A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: When marriage talk ruins a relationship

Talking about marriage can cause a rift in a relationship.
Photo / Thinkstock
Talking about marriage can cause a rift in a relationship. Photo / Thinkstock

There you both are, happily involved for some considerable length of time now, glad to have found each other, sharing goals and values, friends and activities. Even going to other peoples' weddings together. Then a reality steals in. Engagement. Wedding. Forever. Excitement. Doubt.

What happens if one person wants to get married and the other does not? Cliffhanging episodes laced with ultimatums.

The endless fascination with love and commitment

He loves her but does he want to commit? She loves him but she has lots of plans that don't include marriage just yet. A formula we all know and which is as old as time - but which can create heartache and misunderstanding.

Plenty of couples find themselves in a new phase of their relationship - one that is suddenly characterised by resistance and hurt. He is affronted by her lack of commitment, she feels pressured by his hurt.

Happiness becomes punctuated by topics to be avoided. And time doesn't exactly help.

None of this is a problem of course if both partners feel the same resistance to marriage. Research by the Marriage Foundation in the UK last year, suggested a sharp decline in young people getting married. Compared to the baby boomer generation where 92 per cent of women and 82 per cent of man married at some point, subsequent generations are facing a sharp decline in marriage rates.

The greatest decline has apparently taken place amongst those currently in their 20s and the statistical prediction is that only 52 per cent of men and 53 per cent of women in this generation will ever marry.

So in a culture like ours, which has same sex marriage, cross cultural marriage, interfaith marriage, liberal divorce laws - and human rights laws which frame the rights of all individuals - why is there a stepping back from marriage?

Research blames the declining figures on cohabitation, celebrity divorces and the global financial crisis which has created a legacy of debt. And specific concerns about dealing with the social, legal, emotional and economic consequences of a possible divorce certainly find their way into the cloud of doubt.

Yet under the Relationship Property Act, couples in NZ are financially "married" under the law if they don't contract out within a specific time period. So there is not escaping the financial questions, which encapsulate commitment.

So Does Doubt mean Don't?

A question I often hear is: "What if this is not anxiety but instinct telling me to get out?"

And of course there's lots of folk wisdom to feed the fear - "look before you leap" "marry in haste; repent at leisure". Doubt is a niggling, strong and obstructive feeling. It is a ringmaster of excuses and indecision and anxiety courting sleepless nights, anxiety and guilty feelings. And yes, in some instances doubt might well spell don't. And integrity would suggest that we owe it to our partner and to ourselves,to be upfront about the need to explore our fundamental level of commitment.

But what else might be going on here?

It seems that one of the real architects of doubt is fear. Or put another way, fear will masquerade as doubt. Is this the right person? Do I want to be committed?

Change is always about loss and it is the fear of this loss that seems to play a significant part in the lives of people who love each other but where one of the partners fears the commitment of marriage.

This fear is often fuelled by experiences of parental divorce, difficult divorces of friends, fear of joining up financially, fear of an expensive wedding, fear of expectations. and a fear of a change in identity. Will I still feel like me? Will we still love each other in the future? What if my partner cheats on me or I fall in love with someone else?

Fundamentally a fear of changed circumstances - yet aren't changing circumstances in fact a definition of life itself?

But there we have it - the perfect menu of anxious ruminating thought patterns, which can threaten healthy and happy relationships with doubts.

Gut anxiety or fear gone awry?

If you enjoy a happy and healthy relationship with a loving and honest partner with whom you share values and a special connection - and you are feeling doubt about the marriage your partner wants - then you are probably not experiencing gut instinct, but fear gone awry.

No rules say you have to marry to be happy. But wisdom suggests that if it means a lot to the person you love, then allowing 'doubt' to be translated into 'don't' might avoid a fear of commitment, but might just as easily usher in heartache.

So if the arrival of another wedding invitation fills you with fear about the next conversation you have with your partner, it is possibly the very best time to do some exploratory work with an experienced facilitator, about just what it is that is actually fuelling your ambivalence.

- nzherald.co.nz

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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