How Long Should You Wait for Someone to Commit?

... and will an ultimatum lead to a proposal?

Posted Aug 29, 2016

Victorpr/Shutterstock
Source: Victorpr/Shutterstock

If I'm being honest, the ultimatum wasn’t a real ultimatum.

After five years of dating, I told my boyfriend that if he didn’t propose by Christmas, we were over. At the time, I considered this less a threat and more a way to expedite the inevitable—marriage, family, an otherwise perfect union. I was inspired by a friend of mine, who had made a similar, albeit less eloquent demand to shit or get off the pot to her now-husband. In her case, it had proven a successful strategy.

That my boyfriend wouldn’t choose me and marriage was unthinkable, unconscionable, unbelievable—and yet that’s exactly what happened. On the final day of the ultimatum, he presented me not with a ring and a proposal, but the promise of one day soon. When I expressed my disappointment, he chided me for giving him an ultimatum at all. He saw me as an emotional terrorist holding our relationship hostage—and like the U.S. government, he did not negotiate with terrorists.

It didn’t matter that countless times before, he had actually said he wanted us to get married and or that he couldn’t imagine a future without me. Nor did he acknowledge the fact that we were quickly approaching our mid-30s, nearing the end of my prime childbearing years. It was irrelevant that he had already hinted at a proposal the year prior. To him, none of these were good reasons. They were for me.

Don't Threaten Me

As much as I’d like to play the victim in this situation, it is 100 percent my choice to stay in this relationship. And I have made my share of mistakes, the most egregious of which was presenting him with the ultimatum in the first place. Talk radio host Laura Schlessinger writes on her website, “The reason most ultimatums don’t work is that the person making it is not ready to follow through.” In other words, the only rule of ultimatums is to make sure you’re willing to follow through. 

Clearly, I wasn't.

A few lines later, Schlessinger adds: “One of the dumber ultimatums I hear people make is, ‘If you don’t marry me, I’m leaving.’ It’s just ridiculous. Who wants to get married to someone they have to threaten into marrying?”

Like I said, I’ve made my share of mistakes.

It’s been about nine months since my demands were not met. They still have not been met. We’ve engaged in dozens of fights and quarrels—the particularly bad ones escalate to days of silence or camping out on the couch. We are still together, but our situation is tense and tentative and has all the fun of living by an active volcano.

Love Without Marriage

A couple years ago, I wrote about my disappointment in not being married yet. The piece resonated with other women in long-term relationships with loving partners who just couldn’t seem to take their relationship to the next, legal level. I received—and still receive—emails from women asking me if I’m married yet and how long I was willing to wait. I answer no, and I don’t know.

I’ve looked to science, and asked relationship experts and friends both married and unmarried for better answers. What I’ve found is that there isn’t one. When it comes to your relationship, only you and your partner can decide what’s right and wrong. How can a third party, even in his or her infinite wisdom, ever fully grasp or understand what goes on either of your hearts?

They can’t. No one can—except maybe someone who’s going through it too.

Enter Abby*, a 31-year-old from Alberta, Canada, and the first woman I’ve met in a romantic situation that resembles mine. Abby reached out to me after she read my first article and shared with me her own situation: After nearly 15 years with her boyfriend—including a decade living together—the prospect of marriage is still nowhere in sight. Out of fascination and, perhaps, fear, I knew I had to learn how and why she chooses to stay in this relationship, despite her obvious desire and his obvious reluctance to get married.

Abby met her boyfriend in high school. He was one year younger than her but she knew right away that she “didn’t want to be with anyone else.” Still it wasn’t until their mid-20s, several years into their relationship, that she started thinking about wedding bells, though it seemed like she was the only one. “He has never come out and said he doesn’t want to get married. He has said that he would like to get married but that it’s not something he has to do with his life,” she says.

While her boyfriend is open to talking about marriage, Abby says, he does not like to linger on the subject. And she doesn’t press him either: “I feel scared to ask why. Maybe I’m afraid of what the answer might be.”

Abby and her boyfriend have shared major life events, including buying a home together, going on vacations, and adopting a dog. They’ve also supported one another through two economic recessions. These are all healthy, normal hallmarks of being in a committed relationship, right? At least this is what she tells friends and family who have been “breathing down [her] back weekly for the last five years” wondering why she still isn't married.

She tells me it has been several years since she started voicing to her boyfriend how much she would like to get married. He hasn’t wavered, but she continues to wait. And she’ll wait longer if she has to:

“As cliche as it is, [I’d wait] forever. I think after maybe about five more years, I would just be okay with not being married somehow. Or I would get used to it. The endgame for me is to be with him no matter what...I have never considered ending things and never will.”

To Abby, her boyfriend is more important than a wedding, a marriage, and a piece of paper that says they’re legally bound. Why? “Besides this one thing, we have a very fulfilled relationship. We have gone through so many things together and bring out the best in each other," she says. "He complements me like no one else could."

 CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Maybe that’s enough. Who’s to say that marriage is the best or only option? Look at the divorce rate. Look at how many people marry the wrong person, over and over again. Yet society puts a stigma on those of us who aren’t married, as friends and family just add to the stress with constant inquiries: “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with him?” I am deeply familiar with this line of questioning.

But is there something truly wrong with us? If we are in an otherwise happy, fulfilling, and committed relationship, is there still something bad or unhealthy about it? After all, isn’t that essentially what a marriage is supposed to be?

* Names have been changed for privacy.