How To Turn Down A Marriage Proposal But Still Continue To Date

Two years into dating, Stacy McClouse’s partner, Erin, surprised her by taking her to the spot where they’d first connected: Oakland Cemetery, a gorgeous, historic location in Atlanta that’s the final resting place of Civil War soldiers, “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell and country crooner Kenny Rogers.

Once they’d walked around a bit, Erin (who uses the pronouns “they” and “them”) asked McClouse to sit down on a bench. Then Erin got down on bended knee and spoke those four little words: “Will you marry me?”

Immediately, McClouse burst into “hysterical tears.”

“These were clearly not the tears of a happy fiancée,” McClouse told HuffPost. “These were loud, panicked sobs that had strangers glancing over in concern. I practically folded myself against Erin, and it took a while for me to get the words out, for me to make them understand.”

It hurt to say no. It wasn’t that McClouse didn’t want to be with Erin. It certainly wasn’t that she didn’t love them. She did, “without hesitation and without limit.”

It wasn’t out of fear for how their families and friends would react to the queer couple’s marriage; that bridge had largely already been crossed as a discussion point. As McClouse explained to Erin, she just wasn’t ready for a wedding and wasn’t entirely sure if she wanted to be married at all.

“I managed to tell Erin that the problem was that I couldn’t do it now,” McClouse said. “I was already emotionally fragile, and the idea of all the pomp and circumstance of a wedding and inevitably being cast as the bride utterly terrified me.”

Eventually, McClouse asked herself a hard question: “Well, if not an engagement, then what do I want?”

She landed on an answer that felt simple enough: She wanted Erin, and there could come a day when she wanted a wedding and marriage, too.

“Erin, ever patient with me, agreed to wait until I was ready,” McClouse said.

“I’ve definitely worked with couples where a partner has said no. More often than not, the experience highlights unresolved or never-before-discussed issues within a relationship.”

– Abigail Makepeace, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles

The couple also agreed that the next time a proposal happened, it would need to come from McClouse, since Erin had already expressed how they felt.

“We agreed that I would propose, even if it wasn’t elaborate or fancy. It would be up to me when we were wed.”

The pair continued to date, and three years later, McClouse popped the question.

“Erin gave me a resounding yes,” she said. “I am, for all my many good qualities, a terrible liar, and they had known what was coming probably before I did.”

Situations like this ― with one partner who is eager to marry and has their proposal turned down ― happen more than you think, according to Abigail Makepeace, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.

“I’ve definitely worked with couples where a partner has said no,” she said. “More often than not, the experience highlights unresolved or never-before-discussed issues within a relationship.”

Sometimes, a couple will stay together and postpone any wedding talk, like Erin and McClouse did.

In other cases, though, the proposer may look at an engagement as a Band-Aid; their relationship has foundational issues, and they figure they can bypass fixing the problem by jumping into marriage.

“One example is a couple I worked with who’d been dealing with infidelity,” Makepeace said. “The partner who had cheated proposed in order to show a level of recommitment to the relationship. Unfortunately, while both participants wanted the relationship to survive, the proposal attempt did not solve the effects of the infidelity.”

Clearly, that’s a worst-case scenario. If you’re happy and fulfilled in a relationship, but not ready for marriage, there’s no reason why you can’t stay together.

Speaking to HuffPost, Makepeace and other marriage therapists shared how to say no and keep your partner.

Jose Luis Agudo Gonzalez via Getty Images

It can be courageous to say no — but if you want to stay together, you’ll need to reassure your partner that you love them.

Need to say no? Let them down gently

If you’re the partner who turns down a proposal, you need to be both honest and mindful of your partner’s feelings. That’s not an easy balance to strike, so tread carefully.

“Ideally, seek to articulate your reasons for your answer,” Makepeace said. “Also, acknowledging your partner’s feelings can be powerful. Your partner will probably experience feelings of deep shame and rejection from your refusal. In this communication work, it is important, when possible, to be truthful but to also take great care to express that you care about your partner, despite your answer.”

It’s courageous to say no, but this needs to be coupled with the reassurance that you love your partner. If you see a future with them, instill hope for a future yes.

Avoid saying yes just to say no later. Don’t try to convince yourself or anyone else to do anything that doesn’t feel right, said Katrina Grossman, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco.

“Even if you think you’re getting what you want in the moment, you’ll never be able to fully trust the decision if it was forced, coerced or even just a partial truth,” she said. “Let things happen in their own time. You’ll find the right path.”

