How do I know when the time is right to propose?
August 7, 2014 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out what I need to know before proposing to my girlfriend.

I have been dating X for about a year and a half. She is my first "serious" relationship, and I am her second. It took me a long time to find love and I feel incredibly lucky to have found her. She is so open and generous and caring and brave, and I love her more every day. It is a cliche that lesbian couples bond faster than straight couples, but in some ways, it feels like our relationship has been on fast-forward. Over the past 18 months, we have gone through a health crisis, a death in the family, three moves, and half a dozen trips. We are at a point in our lives where our friends are getting married and having kids, and both of us are somewhat broody... we wind up talking about kids/the future a lot. She would make such a good mom! Gay marriage has recently been legalized in our state, and I know that, at some point in the future, I would like to ask her to marry me. My question is: how will I know when the time is right?

Relevant details:

- I recently turned 32. X is two years younger.
- In an ideal world, I would like to start trying to conceive while I am 34. I told X this and she reassured me that the timing would work.
- Another time, when we were talking about baby names (squee!), I asked her if she would want to get married before having kids, and she said that she would.
- We have talked a lot about trying to find a person to help us conceive who would be willing to occupy a friend/uncle/penpal role (rather than an anonymous sperm donor or a co-parent with shared custody). I don't know if this is a realistic goal, but it is something we want to try for. The only reason I mention this is that I think it will take extra time to sort out, and I also think that our chances will be better if we are married/engaged when we start looking.

On the other hand...

- We still haven't moved in together (I have a separate space that is basically just a crash pad... most of my stuff is already at her place, which is where we typically sleep)
- Part of the reason we haven't moved in together is that she wants to make sure that we maintain some level of independence (her family is a bit boundary-less / enmeshed)
- When I asked to move in, and she said "not yet", it was a difficult/stressful conversation. I felt bad for putting pressure on the relationship rather than letting things unfold naturally. She felt bad because she wanted to say yes but felt like it was healthier to wait. Sometimes conflict is difficult for us because we both want to make the other person happy.
- I have some debt that I would like to clear off before we merge finances (we do currently share expenses, but with separate accounts)


- How "advanced" does the relationship need to be before I propose? Do we need to be living together? Or do we just need to know that we want to spend the rest of our lives together?
- If I am thinking about proposing sometime in the next year, what should we be working on in our relationship to ensure that we are in the right place to make a commitment? (I am in therapy... this can be something I work towards on my own)
- What are some low-stress ways to start talking about these things, without putting too much pressure on the relationship?
- And, more generally... if you made the decision to ask (or not), how did you know that it was (or wasn't) the right time?

Thanks in advance for any help you can offer!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should live together for a while before proposing, at least assuming you want to live together when you're married. And honestly, if she thinks it's too soon to move in, she probably thinks it's too soon to be engaged.

These are big relationship topics, but where they're likely to cause relationship stress is where you two aren't on the same page. You should be able to tell her how you feel about where you see things going and ask that she do the same after she has thought about it.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:01 PM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I always thought this list from the New York Times was a really good list of stuff to know before you get ready to get engaged: Questions couples should ask (or wish they had) before marriage. Don't treat it like a checklist, but when the opportunity for one of these conversations comes up, have the conversation instead of just sidestepping it.

There is a little sidebar article there that says "Marriage is not built on surprises," and I think that's a really important maxim to take to heart. That article says something really interesting, and something that I've been trying to figure out how to type here: Why should you not get married? What is stopping you? What do you, personally, feel like you want or need to know about this other human before you ask said human to become yoked to you for the rest of your living days? What do you need to know?

Then let the knowledge of what you need to know guide you into the discussions you need to have before you decide that you are ready to get married to this person. It is my personal belief that you will never really truly know that you want to spend the rest of your life with a person, at least not 100% - there will always be questions or worries, I think. So keep that in mind as well.

Finally, I would not worry about putting pressure on the relationship. This is a natural worry but if you two pay attention to one another, accept one another, appreciate each other, are affectionate, and allowing - in other words, you have an adult relationship - that will go such a long way towards having productive conversations that are not pressure-inducing but that are simply explorations.
posted by sockermom at 4:15 PM on August 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think that proposing before having in-depth discussions about marriage is not the best approach. You should agree on what you both want out of marriage and how you think of a life-long partnership. And, if you plan on having kids, that should also be discussed beyond names and parenthood arrangements. Child-rearing practices and beliefs can be very different and you should both be on the same page in terms of approaches. Permanently joining two lives has a lot of moving parts and that warrants a lot of talking.

