When you imagine a proposal, you probably think of all the clichés – getting down on one knee, hiding the ring in a dessert, and, of course, the shock and awe of a well-planned surprise.

While that’s a lovely picture, it’s not exactly healthy for an engagement to be a total surprise to your partner, says psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D.

“What I say to my clients is don’t assume in life, don’t assume things. And in this case, I think it’s really important because you don’t want to assume your significant other feels exactly what you feel and that they also want to get engaged and married,” she explains.

Luckily, the majority of couples seem to be heeding this advice; according to a report from Zola, 94% of surveyed couples discussed marriage before getting engaged. Many actually regular conversations on the topic, with 30% talking about it at least once a week and another 43% talking about it at least once a month.

Of course, recognizing the importance of the pre-proposal talk is just one part of the equation. Here’s a brief guide to when and how to navigate this crucial conversation.

1. Timing is Everything

While it’s never too early in a relationship to communicate what you’re looking for, it’s probably best not to bring up marriage on the first date (though there are always exceptions!).

Dr. Thomas says six months is a good rule of thumb for most couples to at least start bringing up the possibility of marriage.

“I think by six months you’re going to know if that person really feels right, if you feel like you’re falling in love with them. You’ve got to go from seeing if you even like them to seeing if you’re in love with them. That takes time,” she says.

2. Go in With a Clear Head

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when having the pre-proposal talk is doing it when you’re under the influence, says Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., a best-selling author and psychologist.

“Don’t do it when you’re drunk or high. A lot of people, because they’re nervous, get kind of tipsy or altered to have the conversation, but it’s the most important conversation of your life and you want to be present, absolutely present.”

3. Set Aside Time and Space

Similarly, you want to ensure there are no external distractions, so you can give the conversation the time and attention it deserves.

“You don’t want to have any interruptions. So, you wouldn’t do it five minutes before somebody is coming over. You want to make a sacred space, like an hour, that you know you’re just going to be relaxed and able to have the conversation,” says Dr. Freed.

4. Talk About Your Values

Once you’re ready to sit down and talk about your future as a couple – where do you start?

“Values is the most important conversation. One of the ways to get at that, that’s most helpful, is ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ What are the top, most important things to you about getting there? So, you can see if your trajectories align, if you are both looking in the same direction,” advises Dr. Freed.

According to Dr. Thomas, in addition to the question of marriage, some of the other key topics to cover are:
• Children (Do you want kids? How many? Are you open to adoption?)
• Money (What kind of lifestyle do you want? Do you have any debt? Do you want us both to work or someone to stay at home with the kids?)
• Religion (Are you religious? Do you want your kids raised in a specific religion?)
• Location (Where do you want to live? Where do you want to raise a family?)
• Pets (Do you want pets? What kind of pets? How many pets?)

5. Be Honest and Direct

While the aforementioned topics are often uncomfortable, it’s crucial to be as clear and open as possible with your partner.

“People should not be afraid to be honest because it’s scarier if they hem and haw and don’t say what they really think or feel or need. Because that’s going to come back and haunt them,” advises Dr. Thomas

6. Be Prepared to Compromise

Dr. Thomas also cautions couples to keep in mind that not everything can be a dealbreaker.

“Compromise with couples in general [should be where] everybody is giving something and getting something. No one is going to get everything they want exactly the way they want it,” she says.

7. Consider Getting Professional Help

While deciding to get engaged is a very personal conversation, you don’t have to do it all alone. Calling in professional assistance can be very helpful when you can’t reach a compromise or discuss a particularly tough topic.

Or, even if you’re not struggling, you may still find it valuable to meet with a pre-marital counselor before popping the question.

“It’s always a great assistance to anybody to have a session with a professional to discuss what people really want in their lives,” says Dr. Freed. “It doesn’t mean you have a problem. Like, I’ve actually helped quite a lot of people have these conversations out of excitement and exuberance, not out of difficulty.”

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