If it’s a public proposal, saying no is a little more difficult

If you’re being proposed to in a public setting with an audience ― remember the days of the “flash mob” proposals? ― you’re in a decidedly more difficult situation. Should you say yes just to avoid publicly humiliating your partner? It depends on them, said Sarah Schewitz, a Portland, Maine-based psychologist and the founder of online couples therapy practice Couples Learn.

“You likely know your partner better than anyone else, and you can gauge whether they would rather hear the truth in front of their friends and family or hear it later in private,” she said.

Either way, you’re probably going to have to endure some awkward conversations with each other, as well as any close family and friends who were there. So go with what feels right and most respectful to your partner.

In a public proposal, should you say yes just to avoid humiliating your partner? It depends.

Kelvin Murray via Getty Images

In a public proposal, should you say yes just to avoid humiliating your partner? It depends.

Now that we’ve gotten the actual proposal out of the way, here’s what marriage therapists say you should do to ensure that the relationship stays strong.

Know that a relationship can absolutely survive a failed proposal

Recognize that an unsuccessful proposal doesn’t need to be the end of your relationship. To make it work, the person who turned down the proposal will have to emphasize how much they love their partner and that they do see a future with them, even if they’re not marriage-ready. (It’s also totally fine to tell your partner that you don’t think you’ll ever want to marry but would still like to stay together.)

“It’s important the couple talk about their hopes and expectations for a path forward and what is needed to make both partners comfortable with the possibility of a lifetime commitment,” Makepeace said.

If your proposal was turned down, give yourself an opportunity to be disappointed, and then get introspective

If you were the one who asked, give yourself room to process the loss of the fantasy you likely projected on your partner and potential marriage, Grossman said.

It hurts to be turned down by the person you love the most, and proposing is a huge, risky gambit, even when you’ve talked about it before and you’re confident you’ll secure a yes.

“Be compassionate toward yourself and be compassionate toward your partner right now,” Grossman said. “This probably isn’t easy for either of you. If you can, try to express gratitude for their honesty, even if it was hard to hear.”

Once you’ve gotten to a place where you can be kind and curious toward one another, Grossman suggested asking these important questions of yourself and then sharing with your partner:

  • Why is marriage important to me?
  • Do I need to get married? Why or why not?
  • Is this partnership strong and satisfying? How could it be better?
  • What are some values or beliefs I hold about marriage? How do those match up or differ from my partner’s?
  • Where do I see myself in five years? Where do I see my partner?
  • If I imagine that we’ll be together in five years, what will I need to do, both separately and with my partner, to make the relationship work? Are we both willing to make that effort?
If you were the one who asked, allow yourself the room to process the loss of the fantasy of how you <em>wanted</em> things to go.

Brand X Pictures via Getty Images

If you were the one who asked, allow yourself the room to process the loss of the fantasy of how you wanted things to go.

If you’re the person who said no, consider what you’d need before feeling comfortable with that next step

If you are the partner who rejected the proposal but you’re leaving the door open for future marital plans, give some thought to what needs to happen before you’d feel comfortable saying yes, Schewitz said. To that end, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Are there issues in the relationship that I have been sweeping under the rug but need to be talked about?
  • Are there well-known issues that haven’t been solved? Is it time to take a different approach, such as seeking couples therapy?
  • Do I need to know more about my partner and experience them in different types of situations before making a lifelong commitment?
  • Are there personal growth or career goals I want to achieve before getting married?

“Take some time after the proposal to really understand these items for yourself, and then share with your partner what it would take to get a yes,” Schewitz said.

Ask yourselves: Could we do a better job of communicating?

Usually, couples inching closer to a proposal have spoken about marriage with some intentionality ― or at the very least, one partner has hinted at it and the other has responded positively.

If you’re the one whose proposal was rejected, it’s especially important to consider how you’ve been communicating your goals and intentions, Schewitz said. Do you game out your future with your partner without letting them in on your plans?

“It takes two to build a life together, so you might want to consider if there are improvements to be made with your communication,” said Schewitz.

Or maybe you haven’t been receptive enough to your partner. Have they alluded to their unhappiness without you hearing it? Have you been taking their actions and requests seriously?

“If that’s the case, now is the time to realize that these are barriers to moving forward and take action if you want the relationship to work,” Schewitz said.