“So, when are you going to get hitched then?” How to tackle the intrusive questions we've come to dread

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Words: Esther Harris

When are you going to settle down/find a man?
When are you going to start a family?
What is happening with your job?

We’ve all had some version of ‘the big three’ conversational bombs dropped casually our way at one time or another, and, depending on where we are in our lives, the storm of emotion that can follow can unexpectedly floor us.

We spoke to therapist Judith Apps about why we sometimes have a difficult time brushing off intrusive questions, and pinned down some useful responses for the next time someone gets that bit too personal.

Strangers don’t know what is off-limits

Part of the reason why one of the big three can hit us hard is that with friends and family there is often an unspoken understanding of issues we are deflecting and may not want to talk about. But with our less intimate circle – work colleagues, friends of friends or more distant relatives for example – a question on one of these subjects can feel like an unwanted intrusion and a punch in the gut.

Apps explains where that familiar feeling of dread comes from. “Here you are observing emotions in the body – anger, humiliation, misery,” she says. “And all of these can cause shame: ‘I should be doing xyz, that’s what everybody else is doing at my age or stage in life.’

“Our inner critic is formed in childhood (parents or teachers or other figures of authority can play a role here and ratchet up the internal angst) and inwardly berates us for not achieving one of the actions being questioned.

“We feel it in our gut, in our core, because it’s usually associated with a deep emotion, sometimes buried inside us, so it’s alarming when a stranger raises it casually out of the blue.

“The questioner has unwittingly stumbled into an area that that causes lots of turmoil. Feeling resilient and in good form, none of the ‘big three’ might be cause for concern, but if one of them touches on a topic that is current in your life – maybe you are going through IVF, you don’t know where your relationship is going, or you’re struggling to assert yourself at work – they can strike a painful nerve.”

And for when they do, here are some go-to responses to keep in your emotional armoury.

When are you going to settle down?

Whether about marriage, living with someone or having a partner, ‘settling down’ questions probing into the state or lack of a relationship are casually asked, but big on the irritant scale. Apps breaks it down for us.

“We all remember Uncle Geoffrey and ‘How’s your love life, Bridget?’ but this old chestnut can provoke feelings of intense unhappiness and defensiveness in those that would love nothing more than to find someone but can’t, those who don’t want to discuss what stage their relationship is at and those simply bored of the implication that everyone wants to be coupled up.

“It can stir up feelings of uselessness and insecurity, or touch upon how your view of marriage was formed by your parents’ relationship, or annoy you because it seems they’re implying you’re not valid without a partner.”

If you want to shut it down

“Don’t feel afraid to say ‘I don’t wish to discuss this right now.’ You don’t have to explain yourself, although it could be that a reason makes you feel better. It may be a surprise to find that many people will back off and respect your wishes.

“Another option is ‘I am not sure my private life is up for discussion’.”

If you want to respond

“To talk about it, try ‘I always feel overwhelmed when I am asked this because so many factors come into play,’ or ‘How much time do you really have? Because actually I would like to talk about it properly’.

“But to move it on from yourself, you could go for, ‘It’s curious that at this age this question comes up over and over, isn’t it?’”

When are you going to have children?

It’s hard to imagine that the asker has really considered what the possible answers might be to this question, yet it’s constantly asked without a thought by not just friends and family, but practical strangers. Apps says it’s often down to the asker assuming the person they’re speaking to has had the same experience as they have, or being so far from the situation themselves that any negative connotations have not crossed their minds.

“This is possibly the most heartless of all three questions, usually asked out of friendly curiosity or an imagined shared situation (‘I got married and had children straightaway, so you probably will too’) but when people are not in the same boat, the feelings stirred in the respondent may be devastating.

“It can provoke feelings of grief, anger, frustration and loss of privacy. It might stir up a situation kept secret or unknown to the asker, of miscarriages and stillbirth or struggles to conceive. The person asked might feel alienated that they can’t reveal their problems to someone with children or pregnant, or from previous experience know that saying they simply don’t want children sparks an unwelcome debate and judgement.”

If you want to shut it down

“Say ‘Yes I am at the age when I might have a baby – we will see’ and they should take the hint, or ‘I am not sure I want to talk about this right now, do you mind?’

If you want to respond

“To leave open the possibility of a frank conversation, say ‘For me it is so difficult right now, I can hardly speak about it, it’s a really painful journey.’

“But to move it on without specifically referring to your own situation, deflect it with something like ‘I find the assumption that I must want children so frequent, could you share where that comes from?’”

When are you getting promoted/getting a proper job/going back to work?

Work-related questions might not seem as personal as the other two queries, but for the many people not sure about their career path, their next step, how their job fits into maternity leave or whether they even know what they want to be doing, they can open up a can of worms they just don’t want to dive into.

“This is often asked innocently enough, but if you have felt under pressure to achieve or are struggling with work/life/kids balance or have hit a wall, career questions can make you feel judged, defensive and questioning your raison d’etre.

“The question can prompt thoughts of unfavourable comparison with siblings and friends, the fact you don’t know if you want to do what you’re doing, that you’ve wasted time if you’ve decided it’s not for you, a difficult co-worker or boss situation, or guilt associated with work decisions after children.”

If you want to shut it down

“Tried and tested: ‘Same old, I will let you know when there is news’ or again, straightforwardly saying, ‘It’s not something I feel like talking about’.”

If you want to respond

“Dive into the situation with, ‘Actually, I am planning something. Want to hear about it?’ or ask for advice: ‘It can be quite tricky at my place of work because of X and Y, what would you do?’ or ‘I’m in a state of flux at the moment and it’s difficult to know exactly which way to turn’.

“To move the focus away from you, try: ‘That's interesting you are asking me about changing jobs – are you thinking about making some changes yourself?’ Inviting the questioner to chat about their own issues should buy you some breathing space whilst you figure out a way to change the subject.”

Judith Apps is a therapist with The Eden Practice

Images: iStock