I moved in with my future spouse way before we married and I think it strengthened the relationship immensely while also showing us that we were compatible on that level. I think more discussions about this are in order as well. I think that "letting things unfold naturally" is a bit of a myth and encourages being passive. Things unfold when there's great communication in-place and where both partners are in agreement when it comes to desires and readiness. It sounds like she has a difficult family history and that she's not ready for long-term plans yet. That doesn't mean that you just sit and wait for signs that things are advanced enough to take the next steps. It means that you learn to better communicate with one another and clarify where you both are. Good communication shouldn't be conflated with pressure. You both need to be honest about where you are now and what you want your future lives to look like, both individually and together. This is not about a calendar, it's about being on the same page.

Do you know whether she even wants a proposal? I didn't, and if my partner had undertaken a typical, surprise proposal, I would have taken it as a sign that he really didn't know me.
posted by quince at 4:21 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I try to have a conversation what kinds of independence it would be important for your partner to preserve. She's used to the idea that family = emeshment. You want to help her envision a healthier option. Start with what kind of independence she really wants (or she's most afraid would be lost) Does she want to be able to kick you out if you have a fight? Go out at night without telling you? Have a private space that is all her own? As you talk and try to understand what is really important, you will get the idea if you can compromise or if she doesn't yet trust the relationship enough.

Examples of comprises that might work within a marriage might be
- I don't need your permission to go out but I will tell you where I am going so you don't worry. or I will check before making a commitment to see if we have to coordinate plans
- we sleep together but I have my "study" that is 100% my space
- we co-mingle most finances but some money that is all mine that I can spend however I want.

The conversations can be hard because sometimes it will sound like "she doesn't love me". You will both to reassure each other a lot that this is all coming from a place of love. Take a break if it gets overwhelming. Try couples counseling if you need help. A short stint of premarital counseling could help you two get off to a great start together.
posted by metahawk at 4:22 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I asked to move in, and she said "not yet", it was a difficult/stressful conversation. I felt bad for putting pressure on the relationship rather than letting things unfold naturally. She felt bad because she wanted to say yes but felt like it was healthier to wait. Sometimes conflict is difficult for us because we both want to make the other person happy.

This is what you need to fix. Either with practice (like the kind of conversation I suggested above) or couple therapy.
posted by metahawk at 4:24 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

You propose when you know she's going to say yes and the way you know she is going to say yes is by talking about getting married beforehand. Not in a hypothetical way, very much in concrete terms. It needs to be a conversation, ideally an on-going checking-in sort of conversation.

Start by asking about moving in together. If she's not ready to do that, then I'm not sure you're ready for marriage: enmeshed lives is pretty much the dictionary definition of marriage and co-parenting.
posted by lydhre at 4:29 PM on August 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

Living together for awhile during a time period where you don't have Major Life Events happening all the time would be a very good way to figure out if you have long term potential.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:30 PM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

When I was young (20s), I thought that the time for marriage was when one wanted to take a big step, to show commitment, to decide to spend a life with someone. Now that I am older, I've realized marriage should confirm a commitment, not create it. When spending the rest of your life with someone feels like the most natural step in the world, then do it.

The questions:
How "advanced"...
Well, there is no good answer for this, I think. Living together first is definitely a good idea. Living apart allows for just enough separation that you both may not realize what you're getting into. My brother's advice was always that you should have a really good serious fight with the one you love before you commit to a life together. This, because you never know how deep some people cut, what rules people ignore, when they're truly angry.

What you should be working on...
You should be working on your relationship. Period. That little thing about both of you wanting to make the other happy (making conflicts tough) is a start. Work on that.

Low-stress ways to discuss it...
Another thing to work on. You will have to figure this out together. Different people are stressed by different things. If my husband gets angry because he had a bad day, I get stressed. Stress triggers are not always rational. Therapy will help with this.

