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In ‘great relationship’ with commitment-phobe

What should a woman do when the man in her life — and the father of her child — won’t marry her or say he loves her? Dr. Gail Saltz offers up advice and food for thought.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. I am in a great relationship with my boyfriend. We have a child together and live together as well. We rarely fight, have many things in common and I think that we both feel we have a really great relationship.

The problem is that I want to get married and he doesn't. He has no problem telling me that we're going to spend our lives together. We are merging our finances and obviously have made sure the other would be taken care of in case something happened to either of us.

I'm so confused as to what to do, as marriage is something I really want. He just doesn't seem to understand. He also, after several years of being together, cannot or will not tell me he loves me. If I ask, all he will commit to is to tell me he thinks things are working.

I wonder sometimes if I should leave, but the thought of upsetting our daughter keeps me from making that decision. She's so happy and has such a nice life with us that I'm not sure I should rock the boat. He seems to think that even if one of us left, it would not make a difference. Is there any hope for this or do I just live with it?

A. Though I cannot tell you what to do, I can give you some things to think about.

But before I do, I will note that people who write to me usually don't have a great relationship, even though their letter often begins by saying they do, as yours does.

It sounds that being married is important to you. If your boyfriend says that you will be spending your lives together, and if you have a joint household, joint finances and even a child, then I wonder: What are his reasons for not wanting to get married? He has nearly all the trappings of marriage. This sounds fishy.

So the first thing that will help is to find out why he doesn't want to get married. Is he gun-shy because his parents had a horrible marriage? Is he politically opposed to marriage? Does he feel he has nothing to gain from the institution?

Sometimes people have worthy reasons for wanting to remain unmarried. Others feel marriage is not important to them, but they do it because it is important to the partner they love.

But your situation gets even fishier. It sounds as though the one thing your boyfriend wants is the ability to remain emotionally uncommitted.

He cannot tell you he loves you? Do you really want to spend your life and raise a child with a man who cannot tell you he loves you? What's up with that?

This isn't just about a marriage license. This man is either unwilling or unable to commit emotionally to you. I think you need some explanation from him as to why he cannot express his love. Or maybe he doesn't love you?

His blasé statement that he “thinks things are working” is an observation on his part. Things are working for him. After all, he has the lack of commitment he wants. But things are not working for you. You want to be with somebody who expresses his love and demonstrates his commitment.

Maybe he likes you well enough. Maybe he finds you to be a fine sex partner, a caring mother and a good cook. But you have no indication that he loves you the way you want to be loved. So you need to decide for yourself how important it is to be with somebody who loves you back.

If you had written before you had the baby and said you really wanted to get married and have a child with a man who doesn't want to get married but does want a child, I would have told you not to get pregnant. He now has what he wants — a baby — but you don't have what you want — marriage. You are not a team.

I will add that I wonder whether your boyfriend is depressed. A man who says it would make no difference if either of you left is expressing a great amount of apathy. That level of apathy could indicate depression. He might need counseling or medication, and I would suggest you accompany him to an appointment with a therapist to get a better handle on whether a fear of commitment or depression lie with him or whether the issue is he just doesn't love you.

But suppose he is apathetic because he just doesn't have many feelings toward you one way or the other. Can you be happy in a relationship if he believes it doesn't matter if one of you disappeared tomorrow? Maybe you can, but maybe you can't. You will likely find your resentment only building over time. It has already started.

The problem for you is that he may someday stumble upon someone he feels differently about, and will feel no compunction about leaving. He has left the door open for this. After all, you are not married! In his head, he is a free agent.

He might or might not find someone else, but in his mind he still has the option.

You need to see what can be done to improve this relationship or decide whether you would be better off by leaving. It won't make a difference to him. But it will make a difference to you.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: It's hard to have a loving relationship when the love is really only one-sided.

Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit .