Photo by Smitten Chickens.

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  • megan

    Great advice! one thing that stood out to me about the question was: “Instead of discussing the time frame of our future together, he switched the subject to what we can do to strengthen our relationship together.”

    to me, this is actually a good sign. he does not want to end the relationship and he does want to move forward with you- working together to strengthen the relationship is a way of moving forward, even if it is not recognized by other people. When my now-husband and I first started fighting about engagement and marriage, we took a step back and spent some time really working on our relationship and now I am so glad that we did. We also made a commitment to each other that we would spend one year working on our relationship and then make a decision about the future. that made me feel better because I knew that I wouldn’t be waiting forever and it made him feel better because he knew he had some time to figure it all out. we then went to get ice cream every sunday for a year and set aside that time to do the hard work. (we followed the book “lifelong love” by Peter Sheras and Phyllis Koch-Sheras) it also gave us a taste of commitment, because when things got rough and we wanted to quit we couldn’t simply because we had made a promise to stay together no matter what for one year. the biggest thing i learned from the experience is that we had to be a team. instead of saying “i want this” we said “what is best for the couple? how can we move the couple forward in a positive way?”. in that way it was not him vs me, it was us working together.

    • KC

      That also stood out to me, although potentially as a “if we can strengthen our relationship such that I’m comfortable sooner, then the timeline might be shorter” thing. Which might be the case; if he’s waiting for a “okay, we’ve talked through this much of the hard stuff” or an “okay, we’re trusting each other more” or similar before he feels ready, then that needs both work and time… but work can decrease the quantity of time.

      I hope whatever happens goes well!

    • Kat F

      I didn’t feel like Liking this comment was enough! This part of the letter jumped out at me too. While I understand it must be frustrating to feel like you’re being tested and evaluated (we must improve X to Y level before Z), I agree that him wanting to work on the relationship is a good thing and not a further hurdle, even if that’s what it felt like. I love your story of the 1-year plan with serious commitment to sticking together and doing the hard work and making time to prioritize the relationship. I can’t speak to how this timeline interacts with the kids timeline, but it definitely seems like a good approach for your relationship. Best of luck!

    • MC

      Ice cream + working on strengthening your relationship sounds like the BEST way to do things.

      • megan

        it really was. we still schedule “ice cream dates” if there is anything serious to talk about. :)

    • Anon

      Agreed.

      It can be REALLY hard to be the one who’s ready first and wonder when you’ll be on the same page, but this is a fantastic response. It’s not as much of a deflection/conversation shifter as it may appear. Think of it this way: you’ve asked a question that may not have an answer (when will you “be ready”?). It’s tough to have a hard deadline on this because it’s like asking him to predict his emotional state in a year. I’m in an eerily similar situation, and I haven’t given a firm date because I simply don’t know when it will happen and don’t want to force it. Instead, you just need to focus on the things that you think WILL get you to that decision point. For me, it was simply time, building trust, making memories, getting him to meet my folks.

      Objectively speaking, it sounds like you have a good relationship with someone who just needs more time, not someone who’s trying to string you along. (The former engagement wasn’t terribly long ago, so it makes sense if he’s still hurting from that.) Get the family discussion out on the table and see if you can’t find a middle ground. It sounds like that’s one of the hurry-up factors here.

    • Helen

      Yeah, I was the ‘not-ready’ person in my relationship. I couldn’t give
      deadlines, but what I could give her was a promise to work on it, to
      hear her feelings and do everything to give her as much security as I
      could. I’ve been married before, so I know what it is to walk blindly
      into things. I’ve made mistakes and I want to work really hard not to
      make them again. I’m glad she gave me the time and found comfort in the
      grey. We’re getting married in June!

