On the Decision to Marry: A Guide for the Perplexed

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I read your column a few weeks ago about how to break off a relationship. I have the opposite problem.  I did break up with a wonderful woman a year ago and now I regret it.  I regret it a lot.

The only reason I broke up with her was that she said she wanted children with me and wanted to be married.  She’s a physician and certainly doesn’t need my money.  She loved me, as I’ve loved her, for several years.

A year ago I was between teaching jobs and was fearful of marrying her and starting a family when I didn’t have a secure position.  In the interim, I’ve gotten a very secure job, a tenured professorship of English literature, and now I think I want to marry her.

We’ve stayed in touch, intermittently, about twice a month.  How do you suggest I get back together with her and see whether I’m ready to propose?  She hasn’t married since we broke up and has emailed me that she isn’t in a relationship now.

Serious at Sonoma State

Dear Serious,

Congratulations on your tenured professorship.

The first question I have is whether you explained your reasons for hesitation a year ago, or whether you just told your physician friend — I’ll call her Dr. Wright – that you weren’t interested in marriage. She may have understood that without a secure job you felt uncomfortable taking on the responsibility of marriage and a family.

Assuming that’s the case, I suggest you get in touch with her as soon as possible and say you’d like to celebrate your new teaching post with her, and make clear in your invitation that there’s no one with whom you’d rather celebrate this great news. That would be a difficult invitation to turn down.  And it would signal to her that she’s still the most important person in your emotional life, even after your break-up. She may have been feeling like this since you were last together:

Assuming she accepts, the question then becomes whether you feel ready to propose over that first dinner. Are you now sure that you definitely want to be her husband?  One break-up is hard enough on a couple. A second one would certainly seal your fate with her forever, and not in a good way.  So, if you’re at all unsure, move forward with some caution.

By the same token, I’d make it very clear to her from that first dinner that you’d like to be back in her life with serious marital intentions. If she was ready to get married a year ago, that means that she feels this is her time to marry, and you should let her know that you’re serious about it now that your circumstances have changed.

See her as frequently as you can until you’re 100% positive that you not only regret not marrying her last year, but that you have no serious doubts now. I say this because sometimes, when external factors make a life-changing decision such as marriage infeasible, one ignores other potential problems that might exist.

Your understandable feeling that you didn’t want to begin your marriage while unemployed might have closed your eyes to other problems that might also have prevented you from marrying Dr. Wright, but to which you never gave serious thought because marriage was precluded on other grounds.

So, once you celebrate your tenure together, I’d suggest taking it slowly at first, examining the relationship and your feelings when you’re with her now that the potential for marriage is a reality, as it wasn’t a year ago.

Here are a few questions worth exploring:

In addition to loving Dr. Wright, do you like her? Do you have fun together — not at a movie, not at a game, not at a restaurant, not in bed, not with friends, but just together? Is each of you the other’s idea of his or her favorite companion in the world, an attentive listener, and invariably enjoyable to be around?  Do you feel like this about each other?


Now that marriage is a real possibility, do you notice any characteristics of hers that might become major problems in the future? When you disagree, do you do so with angry shouts, or are you able to work out differences by listening to each other and understanding the other’s feelings, point of view, and experiences that have led up to the moment of disagreement? Does one of you always have to be “right”?

In the words of the extraordinarily insightful author and psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams, “Learn to listen to the small rumblings of irritation and anxiety in yourself….”  Examine them carefully in an effort to discover what’s causing them and what those “rumblings” are telling you. With 20/20 hindsight, people often say, “I should have paid more attention to my intuition and my misgivings, but I was swept away by my feelings.”

This is not to suggest that feelings aren’t at the heart of the decision to marry: of course they are. But it is to say that other factors enter into the decision in addition to the glorious and exciting emotions you and Dr. Wright feel.

Have you discussed religious beliefs, whether you’d become members of a congregation, and how you’d like to raise your children? This is a good time to sort that out, rather than days after your first child is born when you discover then that she wants a baptism while you want a bris.

Try to think of the elements of life that are very, very important to each of you and discuss whether you’re on the same page or even reading from the same book.

Making a list of what’s important to each of you could be helpful.

There are practical elements to being married — real practical. Does one of you have a higher tolerance for messiness than the other? Or for noise? Does one of you have zero tolerance for certain ingrained habits of the other? It’s definitely possible to love someone very, very much and be unable to be happily married to that person.

