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Dating Advice #190 - Eternal Limbo?

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Everything was going great, until it came time for him to pop the question.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have been getting to know Mr. Right for two years. Since we live on opposite coasts, we don't get to see each other in person that often. In between, we "date" by talking on the telephone and on web cams, and e-mailing each other.

Whatever time we've spent together has been absolutely wonderful. We get along very well, have similar religious standards, values, and are usually able to smooth out any bumps we cross; very infrequently have we agreed to disagree. While this type of courtship based on electronics and infrequent in person time together has not been ideal, we know each other well; we both accept the good and the bad we see in each other.

Mr. Right is a respected professional in his mid-40s, has never been married, and has a number of friends in their 40s and 50s who are also professionally successful, but have never been married. He claims that he wants a wife and family of his own, that he sometimes cries when he comes home to his empty house. He says that he cares for me deeply and that he wants us to get married -- but he is afraid to take that final leap of faith.

I know that we are right together and could make a great married couple. I respect him, want to care for him, and want to build a family with him. He is the man I prayed for and have been waiting for forever. (I was married for five years when I was in my 20s, and have been cautiously dating since then because I do not want to make another mistake.) And that's the problem: He's been waiting forever to propose!

The getting-to-know-you stage has been over for a long time!

How much talk can a girl take? I'm only a few years younger than him, and my biological clock is running out. I also want to come home to a loving companion, to make a nice home and family. I know he's scared, but I feel (and have told him) that the getting-to-know-you stage has been over for a long time; the only way we will get to know each other better is to make the commitment, marry, and experience life together.

When I spent time in Mr. Right's city several months ago, we visited with his rabbi, who told us both that "whatever he is afraid of has been there for a long time and isn't going to go away by itself, no matter how long you date each other." At the time, I didn't want to believe this, but now I see he was right! My resentment of his fear of commitment is growing, and is now causing a great deal of friction between us. I do not want any man to propose if it is not in his heart, but I do not want him to keep schlepping me along either!

I believe that once Mr. Right proposes, he will feel relief from the fear that has been holding him back. He told me that he hopes I am right, but he wants to have a short engagement precisely because he'll probably be too nervous if the engagement is more than a few weeks long. Yet, he's still not able to pop the question. How do we get over his inertia before the friction and pressure do irreparable damage and break up our courtship?


Dear Wendy,

We wish we could say a magic formula that could persuade "Mr. Right" to take the leap of faith he needs to become engaged and married. However, the only "formula" comes from within him. Something is blocking him from making the leap, and until he learns what it is and addresses it, the two of you are going to remain in eternal limbo.

The good thing is that this man cares for you and has told you that he wants to marry you. Many men who get to this point can be helped over the hurdle by an experienced therapist who can help them identify the barrier and work through it. We've seen it happen many times. But, the man has to decide that he wants to deal with the issue once and for all and go for therapy. You can't drag him to therapy and ask the therapist to "fix" him. He has to be the one who wants to work on himself. And of course, he doesn't have to be "fixed" -- he just has to discover the barrier, and either dissolve it or work around it.

We recommend that he seek a therapist who specializes in short-term, goal-oriented therapy, rather than in long-term, psychodynamic therapy. Long-term therapy can also be helpful, but your courtship will be greatly challenged by a long course of therapy.

Is therapy the only way to address his fear? Of course, sometimes people have an epiphany and are able to make a change on their own. But the epiphany is something that happens by chance, and a person can't sit around waiting to experience it, which seems to be what he is doing.

Our suggestion is that you speak with "Mr. Right" about the idea of therapy, and even encourage him to begin. But ultimately let him make the decision.

If he needs encouragement, you can mention our opinion that this is the only way the two of you are going to make it together.

The status quo cannot continue, because even the strain is going to ruin whatever you've built till now.

He should also understand that this state of limbo cannot last very long. The fact that he is frozen has put a strain on things, and if he doesn't take steps to address what is holding him back it will become even more strained. We often see courtships dissolve under the pressure of one partner wanting to move forward and the other frozen from doing so. He has to understand that the status quo cannot continue, because even if you would be patient, the strain is going to eat away at whatever you've built till now.

If "Mr. Right" chooses to go for therapy, we also recommend that he find a married friend to give him moral support -- encouraging him that he can do it, and that marriage will be worth it. He needs someone who can be his "coach" and "hand-holder." The problem is that right now he doesn't seem to be that friendly with any married men. His closest friends are all bachelors, and without knowing these men it is likely that they all negatively reinforce each other's lifestyles and "issues."

This man is 100 percent correct about having a short engagement. Many people who get married for the first time in their 40s and 50s experience a great deal of anxiety during their engagement, and can come close to calling it off a few times. Anxiety among engaged people is a normal phenomenon, and it often increases the longer a person has been single. Now, it could be possible that "Mr. Right" will feel a great deal of relief after he "pops the question," but the anxiety could return again before the wedding. So make that engagement short, and be comforted by the fact that the anxiety almost always disappears right after the wedding ceremony or very soon thereafter.

Even after all we've said, it is possible that this man will be unwilling to go for therapy. Some people worry that therapy will be too painful or revealing. Since we have been personally involved with hundreds of people who have benefited from therapy, we can encourage him that ultimately therapy will be worth it. Ultimately, however, he will have to make the choice. If he does not do so, we believe that he will never get up the courage to marry you on his own, and that the two of you will only experience heartache. Time isn't going to help him change. Therapy will.

We hope this helps you navigate the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry


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