  • Karen

    Well, it sounds like the main problem is that he had proposed to someone else only 4 months before you started going out, so he definitely wouldn’t have been over that relationship yet. But that won’t help your biological clock feelings. I would highly recommend buying this book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Impatient-Womans-Guide-Getting-Pregnant/dp/1451620705
    Seriously, she is excellent on the real science (or lack thereof) of fertility between ages 35-40. Maybe if you can read the book on your own, it will help you feel that you’re moving forward on the having kids thing (it has diet recommendations, etc.) even if he’s not on board yet. I would prioritize the kids thing as #1 over the marriage thing, just because of time issues.

  • http://cafeaubride.blogspot.com/ Catherine

    “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. ” amen.

    • macrain

      I think we also fall into black and white because we just want some certainty. We’ve talked about Brene Brown on here before, but one of the things she talks about is letting go of the need for certainty as a means of living whole heartedly.

    • Jess

      Yup. I’m working on being ok with The Grey (I’ve given it proper noun status recently), because man, that’s tough. I love certainty and clear expectations. I freak out when I don’t have them. But I’m getting better at saying to myself, “Why am I uncomfortable right now? Oh, it’s because of The Grey. Well. I’ll take a deep breath and keep moving. Can’t change The Grey.”

  • http://lwdress.com Allie

    There is so much good advice here that applies to so many situations. Really embracing the grey area and appreciating your current relationship (seriously, he sounds like a good guy) as it is, is difficult but necessary. What’s that quote about living in the past makes us depressed, living in the future makes us anxious and living in the now brings us peace?

    I split with my fiance a year ago and at the time, I was prepared for being married and having children. Now, starting over again, I find myself pushing my current (wonderful) relationship when I should be enjoying every moment. If he’s “the one” then moving in together is inevitable and I should enjoy pooping in private now because I’ll have a happy lifetime of complaining about dirty laundry on the floor, right?

  • http://byov.blogspot.com/ iris

    It’s worth noting that those “female fertility does decline after age thirty-five” statistics are from 1700s France (according to BBC, anyways), so those numbers might actually be much better. Here’s an article about it: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24128176

    Maybe the biological clock is a little further away than we all think?

    • ElisabethJoanne

      It was a cover story in The Atlantic maybe a year ago, too. Basically, women’s fertility at 35 is comparable to their fertility at 25 if the older women just track ovulation better.

  • macrain

    Wow, this really resonated with me! Wonderful advice. I was definitely ready for marriage sooner than my now fiance. Waiting was agonizing for me too. We dated for five years before he was ready to propose. I also get frustrated with his unwillingness to set timeframes (like, right now he won’t tell me exactly when we’ll start having kids)- he just won’t do it. I want black and white and as Shara points out- I need to be a bit more comfortable with hanging out in the gray area.
    I feel like that 35 number just stares me in the face every time I find out another close friend is pregnant. I feel like that number promises some security if I can cross the finish line (ie, have kids) before I reach it, but- there are no guarantees, are there?
    This sounds so hard. My thoughts are with you.

    • Katherine

      Also, it’s important to remember that “it gets harder after 35″ is about averages, which may or may not be correct. I got married just before turning 25 (to a husband who was almost 42), and we worried a lot about the getting pregnant thing. As it turned out, I got pregnant insanely easily at the age of 35. And other people have trouble getting pregnant at the age of 20. It’s not just about general statistics, but about your biology and your partners…and those are things we aren’t very good at predicting yet.

      my thought is that it’s far better to have potentially reduced fertility than to get married and have a kid with the “wrong” person because you’re scared. (Not that I think that there’s a “right” person out there, or that there’s any evidence that this person is in the wrong relationship; I’m just speaking generally here.)

    • Anon

      I am going to go ahead and say something that I expect many of you will disagree with because I think it’s really important to consider. The idea that women should be willing to patiently wait for men to be ready — to marry or to have kids– is extremely troubling to me. We should be comfortable in gray areas while they control the timeframe of major life events?

      Of course compromise is necessary, and of course you don’t want to force people into things.

