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Holding On For Dear Wife I’ve been in a relationship with a lovely woman for two years. Six months ago, she gave me an ultimatum. Now I have two weeks to make my decision: marry her or break it off forever. She’s crazy about me, and my family and friends adore her, and all would be ecstatic if I took the plunge. The problem is, I am just not passionate about her. A friend’s father once told me “it doesn’t matter who you marry.” I find that really sad, but if it’s true, what am I waiting for?

--Down To The Wire

Romeo and Juliet were overprivileged freaks. Until 200 years ago, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, “the theme song for most weddings could have been ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’” Sure, sometimes love did follow, but for thousands of years, writes Coontz in Marriage, a History, people married for sensible reasons, like keeping peace between France and Spain. For commoners, matches were not typically made in heaven, but in three inches of manure: “My daddy’s pigs and your daddy’s cows forever!”

Back in the 1550s, when it took two to do a lot more than tango, divorce was about as common as cell phones. In those days, putting food on the table meant chasing it, killing it, skinning it, then turning it on a spit over a fire, and there was a bit more to housework than despotting the water glasses and wiping down the microwave. Since the laboring class usually married in their late 20s, according to Lawrence Stone and other historians, and “growing old together” could mean making it to 40, a marriage might have lasted 10-15 years, at best. These days, with some gerontologists predicting that living to 120 will soon be the norm, if you pledge “til death do us part” at 25, you could be promising to spend 100 years together. (You might serve a similar amount of time if you murder several of your neighbors.)

Love isn’t the answer, it’s the problem. As Coontz observes, once people started marrying for love, they started getting divorced for lack of it. Nobody wants to ask whether it makes sense to tell another person you’ll love them until you drop. Yes, it can happen. Everybody’s got a story of that one couple, still madly in love at 89, and chasing each other around the canasta table. Guess what: They lucked out. You can’t make yourself love somebody, or continue loving somebody after the love is gone; you can only make an effort to act lovingly toward them (and hope they don’t find you too patronizing). Love is a feeling. It might come, it might go, it might stick around for a lifetime. It’s possible to set the stage for it, but impossible to control -- which is why people in the market for durability should stop looking for love and start shopping for steel-belted radials.

I’ve always thought a marriage license should be like a driver’s license, renewable every five years or so. If your spouse engages in weapons-grade nagging or starts saving sex for special occasions -- like leap year -- well, at the end of the term, give them bus fare and a change of clothes, and send them on their way. But, what about the chi-l-l-ldren?! Maybe people who want them should sign up for a “delivery room to dorm room” plan, with an option to renew. It’s counterproductive to preserve some abusive or unhealthy family situation, but maybe more people would buck up and make parenting their priority if they knew they just had to get through 18 years on family track: “We’re very sorry you’re in love with your secretary, but there are children involved, so zip up your pants and take the daddy place at the dinner table.”

Some people do have to settle. They’re afraid to be alone, or they aren’t brave or creative enough to thumb their nose at convention, or it’s closing time in the egg aisle, and if it’s male and willing, they’ll take it. According to your friend’s father, “it doesn’t matter who you marry.” Maybe it didn’t matter to him because he’s one of those guys who really just wants a tidy house, regular sex, and hot meals -- and he never figured out he could come close with carryout food, topless bars, and a cleaning lady. Do you have what it takes to hold out for a woman who really lights you up? You might -- providing you don’t need another half to be whole. If you let this girl go, you may feel empty, bored, and lonely for a while -- but it beats marrying her and feeling that way for a lifetime. Maybe you can’t order up “happily ever after,” but if you try for “realistically ever after,” you might find “happily ever now.”

Posted by aalkon at December 12, 2005 10:07 PM

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Maybe you want to rethink this relationship. She's telling you that if you don't change, your relationship with her will. That's the b.s. i bought into from my fiancee (now my wife of 5 years)She gave me the same ultimatim, give up the ring or else the relationship changes. I wasn't ready then, and i hate being a husband now. If she's intersted in marrying you, she'll wait till you are ready to ask. If it's just a husband and some sperm she wants,it'll be much better for you if she just moves along. Let me also offer my standard advice- 'Never ever ever get married' ever! The reason "it doesn't matter who you marry" is because marriage is misery, especially if you married the wrong person, but even if you married the right one. Marrriage = Misery

Posted by: Chris at December 13, 2005 9:13 PM

Chris' advice is exactly why women at that age give ultimatums. Chris says both that women should wait until men are ready to ask and that men should never get married. Some women do not find the prospect of waiting forever appealing. After dating for two years this poor guy should have some idea whether or not he wants to marry that woman, and if he doesn't want to be committed to her for the rest of her life then he should let her go so that she can find someone more willing.

Posted by: Brittany at December 19, 2005 10:43 PM

I'll never get married. I don't believe in it, for the reasons I wrote above. And yes, I'm in an extremely happy relationship.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 19, 2005 11:18 PM

I actually disagree with Brittany on one point, which is the fact that after 2 years, this guy should be decided about whether to spend the rest of his existence with this girl.

