By Elisheva Liss

Dear Elisheva,

I would imagine my problem is not unique, but I find myself getting stuck and anxious from it. I’m 23 years old, in yeshiva most of the day, and finishing up my bachelor’s degree. I’ve been dating someone for a little over three weeks now. She is 21, also in college, and working part-time. She’s really great—smart, interesting to talk to, thoughtful, responsible, and attractive—and I enjoy our dates. We’re on the same page religiously and regarding our values and plans. We respect each other and l look forward to seeing her. I can’t find any significant fault with her, and she seems to like me, too. I’ve never dated anyone for this long before, and it feels like it’s getting serious. Our families are starting to ask about an engagement. They’re not putting a lot of pressure on us, but many of our friends have gotten engaged around this point in the dating process, and I’m just not feeling it. She’s not rushing me, but I do get the sense that she’s more comfortable and sure about us than I am.

One mentor has told me to just go for it: she’s a great person, everything matches up, and he said that the feelings come later. A friend told me that if I’m not super-excited about her, it means she’s not “the one.” It does seem wrong to propose if I’m not feeling “into it” enough—unfair to her and to myself. On the other hand, there’s a lot of good here, and I don’t want to give up on a relationship that could potentially be right for me. Getting married seems like the biggest decision and I feel very confused. I’m not sure what to do here. Any advice?

Sincerely,

In a bind

Dear IAB,

You are right about a lot. Your problem is not unique—relationship ambivalence is a very normal part of the dating process. Some dates make it clear: this is not going anywhere. And sometimes people have clarity and strong feelings after a short time together that they’ve met the person they want to be with for life. But I would guess that in many, maybe even most, cases, some vacillation is par for the course. This indecisiveness often creates stress and anxiety, when you’re seeking love and joy.

You’re also right to be wary of advice telling you to “just do it.” Marriage is your life, not a Nike commercial. And you’re correct to question the advice professing that if you’re not excited about someone you see as “great” after less than a month, it means she’s definitely the wrong person for you. You are right as well that getting married is possibly the biggest decision one can make, and it should be treated seriously.

I don’t know you or the young woman you’re dating, but even if I did, it would be completely out of line for me to tell you what to do. It’s my opinion that no one should tell a person what to do in the vast majority of cases regarding whom to marry, with the exception of warning someone about flaming red flags. No one except for you and your partner will be in this marriage, and so, ultimately, the decision needs to be yours, as tempting as it might be to outsource it. It would be so much easier if we had a proverbial crystal ball, the gift of prophecy, or a voice from Heaven to be able to know for certain what the “right move” is. Unfortunately, we don’t, and so we need to make as good a choice as we can from our limited, mortal perspectives, living with some degree of uncertainty.

From the little information provided, I can infer that you’re not seeing anything specifically offensive or objectionable about this person or the relationship itself, and that there seems to be some degree of mutual attraction, connection, and respect. Your concern sounds like whether your feelings are “enough.” Generally, I would agree with your assessment that it’s unwise to get engaged unenthusiastically. The question is whether your feelings are not enough yet, or at all. Let’s take a look at your options:

(1) One option, is, as suggested by your mentor, to just jump all in and propose, hoping that the stronger feelings will come after the engagement or wedding. I know there are those who give this advice, and I’m sure there are some who claim they did this and it worked out well for them. But to me, it doesn’t seem like a wise risk. I’ve seen too many marriages where people look back and wish they’d taken more time or honored their instincts of doubt.

(2) Your next option is to do as your friend implied: just break up with her. You could convey a sentiment like: “I think you’re great, but I’m not feeling enough of a connection to move forward with an engagement, and so I believe we should move on at this point.” This, too, is a risk, as you posited, although not as risky as option 1. In this case, the risk would be giving up someone you like very much.

(3) Another alternative is to take a formal break and see other people. This is different from a complete breakup, and not every person or community is receptive to it. But it looks more tentative, something like: “I’m enjoying getting to know you, but it seems to me like things are stagnating between us. I honestly can’t figure out how I feel, and I don’t feel right to either of us to keep going like this. I’m thinking it might be worth taking a break, with the option to date other people, but leaving the door open to call each other after some time if we’re still interested.” This would convey the honest message about how you feel, without burning the bridge of future possibility. (It’s also not unusual to reconnect sometime after a full breakup anyway, but this makes it clear to her that there’s no specific reason other than a possible lack of chemistry.) Again, not all individuals or communities see this option as appropriate, but it’s there nonetheless.

(4) A final approach you could try is to slow things down and keep dating her, making it clear that you’re happy with how things are between you so far, but that you’re not feeling ready to discuss an engagement yet. And not because there’s anything wrong, but because it hasn’t been long enough for you to feel it yet. You say that neither she nor your families are applying pressure, which is good. At the same time, there seems to be an implied clock ticking for you, which may be holding you back from just enjoying and watching things unfold. You could discuss with her, maybe your parents, possibly a therapist or mentor, what you both feel would be an appropriate amount of time to continue seeing each other without any pressure to get engaged. This is a totally relative timeframe; in some communities a few weeks is standard (as you mentioned), but in many, probably most others, couples can take months or even longer to build the kind of relationship that would feel ready for marriage. Maybe you’re the kind of person, or this is the kind of connection, that just needs some more time to marinate and get clarity, in either direction, and that’s valid, even if it’s different from what your friends are doing. After a more substantial amount of time, you might find a clear answer for yourselves. If you don’t, and you choose to part ways then, at least you’d know you gave it a real shot.

As you move forward, it might help you to read, watch, or listen to content that would help you feel more informed about relationships and marriage. For example, on my website (elishevaliss.com) I have an article titled “Assessing Your Relationship,” and it includes different questions to ask yourself as you’re getting to know someone, but there is plenty out there, like books by Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Sue Johnson. Whatever you decide, I hope you find the clarity you’re looking for, and are able to build a beautiful life together with whomever you end up feeling enthusiastically and confidently ready to marry.

Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her blog, her book—“Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking”—digital courses, and a new virtual wellness program. All can be accessed at ElishevaLiss.com.

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