Question:

I recently asked my girlfriend of one year if she will ever want to get married. Her response was "I don't think so." This wasn't completely unexpected, as when we began dating she was unsure of marriage. However, it still was painful to hear.

I had brushed off her initial doubts as being part of the many questions people face after college. Or that she has a "hang-up" from the past. I'm wondering if I'm wasting time.

I'm not ready to propose now, but I do look forward to one day having a family. She knows this. Any thoughts?

Answer: If you're waiting for someone to change, you're wasting your time.

The only exception is when the person has healthy motivation to change and is taking steps to change.

So, if your girlfriend, for example, knew she was carrying around baggage, wanted to get rid of it for her own reasons - that can't be emphasized enough - and had started working with a therapist, then I'd say, sure, give her room to do that. There are two caveats, though: (1) that you stay only if you already love her as is; and (2) that you go into this waiting period with a conscious goal of letting her figure out what she's going to change, why, how, and how soon.

No matter what happens, she's not going to transform into exactly the person you've always wanted her to be, nor will she honor your schedule.

If, on the other hand, she hasn't expressed any desire to change, or taken steps to change, show her the respect of taking her at her word. Even if she goes on to marry the next guy she dates, that doesn't change the fact of who she was for you - someone who wasn't thinking marriage with you.

Let's say both her words and actions are telling you she wants X, while you want Y: How long does it make sense to stay with someone who will eventually diverge from your path? Your answer to that question will tell you how long you should stay.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.