When you’re a lady human of a certain age, you start getting interrogated about when you’ll get hitched. If you’re in a committed, long-term relationship with a special someone, your family and friends give themselves ample permission to quiz you on your nuptial plans, whether you have any or not. "When are you going to put a ring on it?" they’ll ask your partner. "You’re next," they’ll whisper, with a wink, when someone else walks down the aisle. You can and will get ambushed at any social event, if you’ve had the audacity to reach the age of 25 or above without being legally bound to another person in matrimony. You don’t even need to be in a relationship to qualify for these interrogations; plenty of single women get it, too. If you’re exhausted, having to defend yourself and your decision to be as yet unmarried, you are not alone.
"A few years ago they started asking in earnest when he was going to propose," says 26-year-old Lily, who has been with her boyfriend for almost five years. "Last year, I told them I wasn't sure I wanted to get married and they reacted as if I'd told them I was going to live in the woods." Lily’s dad’s favourite film is Father of the Bride and her mother went through a phase of insisting she have a full-size Ferris wheel at her hypothetical wedding. Lily and her boyfriend have discussed marriage but they’re pretty relaxed about it because to them, commitment is half a decade together, living across two continents, and adopting a very greedy cat. The questions still sting, though. "It makes me feel like there's something wrong with me for not wanting the big wedding and the white dress and the Instagram hashtag. I feel somehow broken, because isn't this what I've always been taught to want?"
Phoebe, 29, feels the intense focus on her three-year relationship is actually a little insulting. "Somehow it diminishes everything else – professional achievements, family relationships, personal goals – and I also feel as though it's quite old-fashioned, as though I'm a woman in the 1920s waiting desperately for a ring on her finger. I've had friends and even acquaintances say 'I think he'll propose to you soon' and that phrasing makes the woman sound very passive, as though my life is some kind of waiting game until my boyfriend pops the question."
It makes me feel like there's something wrong with me for not wanting the big wedding and the white dress and the Instagram hashtag.
The pressure to get married doesn’t stop once you get older – not even when you’ve had children. Helene is 46 and has a daughter, but her family and friends still insist on pointing out the absence of a husband. On his deathbed, her grandfather’s final words were: "So, are you married yet?" Her family and her childhood best friends are always asking if she’s met someone. "They say I should make some time for it rather than doing all these other things, like running my own business and raising my daughter, which are both seen as unworthy goals in life. They just cannot comprehend that we can be happy without being engaged or married. In the 21st century, it is still primarily seen as a definite sign of failure."
The obsession with marriage is only intensified by cultural expectations. "Have I ever felt the pressure to get married? I’m south Asian, so duh! It’s the norm," says 31-year-old Iram. "Everyone wants to know when you’re going to get hitched: your mother, your uncles, your aunties, that random 'uncle' who isn’t really an uncle, who desperately wants to know when you’ll be getting married so that he can attend your wedding and eat free food." Iram says there’s additional pressure to marry someone with a similar background to her, although now that she’s passed the ripe old age of 30, "certain allowances will be made by my family. Right now, anyone with a Y chromosome and his own teeth will probably do."
Kirsty, who’s 35 and has been single for a few years, says she tries to laugh off comments about not being married. "They become tedious after a while and can be hurtful at times. It makes me feel like I’m a bit of a failure, that I’m not meeting people’s expectations of me. If I point out what I’m doing instead of settling down, it feels like I’m not good enough. It also makes me feel very defensive. The urge to point out the divorce rate is too tempting!"
Actually, that mightn’t be an altogether terrible idea. Therapist and relationships consultant Dr Kathrine Bejanyan says you could risk a cheeky mention of the divorce rate (the latest data from the Office for National Statistics estimates that 42% of marriages end in divorce), just to get your point across that getting married isn’t always a perfect happy ending. She also says you should try and stay calm, rather than getting too defensive, because chances are the inquisition comes from a place of affection and possibly outdated values. "Marriage can represent different things to people. Particularly to older generations, it can mean security, wellbeing, safety, and financial stability," she says. "They just want that for you, so try not to feel offended if your aunt or grandparent doesn’t recognise that you are leading a happy, secure and independent life. Modern times have changed but it doesn’t mean that old mindsets have."
Making a decision based on what you feel is right for you as a couple is much more important than fitting into what everyone else’s ideas are.
Kate Moyle, RELATIONSHIP THERAPIST
If you find yourself overwhelmed by marriage-related enquiries, whether you’re single or in a committed relationship, have some answers and even counter-questions prepared. "Be clear about why you don’t want to get married now (or ever), what a relationship represents to you and how it will be impacted by legally tying the knot," says Dr Bejanyan. "You could try saying something like, 'I really appreciate how much you care about my future, but now is not the right time for us' or 'I’m sure you know what a big decision this is to make – one that would be best made by me and my partner'. You can try deflecting the conversation back on them by saying something like, 'Is there a reason you think getting married right now is so important?' or even 'What was your marriage like and how would it have been different if you married sooner or later?'."
Family therapist Helena Lewis says you should try to stay committed to what you believe in and resist the pressure to get married before you’re ready. "Hold on to your truth and your principles. Remind yourself you don't have to please anyone, even if they are important people to you. Your main responsibility is to yourself," she says. Try not to let it affect your self-esteem, your sense of yourself or your relationship. "Seek support where it's effective. This might not be from those people that are finding it hard to respect your preferences about this. It might be other friends, colleagues, books or professionals."
It’s important, too, to protect your relationship with your partner, if you have one. Psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle says you shouldn’t let outside pressure change what you and your beloved feel about your own commitment. "When we are constantly asked about something like getting engaged, we can start to feel anxiety about it not happening. The important thing is to have a conversation with your partner about your relationship expectations, what commitment looks like to the two of you and what you feel is important. Making a decision based on what you feel is right for you as a couple is much more important than fitting into what everyone else’s ideas are."