Musings from outside the mainstream.
TORN IN OHIO is 19 years old and her boyfriend of 2 years, NED, is talking about marriage. She is worried that the relationship progressed too fast and says she is “afraid of hurting his feelings.” She asks DEAR ABBY what to do, because should he pop the question, her answer would be no.
DEAR ABBY responds by saying she should be honest and that “not wanting to upset someone would be a poor reason for getting married.” She goes on to say if he pops the question “it is perfectly all right” to tell him that she’s not ready for that kind of commitment. And “don’t allow him to stampede you into saying yes.” ABBY then suggests that someone who can’t take no for an answer could be a “warning sign” of someone who could be an “abuser.”
DEAR ABBY errs greatly in this response, and here’s why:
One, DEAR ABBY counsels TORN IN OHIO to wait until Ned pops the question, when she’s clearly getting signals that Ned has marriage on his mind and she has pretty clear feelings that she is not anywhere close to being ready. When a fellow is talking like this, and a woman’s feelings aren’t in alignment, the time to give him feedback is now. DEAR ABBY’s advice perpetuates unhealthy passivity in women, waiting for the guy to make the move and then react.
Two, DEAR ABBY’s transitions quickly to suggesting to be on the look out that NED could be a “potential abuser,” simply because he might be angry. But, wouldn’t anger be an understandable reaction if he’s been talking about his vision for a shared future for a while and his girlfriend hasn’t spoken up that she doesn’t share the same vision?
Dear TORN IN OHIO, if you have been getting signals from NED that he is talking about marriage or moving at a pace you are not ready for or don’t share the same view, it is past time to speak up. I suggest being proactive and initiating the topic. Don’t do this while on a date when he talks about it eagerly or when out with friends, but by saying, “Hey, NED I need to talk about something with you, kind of important, can we set aside some time?”
When that time comes, be simple and direct, “I’ve been hearing you talk about (marriage, kids, moving in together, etc.) and I’ve been thinking about it.” “Basically, I’m just not ready, and don’t know when I will be. I’m just 19 and have several things (name them) I want to do before marriage.” If you really love this guy, you might say, “You could be the one, but I don’t know yet.” But don’t say that to please him or to take off the sting if he’s obviously hurt. And don’t commit to any kind of timeline.
If he cannot hear this, or if you are uncomfortable broaching the subject, or you haven’t had this type of conversation in this relationship, that is probably a sign that your relationship is not mature enough to be talking about marriage. And honestly, OHIO, 19 is too young, you don’t sound like you love this guy. Go experience the world.
Because I am experimenting with responding to or writing each column with the idea that it can be shared with both the original letter writer and the person they were compelled to write in about, I’ll take this one step farther:
Dear NED, I think maybe you’re not listening for the things that are left unsaid. If you’re going to make any relationship work, realize that women often don’t speak up. This sucks and is kind of lame. But, that’s the way it is. As men, we have to pay attention to what she isn’t saying as well. I learned this the hard way. The next time you talk of marriage to OHIO, stop and observe her response. If she is silent or doesn’t say much, then ask her, “What do you think when I talk about a life together?”
Be prepared, what she says may hurt. It might be a sign that she is not right for you. But if any relationship is going to work you have to communicate verbally and pick up the subtle nuances of the other’s mood. From what OHIO writes, you both need to practice talking and listening to each other to different degrees.
OHIO and NED, it’s taken until I arrived in my mid-40s to realize how powerful relationship can be, when apprehension and assumption can be dropped and you can openly communicate with your partner. If you both want this to last, think of relationship as constant practice. Good luck.