It’s a story that’s all too familiar in this day and age: A couple meets, falls in love, dates for a while, starts merging their lives — and then realizes one of them doesn’t want to get married. Maybe one person is reluctant to commit, they differ on what a ceremony should look like, or someone just knows intuitively that they never want to tie the knot. Where do you go from there?
It’s not uncommon to find yourself at these crossroads. According to a May 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, millennials are less likely to marry than older generations. Only 44% were married in 2019, compared to 53% of Gen Xers, and 61% of Boomers at a similar age. For Black millennials, this number dipped to 24%. And the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this trend: Marriage rates plummeted across generational lines. A December study in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World found that the pandemic created financial, career, and housing instability, all of which can affect someone’s feelings about saying “I do.”
In short, there are likely lots of factors involved and different ways this could play out. “It’s really important to explore the deeper understanding of what marriage means to both of you,” says Janet Zinn, a New York couples therapist. “At best, it will create a more intimate relationship. … And if you don’t share the same values, that’s important [to know], so that you can move on.”
Zinn and 10 fellow relationship experts offer roundtable advice on how to approach the situation.
Start With An Honest Talk
“Communication can clear up a lot of confusion,” says Rachel Astarte, a hypnotherapist, author, and educator.
Adds life coach Kali Rogers, “Talk about what marriage means to both of you. Some people view marriage as a sign that they’ve made it financially in life. Others view it as a ceremony that prepares you for starting a family,” Rogers says. “People assign different values and expectations [to it], and it’s important to understand where [you’re both] coming from. Having this conversation could open some doors in the future.” At very least, it’ll elucidate some important things for you — and, likely, for your partner.
Trust Your Partner’s Needs
“Partake in the radical idea that your partner is correct, that they know what is best for them, that marriage, now or ever, may not be right for them,” says Michele Paiva, a psychotherapist. If your partner knows they’re not interested in saying “I do,” the last thing you want is for them to just go along for the ride. If they’re respecting you enough to be honest, the least you can do is listen without judgement.
Plus, it’s important to understand where your partner is coming from, especially if it’s fear. “Fear of commitment is actually fear of loss,” says Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and co-author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working it out Together. “Making a commitment means taking the risk that it won’t work out. Some people, who may have been hurt or rejected before, ‘protect’ themselves by hanging back and not committing. It doesn’t really shield them from anything but being satisfied in a relationship. Others don’t commit because this relationship isn’t ‘perfect’ enough — another excuse to avoid taking on the responsibility of commitment.”
Tessina takes a hard-line view: “The only way to get a commitment-phobic partner to commit is to leave. As long as they get to be with you, there’s no reason to commit.”
Ask Yourself, Why Is Marriage Important?
Nearly every expert hammered home this point. “Sometimes we go into marriage because that’s the social construct, and we never ask ourselves if it’s right for us,” Zinn says. Start by interrogating your position.
“Sometimes you hold a goal from childhood and forget to analyze it over the years. It may not work for you anymore,” says April Masini, a New York–based relationship expert. “Life is fluid and it’s great to give yourself a guiding plan, but it should not be etched in stone. … Life happens, whether it’s a change or heart, a death, a job loss, an accident — there are so many ways our plans get thrown off course.”
“Besides the ceremony and piece of paper, are you happy as a couple, do you want to be together, and see no likelihood or reason for breaking up anytime soon?” asks Nicole Martinez, a psychologist and life coach. “Is this what has been ingrained in you by society or your family, and something that does not actually matter to you that much, if you are being honest?”
Adds Paiva, “You might need to decipher, Is it marriage, or is it this person that you desire?” If you positively must get married, and this person is hell-bent against it, then you obviously have your answer. But if you’re thinking of throwing out a relationship because of this conflict, be sure you absolutely want marriage. “That is fine, it’s honoring authenticity,” she says. “A good marriage is built with mutual commitment, not obligation or guilt.”
Consider Alternative Marriage Ceremonies
“Ask your partner if they oppose the concept of marriage or the legal act,” Astarte says. “Certainly, marriage can end up feeling more like a business transaction than a celebration of love, [but] there are many ways to formally express your love for one another.”
She recommends a meaningful ritual, like a commitment ceremony, as an alternative to legal nuptials. “By sharing your viewpoints in a supportive and nonjudgmental way, you both may be able to arrive at a compromise that will allow you to honor your relationship in a formal way,” Astarte says. “Rituals are an essential part of human interaction. They bring the ephemeral and astral aspects of love down to the physical plane. In effect, they marry the two worlds.”
“The key thing here is to be true to yourself and what you can truly be happy with,” adds Samantha Daniels, a professional matchmaker and founder of The Dating Lounge.
Get Thee To Couple’s Therapy
“Go to couple’s therapy to discuss whether the relationship is worth saving,” psychologist Dr. Jennifer Rhodes tells Bustle. “It is wise to explore this topic early on, but if you end up at a real point of conflict, exploring every option with a professional will help both parties make good decisions,” she says.
“If your partner doesn’t want to get married and you do, you should not necessarily leave,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a counselor and co-founder of the The Marriage Restoration Project. “Sometimes one partner feels pressured and is reluctant to commit.” But time can change this, Slatkin says. “While you probably don’t want to wait around forever, if you get help on your relationship and work to create a safer and deeper connection, as well as become more conscious,” he says, “you may be able to bridge the gap and actually see things shift.”
Know When To Leave A Relationship
“It all comes down to happiness: Will you be happy not being married, or do you want the whole wedding day and happily ever after?” asks relationship coach and psychic medium Melinda Carver. “If you cannot imagine not having your fairytale wedding without all of the trimmings — big dress, cake, honeymoon — then it’s time to have one last conversation with your partner. Explain your thoughts on the importance of making your relationship legal and permanent. If your partner does not budge, you have to decide on what you will do: stay and grow in resentment, or leave to find another.”
Adds Masini, “You can go and try to find someone more compatible with what you want in life, or you can decide that this person and the relationship you have is more important than your goal, and readjust it.”