      But– the whole “I’m not ready” thing is often a subverted power play. I hear this kind of comment all the time, and I don’t hear women acknowledge that they are giving something up, even when they are in agony with the frustrations of waiting. We think we need to be patient and strong, and that it is weak and needy to want more control over the timing of marriage and /or children . I also don’t hear men admitting that they are enjoying their typical patriarchal role : power, and the benefit of someone to nurture them and have sex with them. It’s a tough thing to admit, but severing sex from marriage and childbearing in the popular imagination makes it so easy for men to pretend they’re egalitarian when they are acting particularly selfish.

      • ElisabethJoanne

        I would hope that there are not conscious power plays in supposedly loving relationships. But I do know that I often have to explain to my husband how his decisions or indecision affects me. I also find that men may be less aware of women’s biological fertility issues, as well as less aware of women’s social fertility issues. For example, no one’s asked my husband when we’re having kids, but I get asked by complete strangers. I tell him about this stuff so he can know about how decisions we make together affect me individually.

        I think it would be totally acceptable for this letter writer to flesh out some likely consequences of her boyfriend’s indecision – sometimes delaying a decision works out to a decision. She might give him some reputable medical information about women’s age and fertility and explain that delaying the decision to try to conceive may end up being to decide to never have biological children. If it’s an additional issue for her (It is for me.), she may give him some stories about infertility treatments to explain why she’s eager to avoid them. She should do this in a spirit of explaining her feelings. “I feel X, because I’ve read Y and think Z about it. Here’s Y if you want to understand more” or “Please read Y so we can talk about it together.”

      • macrain

        I have to say, Anon, that your comment hit me like a ton of bricks. Because sometimes I DO think my partner is acting selfishly. Do I think he is a selfish person? Absolutely not.
        I totally agree with ElisabethJoanne about explaining how your partner’s indecision is impacting you. I did that recently and he indicated it was really eye opening, and that he had no idea.
        I do think there is some truth to what you are saying, but it doesn’t help me personally to view my situation through the lense of “my partner is being selfish.” All that does is make me desperate and demanding and also- miserably sad.

  • Jane

    The psychologist’s response showed me why I would make an extraordinarily crappy psychologist! Heh. My advice would be very different! I’m going to share my story, here, but I actually think the psychologist did a much better job than me–my story is what made sense with MY personality. Still, it might help OP.

    I was in a similar relationship quandary about a year before I met my husband, although I am four years younger than the OP. I was with a guy who just would not commit to marriage, and I knew I wanted kids ASAP–I was 31 at the time and would like at least two kids, and didn’t want to be forced by my biological clock to have them one-after-the-other. Also, I am well aware of the potential difficulty in conceiving children, and didn’t want to put off trying for a baby much longer. Yes, the 35 year age cut-off is a bit arbitrary, but it’s no myth that infertility happens to lots of couples and can take a lot of time and money to solve. I wanted time to be on my side.

    I broke it off with that boyfriend. We’d been dating for about a year, and it was a good, fun, nourishing relationship…but we wanted different things out of life and I just wasn’t willing to compromise. Being a wife and a mom are important to me, and I wasn’t going to apologize for it. And eventually I found it hard on my self-esteem to be with a man who was dithering about marrying me

    Thus followed a very mellow year of dating a bit but not getting physically or emotionally entangled with anybody. Occasionally I questioned my decision to break up with the fun, great boyfriend who didn’t want marriage, but not much. I didn’t contact my ex at all. And then I met my husband, who is wonderful and very interested in marriage and family. We dated for seven months before getting engaged, and then were married five months later. Three months later, I’m pregnant (due in September)! And we’re both over the moon.

    I think if a girlfriend came to me with this problem, my advice would be…be honest with yourself about what you want, and don’t feel like wanting marriage and family are illegitimate desires in the face of a relationship with a man who wants different things. With my ex-boyfriend, I had this epiphany that even if I finally got him to marry me…who wants to drag a man to the altar? And what kind of a father would he make? Was I okay with just being a girlfriend my whole life? For me, the answer was no.

