I was deeply troubled by Abby’s response to a not-quite-affianced woman last week:
DEAR ABBY: You probably have heard things like this before, but I don’t know where to turn.
I have been dating “Jeff” for five years and we have a lot of fun together. Last week Jeff proposed marriage and — I choked! Now I’m having doubts about everything, and he’s getting impatient with me because I haven’t given him an answer.
Things are not going the way I had hoped, Abby. Everything is falling apart. Does this happen often? How do I know if he’s the right one? — PANICKED IN PITTSBURGH
DEAR PANICKED: It doesn’t happen “often,” but panicking at making a lifetime commitment certainly isn’t unheard of. You need to relax, calm down, and realize that you have spent five enjoyable years with Jeff or the relationship would have ended. Then ask yourself how you would feel about a lifetime of similar experiences, and you’ll have the answer you’re looking for. I hope you’ll be very happy together.
“I hope you’ll be very happy together?” Could she be any more be-grateful-for-what-you-have-stop-fussing-shut-up-and-get-married-you’ll-thank-me-later condescending?
This woman hasn’t even said that she loves this guy, or even thinks she does. They have fun together? Five years worth of fun? That’s nice. Abby may be right that they’ve spent “five enjoyable years” together “or it would have ended.” But Panicked also needs to take into account the fact that in five years, the relationship has never progressed beyond “fun.” Sounds to me like she was content with a good thing, not interested in changing the status quo, and didn’t have a reason to consider the question too deeply until he proposed.
Panicked wants to know if “this” happens often, and Abby implies she’s a freak. But wait–how often do you hear of someone in a stagnant relationship with the same person for years finally breaking up, and marrying the next person they meet? (When Harry met Sally? 500 Days of Summer?). It happens all the time, because all the time people get trapped by inertia until something–like an unexpected proposal–gives them a reason to think hard and change.
Of course, feeling overwhelmed and wanting to talk things over in the face of a lifetime commitment is perfectly reasonable. In fact, it’s so reasonable that many (most?) people do it well before any questions are popped. That they’d apparently never talked about it before (or that they’d talked around it, but never landed on the same page) is a huge red flag. That his proposal means “things are not going the way [she] had hoped” is another.
Abby’s right to suggest that Panicked think about their time together so far, and try to imagine a lifetime of the same. But she’s very wrong to glibly imply that the obvious solution is to marry the guy. Panicked should also imagine the rest of her life without “Jeff,” and think about how that makes her feel (unexpectedly liberated?).
Most importantly, she should absolutely not talk herself into marrying him. She’s not doing Jeff any favor by doing that, though it may feel like it at the time. There are some situations where you just have to “take the plunge” (so to speak) in order to make a big change. Embarking on a new career, academic endeavor, exercise program, or move all might be good examples of this. But it’s never fair to yoke somebody else’s happiness and security to your ambivalent gamble.
In contrast, see Amy’s column today, which addresses a similar situation:
Dear Amy: I’m 23 years old and have been dating my boyfriend for just over two years. I love him, and I love spending time with him. He’s everything I’ve always wanted in a long-term partner: caring, intelligent, thoughtful and hardworking.
But lately, I can’t seem to shake this “antsy” feeling.
I find that when I go somewhere with my friends and meet other men (as a “wing woman”; I’m not actively searching out a new partner), I wonder what it would be like to date someone else.
I find myself jealous of my friends who are still dating and not in a committed relationship.
Maybe I’m not mature enough for a committed relationship?
I’ve been thinking maybe it would be good for us to take a break so I could clear my head and figure out what I really want. Is that a disastrous idea? How do I bring up something like that?
— Overwhelmed in WA
Dear Overwhelmed: You might be mature enough for a committed relationship, but the relationship you’re currently in might not be the right relationship for you right now.
Commitment is like good comedy: It’s all about the timing.
Your guy might be the best guy in the world. He might be perfect for you. But if you can’t tame your restlessness, then you should take a break.
The only way to bring this up is the old-fashioned way: one word at a time.
You start with: “Honey, we need to talk.”
I think the most important thing here is for these women to trust themselves, and not be persuaded by parents, boyfriends, or advice columnists to ignore a niggling voice that tells them something isn’t right–whether it’s the time, the place, the guy, themselves, or something else altogether.
If (permanent) commitment is something they want, and are ready for, they’ll know. A marriage isn’t something you get to force yourself to try for your own good, like bungee jumping or beets.