Dear Virginia, My partner and I have lived together for 10 years, and have two lovely children, but the other day he asked if I'd ever think of getting married. I know my parents would love it, and so would his, and our kids would be over the moon, but do you think it would be a good idea? I'm absolutely terrified of rocking the boat. What we've got is so good that I don't want to risk changing it in any way. Yours sincerely, Nell

Whenever I'm knocked for six by some idea like this, I've learnt that the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. It takes a long time for our brains and our hearts to adjust to such a big move – and marriage does seem to be a big move – and they need a lot of space to adjust. You can't come round to this new state of affairs just by thinking about it consciously – it really is what a friend of mine calls "hind brain" time. Let the whole concept simmer away quietly like a stew for a few weeks. And I suspect that you may well, once you're over the initial fear, come round to it.

I'm going to give you a few suggestions just to mull over before you put this issue to the back of your mind. Firstly, remember you can always get married in secret. There is no need for pomp and ceremony, mad hats at the register office, champagne all round, or bridesmaids in pink, as well as kippers tied the back of your car. You could just go and do it ever so softly without telling anyone. Then, much later, you could leak the news out in a very low-key way, so that it won't seem like a big event, but more like a natural continuation to a partnership that's already rock solid.

Secondly, look at the practical side of things. Financially, you'll be slightly better off as far as tax goes. And if one of you dies suddenly, there won't be so much death duty to pay. Also, if you were to die, it makes it a lot easier for your partner to keep the children. Not that he's likely to lose them, but if you weren't married, it might be possible for bonkers grandparents to make a case for looking after the children themselves if they got it into their head your partner was a fiend.

Finally, are you actually planning to leave your partner at any time in the future? Do you see the relationship as long-term and permanent, for ever? Or do you feel, at the back of your mind, that you always want an escape route just in case? I sense a feeling of panic in your reaction. No, I realise you're not planning to scamper off with anyone or run away and join a circus, but perhaps you feel it's nice to know that if you wanted to, you could. But remember that you could always do that whether you were married or not. Marriage is not the prison it used to be. It's just a legal ceremony that makes life a bit easier for both of you and your children.

It's true that I've known couples who've been together for 30 years who've suddenly got married and then split a few weeks later. But I think they're couples who haven't thought the whole thing through, who haven't discussed the implications and who haven't waited until they feel secure and ready.

Don't worry too much about it. Whether you get married or not doesn't make an enormous amount of difference. But once you can get rid of the anxiety about it all, you might well find that it's not the big deal you imagined. And it might just, like getting your car taxed or getting a television licence, be something that would allow all of you to put your minds at rest and, rather than put it at risk, actually enhance your relationship.

Readers say

If it ain't broke...

What stood out a mile to me is that you do not mention a particular desire to get married for your own happiness. You state that other family members who would love it – your parents, your in-laws and your children – but you do not state that you have any real compulsion to do it. Do not do anything simply to appease others. You have to have a real desire to do it yourself, otherwise you will only resent those who you feel "pushed" you into it.

It's a cliché, but "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". You and your partner are obviously happy as you are. Why change something you are already happy with?

Nikki Spence, York

Marriage makes you stronger

You have to ask yourself what you are afraid of. Is it that once there is a ring on your finger you or he will feel trapped? In essence, nothing will really change unless you want it to. But there are definite advantages to being married.

Should anything happen to your partner, how would you stand financially? You may think it does not concern you now, but you never know what is round the corner. His rights where the children are concerned should anything happen to you are also something to consider. A marriage certificate would tidy things up a great deal.

Throw caution to the wind and go for it, start planning and enjoy every minute. You obviously have a great relationship, and a wedding would be the icing on the cake.

Claire Jones, Leicester

A logical step

I think it all depends on what you think marriage will do to what seems like a very happy union. Marrying for the sake of others is not the most sensible of options; it sets a precedent for letting the opinions of others influence the way you and your partner see your relationship.

However, the stability of your relationship is not in question and it seems as though you are ready to tie the knot. You already live and have children together, so marriage is a logical step that will lend security to your family.

Lisa Rout, London, EC1

Just say no

Don't get married just to satisfy your partner. There is nothing wrong with your partner wanting to make the commitment of marriage, but if in your heart you feel that things would change if you married, then don't do it. Sit your partner down and explain to him that you love him, but just don't feel ready. You've made the big commitment of having children and, maybe somewhere down the line, you'll want to marry. But until then, stick to your guns

Sharon Gregory, Blackpool

Stay happy as you are

Getting married because your parents or the children would love it is not a good reason. From what you have already said, your relationship seems to work well just the way it is. These days, many couples do not need a marriage ceremony to prove their love and commitment to each other and, unless this is something that both of you really desire, I would continue to enjoy what you already have.

Julia Browne, Aylesbury

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