I've been with my current boyfriend for 3 and 1/2 years, and I am not sure about marriage yet. Thats not to say that I don't love him, but there are aspects of one's persnality that tend to take a long time to come out.

For instance, you (almost) never hear of a woman nagging her man to insanity on the 1st date. Likewise, you will never hear of a couple that lasted past desert where the man was physicaly abusive on the 1st date.

People tend to break each other down with time.
I have yet to see any horribly negative traits from my man- but that doesnt mean they arent there to be found. Sometimes waiting is actually the best thing you could do, because if youre not sure about someone, there might be a good reason to be.

Chris is a good example- judging only by what he commented, as of course i dont know him or his wife. but if I was her, I would rather have waited to see how things developed, rather than rush into a lifetime with someone who resents me for it.

Posted by: Becky at December 20, 2005 10:06 AM

What you have to do is picture your life without this person. Are you happier in that picture? If your relationship is plagued with fighting and stress then the answer to that question is probably yes and you're right to cut out. But if you picture that and just the picture makes you miss her, feel a void that only she can fill, then maybe you need to figure out why you aren't ready to marry, and if it's her that you don't want to marry or if you wouldn't want to marry anyone. And if you're expecting romance to be like a movie, then that's a whole different problem (you mentioned "passionate"). Movies end in 2 hours but life keeps on going.

Posted by: Angela at December 20, 2005 1:58 PM

Chris, grow a set and get divorced already.

Posted by: bobbie june at December 20, 2005 2:11 PM

Sin. Sin sin sin, yummy yummy sin.
Marriage for reasons that don't make sense to one or other person is a bad idea. If the protocol for making a major purchase (like, say, a car/house) isn't met...then why would you commit to a more intense and involving expense of time, money, and maintenance? Marriage is highly overrated as the bastion of civilization, and isn't right for everyone. Recognizing that, holding firm to your personal beleifs and keeping yourself sane is important for self respect. Honestly, anyone who'd pressure you to do anything that you so clearly are uncomfortable with, is hardly the kind of person whom you can count on to keep promises of respect, devotion and fidelity. I recommend reinvestigating the concept of "living in sin." And if either of you wants a flashy piece of jewelry, just go buy one. You don't need a license for a rock.

Posted by: Shai at December 22, 2005 11:26 AM

I don't understand what the big hurry is to get married. I am 25 and all of my friends are rushing to get married like old people run to the grocery store the night before a snowstorm. I've never heard of anyone's relationship dramatically improving once they were married. Like, "Oh yeah, once we tied the knot our relationship really skyrocketed." I agree with you Amy, it's rediculous to promise to love someone forever. How can anyone predict what he or she will want 10, 20, or 30 years down the road with all of life's changes that occur? I don't think marriage is the answer for me, and I'm already beginning to get questions like, "How is your boyfriend, do you think he's THE ONE?" "When are you going to move in together? When are you going to get engaged?" Thanks Amy, for letting me feel like someone else is on my side!

Posted by: Amy at December 24, 2005 8:44 AM

Wise, Amy. It's heartening to see not everyone lives automatically!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2005 8:54 AM

I can understand that marriage is not a big deal to everyone. It wasn't a big deal for one of my friends, who lived with her lover for 15 years and built a business with him that she now has to fight with him over (which, incidentally, is why marriage makes issues like that so much simpler). I can also get that if you have to issue an ultimatum, it's probably not the right time (or circumstance) to get married. What I don't understand is why you would consider remaining in a relationship where you're not really turned on by that person, anyway. Is that desperation? Fear of being alone? The ultimate in passivity? Or that you would "give in" to such an ultimatum, then resent the other person for your bad choices?

Posted by: mema at December 27, 2005 7:13 PM

Sorry, but marriage doesn't make that stuff simpler, the smarts to go into any partnership which involves money by starting with a good contract lawyer does. I don't do anything business agreement wise without my lawyer's blessing. Perhaps that's because I'm more honest (and less head-in-the-sand) about the realities of life and human nature. Nothing lasts forever. Some things last quite a while. Endings often come with acrimony and grabbiness. If people would just discover reality, they'd be able to make decisions that reflect it, and I believe theyd live much happier lives. The people I feel the sorriest for, generally speaking, are those who think there's something beyond earth (sans evidence whatsoever). Me, I live like there very well might be no tomorrow, but with the realization that I'll probably make it to Wednesay and beyond. No boring friends, no bad lunches, and I hope, no weak lines or ideas in my column. Or so I hope.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 27, 2005 8:22 PM

Marriage is a financial contract, and in my friend's case, it would have made it much simpler because she basically worked as an unpaid employee. I have seen enough acrimonious splits to agree with you about how endings can make people greedy, and how a divorce from a narcissist can make one's life a misery. The people I feel sorriest for, generally speaking, are people who live their lives as if they have no choices. You might not always have good choices or easy choices, but you have the power to make them.

