Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: 'My boyfriend won't marry me'

Dear Virginia, I’ve lived with my boyfriend for eight years, and two years ago he suddenly suggested we got engaged. I was delighted as I’d always longed to get married, but since then nothing has happened. Everyone keeps asking when we’re going to be married and he just says: ‘When I’m ready. There’s no hurry.’ I’ve told him how unhappy I am, and even threatened to leave. Marriage means a lot to me, and I can’t understand why he won’t do anything about it. Best wishes, Pam

The first thing I wonder about is why on earth he ever suggested you got engaged. What triggered this? Engagement, after all, is a commitment to marriage in the future, and if you're not going to get married then I should break off the engagement (sounds so wildly old-fashioned, doesn't it!) as soon as you can. Tell him that there is no point in living in this kind of limbo if there are no plans in the future to marry. I suspect that were you to do this, he might agree to putting a marriage date in the diary a couple of years ahead – though no doubt he'd try to wriggle out of it when it got nearer to the actual day.

But more effective, I think, would be to leave. You say you've threatened to leave, but threatening is useless. Until you start putting your name down at estate agents, and have the details of flats coming through the letter box, until you start actually packing your bags and asking him to help you divide the CDs and DVDs up fairly, he's going to know that it's highly unlikely you'll carry your threat through.

I did once give this advice to a woman in your position. She reported back that she'd packed her suitcases and ordered the taxi and was just walking down to the path to get in when her boyfriend suddenly came rushing out of the house saying: "Don't go! Let's get married!" I'm not saying this will necessarily happen to you, but I do think there's a chance. A good chance. While you do nothing, why should your boyfriend do anything? And I mean "do" something, not just talk about doing something.

Tell him it's not just about marriage. It's about the fact that he knows you're unhappy with the situation and he just doesn't care. He clearly doesn't talk about it with you, or put his arm round you and say he's so sorry, he knows he's hurting you, but he's terrified by the thought of it, or say that because his parents got divorced he's nervous of the same thing happening to you two... he doesn't bother to explain his feelings to you to help you understand his reluctance. No, he's prepared to let you suffer and doesn't try to do a thing about it. That's not kind or loving, and you don't want to be around someone who's not kind or loving for the rest of your life – unless, of course, you find total shits irresistibly attractive.

Leaving would mean taking a risk, I know. But I think it would pay off. And even if it didn't end up in marriage, it would surely make you feel better about yourself and, I know, make him admire you more. Instead of being someone who's happy to wait around like a pudding for some never-never wedding, you'd be taking matters into your own hands and standing up for yourself. It may well be that this act of asserting your own identity and putting a boundary between you both is exactly what he needs – and, secretly wants – to make the idea of marriage a lot more appealing.

He'll never marry you

Your boyfriend is probably being completely truthful. He's not ready, and he probably never will be – for you, anyway. For eight years he has had all the benefits of living with you in terms of sex, housework and everything else you provide. But he doesn't love you enough to commit permanently to you. He isn't ready to give up the idea that he might want to live with someone else, and he isn't ready to start a family with you. If he were ever going to be ready to do this with you, he would have done it by now.

If you're not going to get married, then you aren't engaged. Saying they are engaged is sometimes just a thing men do to keep women quiet. You have to decide if you think he may eventually decide to commit to you, and whether you are prepared to wait for that. While you are waiting, it's very possible he will meet someone else he does want to commit to. If you try to railroad him into marriage you may find he runs off with a bridesmaid, or leaves you shortly afterwards saying he feels trapped. Don't get pregnant whatever you do, as he isn't ready for fatherhood either.

It isn't his fault, as you must have been young when you started living together, but don't waste your life throwing good years after bad. Chalk it up to experience and move on while you are still young. You don't want to find you are 40 and still in the same position.

Helen Style, By email

It's time to let go

I am afraid you have to accept that your boyfriend believes the relationship is all about him and not about you both. He is happy as things are and will not change the arrangement just because you're not. You need to consider which is the more important to you, the man or the fact of marriage, and if it's the latter, go seek someone more in tune with your hopes.

Tam, By email

Decide what matters

The proper question from a man to his beloved is: "Will you marry me?" If the answer is yes, they become engaged, and engagement should imply marriage within some agreed time frame. The improper question is: "Shall we get engaged?" which speaks of an unwillingness to make a proper commitment, and is often used (alas!) by men who want to keep their options open.

You have to decide which matters more to you: your ongoing relationship or your goal to be married. You could try an ultimatum, but that isn't without its problems, especially if things go wrong. You say you've threatened to leave – maybe it's about time you did. Not that leaving would necessarily be the end of the story, though...

Don Manley, Oxford

Next week's dilemmas

Dear Virginia, My father is in his early seventies and quite frail. He lives alone in a very large house in a wealthy area of London, and is very frugal, always complaining about having no money. My sister proposes that we each give him £25 a week to help him out. But I know he pays £2,000 a year in storage costs for lots of unwanted furniture, and he could easily earn money by letting out a couple of his rooms. So I resent the idea of giving him money when he could just sell the furniture and get a lodger. I earn quite a bit, but I have a young family to support. Am I being unfair? Yours sincerely, Robert

What would you advise Robert to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas@independent.co.uk, or go to independent.co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Naked Wines (Nakedwines.com)

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