When dating, it can be nerve-wracking to broach the subject of marriage. But for those who think they’ve found a long-term partner and are ready to have a frank discussion about where the relationship is heading, this is an important step—and there are several important things to consider.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, here’s some sage expert advice about how to talk about marriage while you’re still dating.
First, it’s important to have a candid talk with your partner about where the relationship is heading and whether you both agree marriage is in the cards. When exactly this conversation should happen is based in part on your age and your priorities.
If you’re around 30 or older, it’s critical to talk about where the relationship is heading after being together for six months or so, especially if a woman wants to have children, advises Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a Los Angeles–based psychologist whose specialties include relationships. (The talk could happen as early as three months if things look serious.) “But if people are in their 20s, sometimes you're just having fun—you don't have to worry about biological time clocks,” says Thomas.
Make sure the conditions are right for these kinds of serious discussions. “You don't want to freak anybody out and you want to do it lovingly,” says Thomas. “You want to do it as a team, so it needs to be non-adversarial and needs to be calm. Nobody should have been drinking or under the influence of anything. You want to be clear-headed. You want to be able to be in a good frame of mind, not too tired, not cranky.”
Conversations about marriage during dating can feel more difficult for many reasons. Sometimes one partner feels more ready than the other and doesn’t want to be pushy. Other times one partner cannot fully commit or may not feel mature enough to marry and make a lifelong commitment to anyone yet. This begs the question about whether the more ready partner should wait. In those cases, frank and open discussions need to be had about whether they both want each other as life partners and have the same desire to marry one another. If those things are the same, then sometimes couples can compromise on a timeline and discuss what may need to happen first.
“When having marriage discussions, it’s best, to be honest about where you stand and listen carefully to the other person without being pushy,” says Dr. Paulette Sherman, a psychologist, author of Marriage and the Law of Attraction and the host of The Love Psychologist podcast. “It is important to take your partner at their word and not to create a story that they will change their mind.”
Consider prefacing the talk as one where you’ll both be honest and respect each other. “Go into the conversation with a loving and on-the-same-team kind of spirit,” says Thomas. “You want to make it non-threatening because you want each party to be transparent.”
“If marriage is a non-negotiable for you, don’t be afraid to state that as early as a first date,” says Anita Chlipala, a Chicago-based licensed marriage, and family therapist. “Someone who also wants marriage won’t freak out because you stated your desire early on. I’ve worked with couples who spent years together and end up gridlocked over the issue of one partner wanting marriage and the other one doesn’t. If you don’t want to waste your time, make sure you continue to date someone whose end goal is the same as yours.”
Don’t focus only on the details of your dream wedding, but rather on the broad specifics of your lives together. “A wedding and a marriage are two separate things,” points out Crystal Bradshaw, a licensed professional counselor specializing in couples counseling. “When talking about marriage, you need to focus on how you will both go through life together as teammates. You’ll have to talk about what your expectations are for each other as partners, as parents (if you want to have kids), as well as your expectations of the relationship. Don’t assume your partner shares your definition of marriage. Get explicit with this conversation, leave nothing to assumption.” Bradshaw recommends starting with these questions and topics:
Thomas recommends each partner independently make a list with three columns: nonnegotiables/deal breakers, compromises, and nice-to-haves. Compromises are the ones where everybody could give a little bit to meet in the middle. Nice-to-haves are, well, nice to have, but not necessary. Then, tackle each of your important topics, sorting each into a column: children, religion, family, jobs, where you want to live, etc. Then compare notes with your partner. This exercise will help clarify where you both stand and how much room for compromise exists around the life topics you care about.
For these heavy conversations with your boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s best to have a series of conversations over time instead of one hash-it-all-out session. The first conversation can cover whether you’re both interested in marriage at all in general and then proceed from there.
It’s important to spend time reflecting separately, Thomas notes. “Let each other have space and time to think about it on their own so that they can come back as authentic and as real as possible. Each person needs to know their truth and speak their truth. And the other one's going to have to hear it.”
The bottom line: If you're in a long term relationship, good communication is key. Before jumping into marriage, discuss important topics like religion, life goals, commitment, and finances. The sooner you have these difficult conversations and ask the important questions, the faster you'll be able to tell if the two of you are made for each other.