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.