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I really love my girlfriend, but I am desperately afraid of marriage. What do I do?
More or less a year and a half into writing this column, I have hugely deepened my respect for Ann Landers. Ann managed to give pretty solid advice for almost 50 years without being able to ask her readers follow-up questions. And that increasingly strikes me as an accomplishment worthy of Hercules. There are a lot of questions, A, that I wish I could ask you. Here are just a few:
How old are you? How old is your girlfriend? I’m not all that concerned about someone who is 18 or 22 being afraid of marriage. I’m more worried when I see the same fear in someone who is 30 or 40. Indeed, when you are 18 or 22, being a little anxious about getting married might well be smart. Research tells us that folks who wait until they are a little older and, especially, those who wait until they have completed a university degree before getting married are appreciably less likely to get divorced. That’s not to say that every young person who walks down the aisle is doomed — I have celebrated enough anniversaries with enough people to know otherwise — but it is to say that making a lifelong commitment during a time when you’re still doing a lot of growing up holds risks.
How did your conversation about marriage get started? Several of my friends serve as professors at a local university where the unofficial motto used to be “ring by spring” — in other words, don’t graduate without getting engaged! Thankfully, the “ring by spring” culture is waning, both at that university and in our wider society. Getting married because everybody else is doing it (or because you’ve been together a certain amount of time or because your parents or your friends think you should) is almost never a good idea. To put that thought another way, if the primary impetus behind this conversation is something other than the joy and the love and the meaning that your and your girlfriend bring forth in one another, then proceed with some serious caution.
What would be different if you were married? I don’t mean what would change for you legally (although that is a significant question, A, of which you and your girlfriend would be wise to know the answers) but, rather, I’m curious about how you believe the sacrament of marriage would limit you and how it would set you free. I have friends, for instance, who understood their weddings as giving them permission to live together and to be sexually active. I have other friends who figured that marriage would help them to smooth over their struggles. And still others saw their wedding day primarily as on occasion when they asked God and community to bless something that already existed between them. Ask the couples you know who have been married for a while to tell you about how getting married did — or did not — help them to solve their problems and to nurture their strengths.
What are you afraid of? Some people fear that they will replicate the disaster that was their parents’ or their friends’ marriages. This is where counseling can be a big help in reassuring a couple their marriage will be their own creation and that they will grow into it over decades. Other people fear that marriage is the end of adventure. But if you choose the right partner in crime as your spouse, you can have as many adventures as you want when you’re married: travel, kayak, perform, have off-the-hook sex, go to Burning Man. And, what’s more, you get to do all of these things with the person whom you like most in all of the world.
Why are you so afraid? Notice, A, that you’re not “nervous,” you’re not “anxious,” you’re not “trepidatious.” You are “desperately afraid.” That is tractor-trailer crossing the centerline kind of language. That is falling off a bridge kind of language. That is guy in hockey mask chasing you with a machete kind of language. Are you desperately afraid of spending the rest of your days with anyone? Or are you specifically desperately afraid of spending the rest of your days with your girlfriend? What do you think that fear means? How might it be a tool that will help you to prayerfully discern what to do next?
So, A, what do you do? Well, I mentioned counseling earlier; it’s time for you and your girlfriend to book a few meetings with an impartial professional and talk these (and still other) questions out. Go into those meetings with a commitment to listening, go into them with a commitment to telling the truth. Go into them recognizing that marriage, much like parenthood, is a glorious and transformative and hard vocation. It is a vocation to which not everyone is called at the same stage of life. And it is a vocation to which some people are not called at all. If, at the end of your time with that counselor, the idea of staying with your girlfriend until you are parted by death still leaves you desperately afraid — if, to express that sentiment more positively, the idea of getting married doesn’t make both of your hearts sing — then love each other enough to recognize that marriage isn’t right for you. At least, not right now.