    I guess you could figure that out with the handy chart thing the psychologist mentioned. That chart is a GREAT idea!

    • Anon

      I think your story shows something crucial that was missing from the ( generally very thorough and thoughtful ) advice and from the other comments I have seen so far. Not all ” I’m not ready for marriage” statements mean the same thing. Sometimes it means someone is dithering and unwilling to compromise. It’s also not fair to say that waiting is a compromise while marrying is one person “winning.” When one person is ready and one isn’t, waiting is the non-ready person getting exactly what that person wants.

    • BeeAssassin

      I think your point about “finally getting him to marry you” is a good one to think about. Realistically, how long will the OP be ok with waiting without being permanently tinged with bitterness? I mean this as a genuine question. 6 months may be ok, but if he finally proposes after a year (or whatever time) will she be happy, or upset that it took him so long to get around to it? If her goal is a biological family, and she sticks with this guy and then has infertility problems, will she blame him? It’s hard to predict, and takes some honesty with yourself, but it’s an important question.

      I had a somewhat similar issue with my fiancee. He’s actually the one who wants kids; I’m ambivalent but open to it. However, I told him that if he wanted kids with me, we needed to get the ball rolling because I wasn’t going to put myself through the wringer of trying to get pregnant – and raising kids – as an older parent – it helped that I wasn’t the one who definitely wanted kids. If he decided he didn’t want kids, I was fine with never getting married. But I needed to know so that I could make a decision and plan things accordingly (break up with him if he wanted kids but never wanted to get married; I was at a certain career point where I could have moved up faster if we weren’t going to have kids; etc.)

      It took him another year to propose, for various very valid emotional and logistical reasons. 99.9% of the time when I look at my engagement ring I’m very happy; but there’s that 0.1% of the time when I think, “Did I drag this guy into it?” It’s still something I work on, but I know myself well enough to know that if he had waited any longer I would have broken up with him because it would have been too hard for me to get over that niggling doubt.

  • Crayfish Kate

    THIS SERIES IS A GREAT IDEA. Thank you for starting it! :-D

  • Anon

    This is something I’m struggling with now. I’ve been with my partner for 7 years, and have been ready to get engaged and then married for at least 3 of those; recently it came to a head. We are much younger than the OP, but 7 years is a really long time. I feel frustrated when friends who have been dating their partners a third of the time we’ve been together or less start saying that they don’t want to wait much longer to get engaged, they wish their partner would just propose already. Mine’s thought about it several times, and each time he told me after that he decided not to. I get asked “Why don’t you just propose? It’s not the 1900′s anymore”. Well, I did, and he said “No.” But I don’t feel comfortable telling people that; it was intensely painful to get rejected, and a few months later I finally admitted that.

    It feels like I’m giving up by just waiting for him to be ready, that he’s “getting what he wants”. But after probing deeper, finally, and with the help of our own individual psychologists, it turns out that this indecision is partly inflicted by his depression. He feels in his core that he is not good enough, that he will not be able to fulfil the role of husband and father, even though it’s something he wants and has wanted for a few years now. Something we’ve been discussing since nearly the start of our relationship. It turns out, when you start asking “what’s good for us as a couple?”, it might mean “waiting”, but that’s really far too passive a word for what we’re going through. We’re fighting our way through to the point where we are both ready for engagement and marriage.

    I’d recommend starting to talk to him about what marriage and a family and so on means to you, and get as far down into the nitty-gritty and incredibly deep and meaningful stuff as you can handle each time you talk. Then you might find out exactly what’s holding him back.

  • TODD

    Sorry, after that much time (and at 48) – and the guy isn’t ready yet? If he has commitment fears, he shouldn’t be in a relationship or dating. Seek out the most elusive traits: emotional literacy and integrity for self, only then can we find it in another. I’d make myself less available/accesable and if he doesn’t pursue you diligently…..