In a new monthly series, our relationships expert, Sarah Abell looks at issues to do with dating and offers her practical advice. In the sixth of the Inside Out Dating Guides Sarah Abell looks at how to decide whether your relationship is ready for the ultimate commitment.

Not everybody wants to get married but if you do then one of the first things I would recommend is finding out whether the person that you are dating has the same general aspirations to say “I do” to somebody at some point in the future. If they don’t it is better to know at the start of the relationship when it will be easier to extricate yourself than three years down the line once your lives are enmeshed.

But let’s suppose for the moment that both of you are generally pro-marriage and that you have been dating for some time. At some stage (if you haven’t already) you are likely to ask yourself the question – do I want to be with this person for the rest of my life?

That is a big question, which is why it is unsurprising that some people find contemplating it rather daunting. It is after all one of the most important decisions you will ever make and one that will have a huge impact on your future for good or for bad.

That’s why preferably marriage isn’t something you should just ‘fall into’. It helps if both of you say “I will” and mean it because there will be times in the future when your relationship will be tested. If and when that time comes it will be of great benefit if both of you know that you committed and continue to commit to the relationship. By choosing to marry, you are choosing to be an ‘us’ and to put that ‘us’ before anything else.

Actively choosing and making a decision to say, “yes” to marriage is particularly important for men. That might sound old fashioned but there’s a good reason for it. Researchers from Denver University in the USA discovered that men who “slide” into marriage or fatherhood are much less likely to feel committed to the relationship than those that actively choose them and say a definite “yes” to them.

So, how do you know if you are ready and whether this is the right person for you?

In The Marriage Book, Nicky and Sila Lee suggest asking yourself these seven questions:

Do I want to share the rest of my life with this person?

Does our love give me energy and strength or does it drain me?

Do I respect this person?

Do I accept this person as they are? (And not how I would like them to be!)

Are we able to admit our mistakes, apologise and forgive one another?

Do we have interests in common as a foundation for friendship?

Have we weathered all seasons and a variety of situations together?

If you answered “no” to any or all of those questions – it may be that you aren’t ready yet or it may indicate that you have some doubts about the relationship. If it is the latter you may want to talk through your concerns with a trusted friend, mentor or spiritual advisor. You may also want to consider seeing a couples’ therapist (see if you think that you could benefit from working through specific problems together with the help of a professional.

But if at any stage you decide that you definitely cannot see yourself having a future with the person in question or marrying them – the kindest and best thing you can do is to tell them and to end the relationship. Breaking up is never easy but it will at least give you both the opportunity to move on and hopefully one day to meet someone else.

If you read the above questions and answered “yes” but still feel terrified – it could be that you are struggling with a fear of commitment. Perhaps you suffered a bad experience in the past or saw your parents’ relationship go through difficulties and you are worried about whether you can make a marriage work. If that sounds like you, I would recommend speaking to someone about your fears and where they come from. Is it really this person who is making you feel this way or would you feel this fear whoever you were with? Don’t let that fear keep you trapped.

And finally, if you answered “yes” and didn’t feel panicked at the thought of taking the next step – then that is a good indication that you may be ready. The question then is – is your partner? Sometimes one partner feels ready before another – that is ok – you may just need to be patient. Only you can decide how long you are prepared to wait for them to make up their mind.

If it is “yes” all round and you both feel confident about the future – then chances are you are ready to take the plunge and to get engaged. Engagement can be a very exciting time but also a stressful one, which is why next month I’ll be looking at how to prepare for marriage and not just the wedding.

If you are reading this and have any tips on how to know if you’re ready or if you’ve got experiences of when you got it right or wrong that you would be willing to share then please do let us know using the comments section below. It would be great to hear your advice and stories.