There are a few things that I know will likely happen during holiday family gatherings. My 7-year-old son will show an embarrassingly small amount of gratitude for any gift that isn’t a toy; my 3-year-old son will hurt himself jumping off furniture; and someone from my extended family will ask me when the boys’ father and my partner of eight years plans on proposing. This will force me to say the same thing I say every year: not anytime soon.
We’re hardly alone in such thinking. Studies have shown that many young couples prefer to cohabitate rather than marry; and about a quarter of parents living with a child are unwed. Societal views on marriage have also shifted, with the vast majority of Americans now believing it’s acceptable for a couple to live together sans wedding plans.
Of course, not everyone has accepted nontraditional relationship paths, especially in more conservative circles.
“When a couple chooses not to marry and the family decides that they have a role in that decision, that can create a lot of family gossip and what looks like an alliance — one side versus another,” said Katherine Hertlein, a relationship therapist and professor in the couple and family therapy program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Medicine. This can sow division between a couple, she said.
If you’re planning on attending a holiday event this season, and are expecting to have friends, family members, or even nosy co-workers pester you about setting a wedding date, here’s how you can respond in a healthy, respectful way.
Decide how much information you’re going to share and who is going to share it.
Dr. Hertlein believes that people asking about a possible wedding may be looking more to validate their own personal values. Couples, she said, need to communicate their shared principles and decide in advance what they wish to divulge with others.
It’s best that the person related to the inquiring family member be the one to take the lead, while the other person plays a supportive role. This will help to minimize any reasons, real or perceived, for a family member to blame a partner.
“These conversations can involve a great deal of tension,” Dr. Hertlein said, “and the last thing I want is for someone who is not related to the family directly to bear the brunt of any negativity and the sole responsibility of the decision making.”
Melanie Cote, 43, a child care provider living in Vancouver, Canada, met her partner, Jamie, 45, when she was 35. The two have a 4-year-old daughter together, but have no plans to marry. It is a decision her family doesn’t entirely support, especially her mother. Before attending family functions, the couple create what Ms. Cote refers to as a “game plan” to handle the marriage question.
“We just make sure we know what we’re going to say: that we’re committed, we have a kid, and we’ve been together for eight years,” she said. “We always do this respectfully, and we don’t challenge people’s thought process or their values or even how they grew up.”
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Don’t go at it alone.
Some family members may attempt to divide and conquer, cornering one individual when they are alone. Dr. Hertlein suggests you hold off on any discussion until your partner returns.
“You can say, ‘We’ve had some really good talks about marriage. If this is a conversation you want to have with us, let me just go get my partner,’” she said. “Make sure that you reflect that boundary you have as a couple.”
Maria Afentakis, 41, an author living in London, has been with her boyfriend, Timothy, 43, an accountant also living in London, for five years. She said her aunt usually waits until her boyfriend of five years leaves before she pesters her with the marriage question, despite Ms. Afentakis consistently telling her family the pair have no plans to get married.
“If my partner is gone somewhere, she’ll corner me and ask what’s going on with us,” she said. When this happens. Ms. Afentakis will often stall the conversation until her partner returns. “Thankfully, he’s supportive and has great communication skills, so he knows how to navigate the discussion and move onto a different question.”
Avoid focusing on a timeline.
If you are considering marriage sometime down the road, discussing any future dates with prodding family members should mostly be avoided. “The ‘right time’ is more of an abstract concept, and it’s more difficult for families to understand,” Dr. Hertlein said. “The family will focus on ways they can help you accelerate the timeline, making it more difficult for the couple to resist their meddling.”
So instead of assuaging marriage-minded family members with a possible timeline, simply share that marriage is an ongoing discussion in your relationship. Irina Firstein, a therapist practicing in Manhattan, said couples can tell people that they’re figuring it out on their own, and would appreciate it if no one asked them questions because it just “puts the pressure on us” and doesn’t help them reach an understanding any faster.
“You can also add that you appreciate their concern and understand their anxiety, but their questions are causing problems for you as a couple,” she said. “Just say that when you know a wedding date, they’ll be the first to know.”
Eric Hutchison, 29, a life raft technician living in Seattle, said he had no intention of getting married until he met his now-fiance, Rebecca Anderson, 33, an event manager also living in Seattle. Six months into their relationship he began fielding questions from family members about his intentions — questions he couldn’t answer.
“I know it made my partner uncomfortable because she didn’t have a great answer either, or knew when and if I would propose to her,” Mr. Hutchison said. “The more that question was asked the more pressured she felt and I could see it. We had talked about marriage a few times early in our relationship and I knew it meant a lot to her.”
The couple eventually started telling inquiring family members that they simply didn’t “have a date yet.” Mr. Hutchison said the question did force the two to discuss the possibility of marriage. When the time did come, the decision to propose was his and his alone. “I wasn’t willing to jump into marriage before I wanted to, just to make those people happy,” Mr. Hutchison added. “It took 4 years, but ultimately I ended up proposing because I love my partner and want to show her I am committed to her.”
Don’t be afraid to set physical boundaries.
While not ideal, if a family member isn’t respecting a verbal boundary, you may need to set a physical one and avoid some family functions entirely. Dr. Firstein says that the decision to stay away from certain family members doesn’t have to be permanent, though it might be necessary to salvage a relationship.
Ms. Afentakis said that her boyfriend recently declined to attend one of her family’s gatherings, because he “couldn’t face” the marriage question again. That breather gave them both a chance to prepare for Afentakis’ next family affair — her mom’s 60th birthday party, which took place two months later. She said that while they generally try to avoid the conversation entirely, a break allowed them some respite before being around family again.
Embrace the uncomfortable, together.
Usually, family members with marriage on the brain will let the question go — either because you set a date or perhaps they were able to see how you value your relationship in other ways outside of marriage. In the meantime, know that these conversations can actually bring you and your partner closer together.
“If the two of you feel like you’re supporting each other, you’re articulating the same message, you’re staying strong as a couple, and you’re setting boundaries, you’re going to be better off and that’s going to be a bonding experience,” Dr. Hertlein said. “Emotionally intense periods can enhance relationships.”
Ms. Cote said that her and her boyfriend “feel more unified than ever.” And she added, “I set my intentions right from the beginning and he did too, so neither of us had ever veered from that path. We’ve always presented a united front and we know we’re on the same page.”