How I knew it was the right time...
Full disclosure. I was married three times. First one I was 20, and we married because we felt like we should. Disaster. Second marriage I focused on the wedding, the fancy ring, the romance of it all. Disaster. Third marriage? Had vowed to never marry again. Was dating. Got serious. After two years of a long distance relationship we realized the only way we could live in the same country was to get married. So we did. Not as a big deal or a step in the relationship, but as a legal document allowing us to continue our relationship. To take the natural next step, which was living together.

Every day I choose to love my husband. Love is an action, a choice, a decision. Yes, it's a feeling, but the feeling does nothing without action and taking steps to strengthen it. We do fight, and it does get hard, but I can't imagine not being with him. Even when I am so angry at him for something stupid I could spit, I still find myself overwhelmed at how dear he is to me. He smells good, even when he doesn't. When he cuddles me at night I feel I'm home.

If there is a single tiny shred in either of you thinking, "Hm, maybe not." Then don't. Wait. It will all become clear in time.
posted by routergirl at 4:35 PM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I question the premise that it should be you who proposes, given her family history and response to your proposal that you move in together. Perhaps the best thing, and the most loving thing, would be to let her initiate the proposal when she's ready. You're already on the road to matrimony if you're naming future children so you could indicate, at some point, that you would accept if asked, but give her the reins. "Love is patient. Love is kind."
posted by carmicha at 4:44 PM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, start having those "when we're married" conversations. Honestly, I don't think you need to live together before you get engaged. I just think you both have to want it and be committed to it. It does sound like you're getting close, but if there are things she wants to take slower, talk about it and make clear plans for those future needs. If the trust is there, and you know she'll say yes, ask any time. But don't try a Grand Gesture unless you know it will be appreciated.
posted by rikschell at 5:54 PM on August 7, 2014

There's some studies that show hetero couples who live together before they get engaged and married have higher rates of divorce, but that's mostly due to an effective "laziness" of just going with the flow of a logical next step, not a critical evaluation of togetherdom. For hetero couples that live together after getting engaged, the success rate is better, because of that critical evaluation before a big leap of combining lives. Presuming it's applicable to lesbian couples too, I think it's good that you haven't moved in together yet, and it also bodes well if you do get engaged and move in together after that.

As a divorcee who's happily remarried (1 year anniversary last week), I would say a good time to ask is when you both seem comfortable and ready for it. It shouldn't come out of left-field, you should have the sense that she's ready for it too. So you talk and see what things she feels needs to happen before she'd be ready.

My first marriage, well, he proposed within 3 months of us dating (I said no, I was 17), and then pretty much pushed into it when he proposed three years later when I was 20 and like, well i guess you're a good choice, though I think we're both too young to really be ready.

This time around, my husband and I had talked marriage as an overall goal early on, and it was an ongoing hypothetical discussion. I don't think it added pressure to our relationship, rather it helped us feel reassured and have more confidence in one another. But it was still two years of going through life changes together, seeing how we adapted to one another (i.e. our fighting really improved with time), and generally that I accepted him wholly as his own person who makes me a better person myself. I was ready, and just waiting for him to feel ready too. Since he was relocating to be with me (long story) and I figured it would take him another year to feel established and ready too. But he did it a few weeks after we moved in, while on holiday.
posted by lizbunny at 6:49 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

You say you talk about having kids and the future, but have you ever talked about marriage? Marriage is about two people who love one another building a life together, but as a gay lady, I feel like marriage has always been so "straight" that I'm not interested. (Then again, I don't want kids so that probably has more to do with why I am not that interested in marriage.) But you should figure out what your girlfriend's thoughts on marriage are and if she sees herself getting married.

I also think you need to live together first. If she can't commit to that, can she commit to the rest of her life? If living together would be too stressful, how would planning a wedding be? You could live together while engaged and some couples do choose to not live together first. But what seems more telling to me is that you wanted to move in together and she said no. For whatever reason, she still said no.

Then again, none of us here know your relationship. Already really know is she seems to want to take things slow, even though she's super into you. I think you just need to have some conservations that involve marriage, children, your timeline and what you want and see if all your goals align. I don't think you should look for clues and guess -- talk to her about it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:35 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have a lot of insight to offer regarding your particular relationship, but I thought I'd mention this because it might be helpful to you and I wish someone had told me: when you do decide to propose, everybody's immediate first question to you will be, "So how did you do it?!" I'm not a stunt-y person myself so I'm hesitant to suggest that you have a story, but have an answer. Seriously, everybody asks.
posted by cribcage at 9:35 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband and I got married after dating for six months, so you sound more than ready enough to me (especially with all the crap your relationship has already survived).

