When dating, how long do you wait for the ring?

October 5, 2011

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I get asked a lot of relationship-themed questions given where I work, and one of them is from women with boyfriends who want to know how long to wait for the ring.  These aren’t women who have been dating for two months, but rather women who are in long-term relationships. They have seemingly great mates who have jobs and call their moms and open doors to restaurants- but haven’t yet popped the question.   The relationship is traveling into their third (or sixth) year and nothing is wrong per se, except these girls would like to take the relationship to the next level and their men have yet to agree.   Are these guys patient or just stringing them along?  How long should they wait?

As it turns out, there isn’t a lot of recent research on the courtship length prior to marriage.  Decades ago the statistics ranged from six to fourteen months. Ted Huston, a leading researcher on transitions in relationships, marriage and parenthood, followed couples for 13 years starting in 1979.  He states in his study that happily married couples dated for approximately 25 months before getting married.  Unhappy couples were split into two groups.  Couples who were unhappily married soon after they said “I do” and quickly divorced more often married at or after three years.  Couples who fell fast in love were engaged after nine months, and married after 18 months.  These couples usually made it to their seventh anniversary before divorcing sometime later.  Is there a difference between couples that met recently and those in Huston’s study?

Currently I co-run a longitudinal study of marriage and family development, started in 2008 and ongoing, and the answers couples gave me about their engagement ranged from several months to several years.  On average, the couples in my study decided to marry 2.8 years after they first showed romantic interest (many couples knew each other before they dated, but that isn’t counted).  This may reflect growing trends in the delay of marriage.  Much has changed in the last thirty years, and those in my study are still reporting general satisfaction in their marriages.  There is actually a lower divorce rate now than in the 80s, and what marriage means on a societal level is also changing.  Only time will tell how modern marriages are growing and changing from those started long ago.

What do these timelines mean for you still waiting for your man to propose?  I’m a believer that couples can have independent timetables from those stated above depending on their circumstances, but partners need to have a mutual agreement and understanding about the future timeline of the relationship in order to survive- and that agreement needs to be upheld.  However, if you are asking yourself “when is he going to propose already?!” the deadline has probably already passed.  You’ve probably picked up on an inequity in  he relationship, and one (or more) of your needs is not being met.  You might even be filling your thoughts with anxiety and frustration about the future of your relationship.  The issue of how long to wait for the ring might be a decision point for you.   If not, you may find yourself like Jennifer Aniston’s character in Bruce Almighty (she repeats this long-suffering role in “He’s Just not that Into You”) whose boyfriend needs literal divine intervention from God to get him to propose.  In real life God doesn’t make such obvious house calls.

Before bringing up the proposal conversation, ask yourself these four questions:

Can you accept your relationship as it is, and remove/ give-up the expectation of marriage? Many women are interested in getting married simply because it’s validated by society, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a ring in order to be happy and have children. Many couples are choosing to cohabit as an alternative to or dress rehearsal for marriage. Research is mixed as to whether couples who live together prior to marriage are as satisfied as those that waited until after marriage. Most say living together prior to getting engaged has less promising outcomes, but this might not reflect changing cultural acceptance.

If not, are you ready or willing to take a stand for what you want? Read this question as- are you strong enough to leave? On one hand creating an ultimatum for your partner rarely motivates romance. And pressing someone for marriage might be brushing over the issues that keep him from proposing in the first place. Couples who have more conflict in a long courtship often deteriorate faster after marriage, and if you are already fighting or tense because of this issue, it might be best to address it now. You are not a used car salesman trying to get rid of shoddy goods. It might hurt to be alone, but it’s better for you in the long run than being in an unhappy marriage.

What are the issues that might be holding him back? Are these worth addressing, accepting, or rejecting? If you are focused on the subject, are you missing issues sitting just on the periphery? Is the timing an issue? On one hand, if either of you are still in college or graduate school and not financially stable it might not be a good idea. But a 30-something guy in a multi-year relationship with a steady job doesn’t have that same excuse.

Finally, can you wait it out? Maybe he really is just saving up his pennies and has a plan in place. This is, as you already know, one of the biggest decisions out there and shouldn’t be done hastily. If you are prone to feel anxiety during ambiguous situations, it might just be that feeling getting the best of you. Sometimes the desire to get engaged drives women to think and do things that their more rational side would dismiss. Bringing up this topic might start the trouble you were hoping to avoid.

You’ll have to search your heart and your head for these answers. If you choose to address these with your partner, bring them up gently when you both have time to discuss these issues.

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