Do you have similar viewpoints on friends and on how sociable you’re comfortable being? Does she like your friends, and vice versa? After marriage, you won’t be living in a vacuum — you’ll still have a social life and it will tend to include friendships you’ve each formed separately. Is one of you more of a hermit and the other more outgoing?

Popular songs, films, and proverbs to the contrary notwithstanding, love does not conquer all. It cannot conquer certain basic incompatibilities, or critically important differences in priorities.

I have a dear friend who received a proposal of marriage from a Canadian man who assumed that living in Vermont would be an ideal compromise between Virginia and Montreal. One of this woman’s goals in life is never to see another snowflake. Vermont wasn’t her idea of a compromise. She didn’t accept his proposal. Will you and Dr. Wright be able to live in the same place?  Although bi-coastal marriages do exist, typically in a marriage, geography is destiny.

How will each of you feel when one of you has to attend professional conferences without the other? Will you trust her on solo trips to Hawaii for meetings of the American Medical Association? Will she be able to tolerate your four-day absences at conferences of the Modern Language Association? You don’t want to feel like this:


Who will be at home to raise your children? Assuming that Dr. Wright doesn’t want to stop practicing medicine and that you don’t want to give up teaching, what arrangements will you make for one of you, or someone else, to be with your baby, child, or children?

What will you do if, for some reason, one of you is unable to have children? Would you adopt? Would you both agree to medical interventions to assist in conception?

Apartment or house? Who’ll keep it clean? Dog, cat, both, other pet(s), or none? Who will shop for food?  Who’ll cook? Do you like the same foods? If you can afford vacations, does one of you prefer the beach, and the other the slopes? Do you have similar sexual drives, or is one of you frequently subject to “headaches” whenever the other is in the mood?


What about having parents live with you after their spouses die, or when they become infirm? Do you like each others’ families and/or siblings? Have you met them? It’s a good idea to do so before you propose joining your lives until death do you part.  Dr. Wright’s family can make an enormously positive difference to your marriage — or not. The same with yours.

While no one can anticipate every possible eventuality in life, everything I’ve mentioned is easily foreseeable. The fact that you can’t know everything in advance doesn’t mean you should settle for knowing nothing beforehand.

Many states require premarital counseling in an effort to decrease the number of divorces. Anyone who goes into a marriage with the idea that “if it doesn’t work out, we can always get a divorce” hasn’t experienced a divorce.  And anyone who believes that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” isn’t a good candidate for a stable, long-term marriage.

By making an effort to examine each of your hopes and dreams, I urge you not to become overly concerned when all of your preferences don’t line up in perfect harmony. Down here on Earth, they won’t. Since you and Dr. Wright aren’t clones of each other, there will be differences.

For that reason, it’s equally important to figure out what is, in effect, non-negotiable for each of you (the equivalent of my friend’s refusal to live her life under falling snowflakes), and similarly, where each of you can be flexible because a specific issue isn’t a make-or-break one, but merely a preference.

As you get to know each other even better, it’s essential to know yourself, at least to the degree that you know the difference between what you must have as distinct from what you’d merely like to have. In long marriages, many originally disparate habits and preferences tend to converge between spouses over time.

Money is often a problem in marriages, and not necessarily because of a lack of it, but rather because of differing spending habits and radically opposing attitudes toward spending and saving, as well as tolerance for risk.  If one loves playing the stock market and the other finds it painfully anxiety-producing,  it’s worthwhile to explore these attitudes before saying, “I do.”

You can’t anticipate everything, but you can anticipate a lot.  Try doing exactly that.  After all, you do want a lifetime of mutual devotion.

Marriage is a daily and nightly experience. It continues 24/7 until death do you part. This is the person you’ll be dating every night for the rest of your life.  Some of those dates will take place in emergency rooms and later in hospital rooms. Both well-known and little-known diseases can strike at any moment, as can drunk drivers or just plain bad luck.  You’ll need the capacity to love and care for each other when you’re neither as young, as healthy, or as good-looking as you are today.

The decision of whether you want to marry is based not only on your hopes and goals, but also on how well you get along as a team working toward those objectives. Four key qualities will be invaluable whatever vicissitudes come your way — as come they will: kindness, empathy, patience, and flexibility.

After you’ve explored what’s important to each of you, what you most want to achieve in your marriage and in your life together, if you believe that you not only love each other, but also like and respect each other and would sacrifice for the other, in sickness as in health, and can see yourselves not as two “me’s” but as one “us” (albeit composed of two individuals), then — and I’d say, only then — drop to one knee and propose.

— Belladonna Rogers

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