When do we start talking about marriage?

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If you’re being intentional about marriage when you’re dating, when is it appropriate to bring it up?

My wife and I were quite young when we met, and rather geeky in our own way. Not surprisingly, the relationship began a little oddly. Early on I declared, with more than a little arrogance, that I had no intention of dating for dating’s sake; if this wasn’t going to be a serious relationship with the potential of marriage, I wasn’t interested.

Sheesh. As if, at the moment, she was the least bit interested in marrying me or even thinking about it.

Fortunately for me, about four years later, she married me anyway. And she has stayed married to me for almost four decades now. (As they say, there’s just no accounting for taste.)

I say all that to make a point. True, it’s hard to know when exactly to broach the subject of marriage. And true, it can be awkward and risky when you do. I cringe to think back on my adolescent cluelessness (hopefully, I’m a little more clue-ful now). But we made it through, and can even chuckle a bit at our former selves. So whatever romantic ideals you might have about how that conversation should go, just remember that it doesn’t always look that way in real life, and people and relationships still survive.

To answer the question itself: there is no single right time to bring up the possibility of marriage. Generally, the conversation springs more or less organically from someone’s sense that the relationship has reached a certain “level.” If both people have similar perceptions of the depth of the relationship, the conversation should move in a positive direction.

But things get awkward quickly when there’s a mismatch. What’s important is to not interpret the other person’s response — short of their actually laughing derisively in your face! — as personal rejection. Two people can be headed in the same direction but at different paces. And note that this does not mean that the one who seems to be lagging behind is somehow at fault; there are good reasons to be cautious about entering into marriage, just as there are poor reasons to be overeager.

Put differently: if you don’t tremble a bit at the thought of standing up before God and a group of witnesses and pledging a lifetime of love to one person, you’re not living entirely in reality.

My sense is that you’ll be less anxious about the best time to bring up marriage if you’ve done the work of really getting to know one another: your strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams. Can you, for example, have an open and honest conversation about your family backgrounds? People who grew up in acrimonious households are apt to have a different view of marriage than those who did not, and some compassion and empathy can go a long way toward mutual understanding.

Consider attending a relationship workshop together. After all, “I’m thinking of going to this relationship thing at church — wanna come with me?” is a heck of a lot safer than “Can we talk about marriage?” Hopefully, you’ll learn some information and skills that will serve your relationship well, and your being there together will help create the precedent and context for discussing the possibility of marriage.

In short, there will always be some risk in bringing up the subject of marriage. Remember that even if that conversation goes sideways, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the relationship. My advice is that you put your energy into helping your relationship be a place where you feel safe being honest and vulnerable with each other. If you can do that, you’ll have a better sense of when to mention marriage, and will be better equipped to handle the disappointment if the other person isn’t ready.

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