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He won’t propose because he fears divorce

Dr. Gail Saltz helps a woman whose boyfriend of five years is scared to get married, even though they both want children in the future. Should she wait for him to come around, or does he have a commitment problem?
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q: I have been dating my boyfriend for five years. We have a great relationship and I am ready to get married. He is 29 and says he is not ready yet, but will marry me eventually. I am 32 and want to start having kids soon. He also wants children in the future.

He says he wants to marry me and can’t see being with anyone else, but is scared to get married. He is afraid because the divorce rate is so high and people so easily get divorced these days.

I agree with this, but what can I do to ease his fears? I do not want to give up on him, but how long should I put aside my desires and remain patient with his fear of getting married? I have a really hard time leaving someone who I deeply love, and I can’t see not being with him for the rest of my life.

A. It’s true that a lot of people get divorced. Most fears contain at least a kernel of truth. Many people fear the financial devastation as well as the emotional devastation of divorce.

But the motivation to marry involves placing trust in both yourself and your partner that you are willing and able to work things out over the long term. There is a reason the traditional marriage vows make reference to “for better and for worse.”

It is unrealistic to expect a married life to be blissful at every moment. But the point isn’t to have a problem-free marriage. The point is that you hold the belief and make the commitment that, no matter what, the relationship is worth doing whatever it takes to see things through and remain together.

So is your boyfriend saying he doesn’t know if he can do that or he doesn’t know if you can do that? That’s the question you need to answer.

Are each of you people of your word? Does commitment mean something to you both? Does he have a track record of bailing on important things, whether it be a job, a big purchase or a big project? Do you?

This is the kind of conversation you need to have. If you cannot get an answer on your own, and if he is merely afraid of commitment, will he get the help he needs to resolve this?

The fact that he fears the divorce rate is not a good sign. It is not something that will change if he waits long enough. The divorce rate is not going to appreciably improve in a year or two.

If he said he needs six months to figure out what the problem is, that’s one thing. But he hasn’t said this. He has left you with a completely stagnant situation.

Five years is plenty of time to decide whether you are compatible. Delaying marriage and children makes sense if you are newly dating and you want to see how you get along over time.

Waiting also makes sense if someone has a particular goal with a deadline, like finishing grad school or passing a certification exam.

But he doesn’t have such a goal — just a vague statement that he isn’t ready and an amorphous fear that he doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t want to risk divorce.

If you want children, obviously your biological clock comes into play. There is no instant time pressure, but time pressure will arrive soon. Your fertility will become an issue if your boyfriend continues to waver about marrying and starting a family in the next few years.

If you give your boyfriend another year or two or three, you will find yourself in your mid-30s still wanting a child. What you want to avoid is finding yourself unable to have a baby because you have waited too long.

That isn’t to say that older women don’t have babies. But fertility starts dropping in your late 30s, and the odds become much slimmer.

If you really want a child and the man you love is putting that at risk and even taking that dream away from you, that will erode your love for him. You are already sounding impatient and irritated.

So I suggest you ask your boyfriend what needs to change before he can make a decision, and look into counseling if need be.

It is hard to put a time frame on this and say you should give him an ultimatum, but you should start making it clear to him that, if he refuses to make the decision to marry and plan a future with you, you will make the decision to stop waiting around and find someone who is willing and able to give you the future you desire.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If you wish to marry and have children, you really do need to have a two-sided commitment “for better or worse.” If either partner cannot commit, then staying anyway puts dreams of marriage and family at risk.

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 .