Just propose. Since it sounds like there's some uncertainty about her answer, do it in private.

If she says "no," then it's good to know that before you've moved in together because you can break up with less hassle. If she says "not now," then you can ask her what needs to happen for her to feel ready. But given all the conversations you've had with her about kids and whatnot, I'm guessing that the answer will be yes.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:52 PM on August 7, 2014

I agree with everyone else. But if 34 is your real goal, you're right to be thinking about this now. Realistically, the whole donor thing can take a long time, depending on how you do it, whether things work out easily or not. Planning a wedding can take a long time, depending on what you want. Even getting engaged can take, like, 3 months, depending on you guys' style (e.g., do you have to find the perfect rings before you're officially "engaged?"). Every friend I've watched go through this has done it differently, so you have options. But those options / choices never seem to be a deliberate -- things seem to take the time they take, depending on the values and personalities and circumstances of the people involved.

So I think it is great that you are asking the question you are asking yourselves and AskMe now. Maybe the next person to ask is your partner. Does she want [in theory, in her life, not necessarily to you] to get married? What would she want to know, at what point in a relationship, would she be ready to make that decision? Does she feel like you two are on a path that might end in marriage? What's the next step down that path?
posted by salvia at 10:28 PM on August 7, 2014

It sounds like you're thinking pretty traditionally when it comes to proposals... one person decides when to pop the question and springs it on the other person. The question-popper has to worry about timing it right and making the occasion perfect. Meanwhile, the other person has no input in advance, and only gets to provide a "yes" or "no."

But you also asked about low-stress ways to start talking about this, and I'd encourage you to drop the question-popping approach and go the low-stress route instead. When you asked her to move in and she wasn't ready, it didn't go well. Instead, just be open. No surprises. "I've been thinking a lot about marriage. I know we haven't even moved in together, but I wonder what you think about that. I can see us getting married one day. Can you?" And if the answer is yes, you can start talking about what it would take for you to get there -- does she have a certain timeline in mind for how long you should be together, are there any concerns she has, which may be based on her past relationships, etc.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:39 AM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Setting aside the very good point that sometimes proposals are a conversation, or a series of conversations, instead of a "proposal" as we think of them... I am getting the sense that it should not be you that does the proposing. Not a thing you want to hear!

And I get it, you feel it, and I have been there too. But you are in some ways the gung-ho let's plan our lives one; she seems, just from what little you have told us, to be the one who takes longer to do things and get places. If she's who I gather she is, she is cautious about decisions but when she makes them, they are final and complete.

So giving her the space to let this be her decision and proposal is a huge gift to both of you, as it speaks in a complicated manner to your ways of being. It also takes you out of your comfort zone, for sure.

I have no regrets, obviously, and I'm glad I pulled the trigger (ew gross metaphor), but if I could do it all over again I think that I would not have "popped the question" and would have waited to be the one questioned. On one level (apart from the romance, excitement, etc.) I was eager to get things squared away, like you are. But it would have been more fitting to who we both are, and how we make decisions, if I'd waited, or helped bring it about together, or, you know, tricked him into thinking it was his idea entirely. (MOSTLY KIDDING about that.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:17 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Husbunny and I didn't move in together until we were engaged. We were also living in different cities so he had to quit his job and move to Florida on faith. We talked about marriage about 2 months after we started dating. We were long distance for eight months. We were married one year and 10 days after our first date. We celebrated our 12 anniversary last month.

If you want to marry her, just say so. "Monique, you know I love you and I want to marry you. I'd like for us to start planning our life together." Open the discussion.

Proposals aren't always a grand gesture, they're done in little steps. I bought Husbunny a cigar band ring for his birthday, he bought me a diamond ring for mine. He officially proposed to me at The Russian Tea Room on Memorial Day weekend. Weirdly enough, I was already planning the wedding.

Good luck to you both!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:53 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Part of the reason we haven't moved in together is that she wants to make sure that we maintain some level of independence ... - When I asked to move in, and she said "not yet",

You definitely shouldn't ask until those two things have changed.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:24 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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