Posted by: mema at December 28, 2005 4:37 PM

Again, those who enter such arrangements "on faith," are naive. Too many women live according to the fairy tale that the handsome prince will rescue them. Well, if the handsome dude is a contracts lawyer they engage to spell out what the fruits of your labor will be should the marriage break up...well, that guy might just rescue them. Anybody else pays cash. Or should.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 28, 2005 4:44 PM

I agree, love is always evolving and it occassionally just flat out goes extinct. My parents had a great marriage- for the first 10 years. Fast forward and they've been together 30 plus and I'm begging them to divorce- for my sake and the sanity of all who know them. They're unhappy but they're settled in their misery- it's pathetic. It's also violent and at times traumatic.
Passionate love can die and some people are content with companionship as they age. But this guy can't be older then 30 and it's already dead- what are you asking about dude, RUN FOR THE HILLS! Passion may not last forever but I'm shooting for it to take me to my 60s, especially if Amy's doctor is right and we're living until the 100s. If you settle for her because you're too lazy to find another woman who might make you happier, you'll just end up bitter and resentful (Chris, this means you).

Posted by: Lia at December 29, 2005 1:28 AM

The two of them have different goals, him to hang out and her to be married and "i'm just not passionate about her" pretty well clarifies he will never be ready to marry 'her'. Move on and let her move on. Let her find someone who will be passionate about her and maybe he will find someone he feels passionate about when he stops feeling that just having someone around is good enough. Her ultimatum is not blackmail. It's a statement of her goal, and her desire to find someone with a matching goal.

Posted by: laurie at December 29, 2005 11:20 PM

She isn't evil or manipulating. She's just stating her needs and asking if you share those goals. If so, great; if not, let go and find passion. Everyone deserves passion, don't waste your life with so-so. We all deserve to know if our partner is willing to be there for us. If the answer is no, we deserve to know that and reconfigure accordingly. Dude, figure out the answer and tell her and don't say yes just because it's the path of least resistance, that will just come back to burn you both later (see letter above from Chris).

Posted by: cosmicmojo at January 5, 2006 9:00 AM

When it comes to ultimatims, the answer is always the same for me: No.

Posted by: Patrick at January 21, 2006 5:46 AM

Just for the record, I proposed to my Wife after dating for 3 weeks. We've been married now for 12 years, and I wouldn't leave for the world. Very happy and very in love, it does happen...

On topic, unless the woman who dished out the Ultimatum thought it would light a fire under her boyfriend, she is ready to break it off. If he isn't looking for what she is looking for, why are they looking together? No point, just end it.

Posted by: Morbideus at January 30, 2006 11:51 PM

Well, you got lucky, Morbideus -- if you happen to value tenure, that is, and I'm pretty sure you do. It's idiotic to marry somebody you've only known for three weeks. You can't possibly know them at that point; it's hormones talking. You do have a chance of it working -- that you accidentally picked somebody right rather than wrong...and in your case, the odds were in your favor. They usually go the other way. Personally, I get a little miffed when people ask me how long I've been with my boyfriend (naturally, I don't believe in marriage), because that's not what I think matters. (ie, it's "How good is it?" -- whether it's lasted a month or a hundred years.)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 31, 2006 5:24 AM

Here's what I think -- they're both right, but Boyfriend here needs to speak up or step out.

The girlfriend is right because if marriage is a priority for her, she has every right to find out whether it's a priority for him as well. If marriage is important to her, shouldn't she find out his feelings sooner rather than later? He has already kept her hanging on for two years despite "not feeling passionate" for her. Why should she waste two or five or ten MORE years with someone who keeps her around for indifferent reasons? Marriage may not be for everyone, but she clearly does want to be married. It is absolutely fair for her to find out if that's where this relationship is going.

But also, he's right as well. If he doesn't want to get married, of COURSE he should not give in to pressure and propose! No one should enter a marriage unwillingly; that's common sense. But if he knows that he has no intention of marrying her, HE NEEDS TO TELL HER THAT. Clearly and specifically. What's so hard about that? Why all the wavering? Well, because... she would break it off with him if she knew! (I suspect she'd also break it off if she knew about the "not so passionate" comments.) Awww, then he'd lose the convenient sex. Poor thing.

Come on, man, grow a pair and tell her what you really think. Relationships need to be built on honesty. Even though her ultimatum is gauche, it is at least HONEST -- which is more than we can say for him.

Posted by: Nicole at February 16, 2006 9:10 AM

I gave my boyfriend of almost 5 years (22nd of this month) an ultimatum. I told him that if by the end of this month we are not officially engaged and planning for our future then we should go our separate ways. He seemed upset at first but I felt he needed an ultimatum. He is almost 32 years old. I'm 34 with 3 daughters (not his). He says he loves me and is CERTAIN he wants to marry me. He has been saying it for about 2 years now. He has never lived with a woman or ever been married so I think what he needed was a push. Also, I won't wait for him forever. I don't want him to buy the ring and propose only because of the ultimatum but because he is honest with himself and has decided to JUST DO IT already! If he doesn't then, I can move on with my life and possibly find someone else if that is what is meant to be. I would rather find out now than later. Let's get it over with already!

Posted by: Simone at July 8, 2006 6:33 AM

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