Anyone considering marriage is trying to find the “right person.” Choosing a marriage partner is always a risk of probabilities, and marriage is experiential. You never know quite how it’s going to play out. I asked my husband the other day if he knew how much trouble I was going to be, would he want to marry me again? His answer was, “Lori, my worst day with you is better than any day I can imagine without you in it.” Even though about this time 30 years ago I decided he would be someone I could count on long-term to be an adoring husband and father, I still feel more lucky than strategic about how things turned out. I experienced a lot of turmoil about the decision three decades ago.
People can and do change in unpredictable ways. Sometimes, when I have clients highly distressed or getting divorced, they are deeply confused about why they felt good about marrying people who turned out to be so difficult or disloyal. The short answer is that predicting future human behavior is impossible.
Despite uncertainty, there are some empirically-based premarital correlates with future marital happiness and stability. Here are some points of discussion and questions to ask yourself to guide your big decision. I want to emphasize that these are not entirely predictive but are worthy of consideration.
- Is this person adaptable? I once heard a speaker suggest taking a possible future partner on a hike after agreeing to bring the water, purposely forgetting the water at the end of the hike, and watching their reaction. Someone who is very angry about the lapse is someone more likely to be rigid and unaccepting. There is a positive correlation between more flexible, less neurotic personality types, and marital happiness.
- Do we both have high levels of self-esteem? People with poor self-concepts struggle more in relationships. Do not marry someone to be the hero therapist.
- Do this person’s parents have a stable and happy marriage? While having divorced or unhappy parents doesn’t necessarily mean someone can’t have a great marriage, it’s an important point of discussion, because I can verify that these experiences shape people’s reactions in marriage. For example, people whose parents divorced or had aggressive conflict can be sensitive to normal levels of marital conflict. Beliefs in marital longevity are molded by parental models.
- Are your family and friends supportive of the union? This matters for obvious reasons. They can become antagonistic and affect the marriage later if unsupportive.
- Are you feeling any kind of pressure to get married? I have had numerous couples report that they didn’t want to get married weeks before the wedding, but the invitations were out and their parents told them they had to go through with it. Don’t EVER get married to avoid disappointing someone. Don’t get married because of religious pressure. Get married because you want to and feel good about it. Two nights before I got married, my father called me into his office and said, “I want you to know that I want you to be happy, and if you have any reservations about getting married, you do not have to go through with it. It doesn’t matter that the invitations are out.” He was worried about my age. Even though this admittedly freaked me out a little bit, I know my father was trying to relieve any felt pressure. My decision to marry was entirely my own.
- Is there a history of mental or physical illness? Anything can develop after the wedding, but because these are known stressors, if they are pre-existing conditions, there should be numerous conversations about how to handle peripheral effects.
- Do we have similar family backgrounds? There is some evidence that similar cultural, religious, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds can reduce some future conflict. If you’re different, you’re not doomed, but you will want to acknowledge the differences and keep conversation open.
- Do we agree about gender roles? It’s important to have conversations about what you both want for yourselves in the future. For example, some women want to stay home to raise their children and there can be conflict if the husband wants his wife to work. Conversely, some women want to work and it’s a source of conflict if the husband wants a wife who stays home. Some men want to be home with their children, and their wives are unhappy if they feel responsible to financially support their families. Couples in agreement before marriage will have smoother adjustments to gender roles.
- Do we have similar attitudes, values and beliefs? Similarity especially helps in areas directly impacting the marriage relationship and raising children together.
- How well do you know this person? This is where time helps. Although time isn’t always correlated with future marital quality, I would be nervous for my children to marry someone they met a few months earlier.
- Do we agree about how many children we want and does my partner like children? Don’t ever marry someone thinking you are going to change his/her mind about having children if you aren’t in agreement. Don’t ever try to force someone to have more children than they really want. Make sure you see how that person acts around children. My siblings used to call my husband “The Pied Piper,” because when we visited, he would play with my nieces and nephews and they followed him around. I knew that because he liked interacting with children, he would be a great father.
- Can we steam up the car windows? I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, which I will address below. I’m adding this from clinical experience with highly religious couples, because sometimes, couples marry with little to no previous physical affection, and struggle because they just don’t experience physical “chemistry.” Couples who started like this sometimes report later that they just aren’t physically attracted to each other. Sometimes in religious unions physical affection can be underestimated, which can have future implications for marital quality.
- What have we done to educate ourselves about marriage? Premarital education is associated with future happiness and stability. It’s easy with the internet to find online courses and books.
Myths about marrying the right person
There are some enduring myths about what is needed for finding the right long-term partner. Most people operate from societal assumptions rather than empirical findings. Here are common misperceptions:
- Age at marriage. Yes, age matters. An 18-year-old has a higher chance of divorce than a 23-year-old. However, people often treat age like a straight linear correlation—the older you marry, the better. That’s not true. Marrying in your 20’s comes with a level of flexibility that makes the divorce rate for this group of people lower than those who wait until they are in their 30’s.
- Amount of premarital sex. Another faulty assumption is that lots of premarital sex will make a couple more “sexually compatible,” and less likely to divorce. The research doesn’t bear this out, and high levels of premarital sex CAN be predictive of extramarital sex. As far as timing of premarital sex, there is also research demonstrating that the longer people wait to have sex, the higher marital quality they will have later.
- Cohabitation. There is a myth that living together to “try out marriage,” should make the union more solid. In short, people who cohabitate have a higher divorce rate than those who set up a joint household after marriage. Researchers think it’s because people who cohabitate don’t proactively decide to be together, but tend to fall into it without the same levels of commitment as people who really want to set up a long-term joint household.
Does premarital counseling work?
I’m not going to say it doesn’t, because any education or guidance can probably help, but I will say that premarital counseling can be somewhat limited in helpfulness. The reason is that people in love and wanting to marry are often people in a brain-altered state because of the chemicals produced in the brain during the early phase of a relationship. They tend to idealize their romantic partners. I know from experience teaching premarital university courses that these couples tend to explain away any identified relationship weaknesses or areas of concern. For example, I had my engaged students take the relationship assessment mentioned below and write me papers describing how their weaknesses might impact their marriages. In almost every case, they wrote about why it might be a weakness for other couples, but not for them. They saw themselves as exceptional. They weren’t exceptional, but they were under the influences of the brain in love, so they thought they were exceptional. They genuinely had difficulty imagining future conflict.
What to do if you are considering marriage:
- Take a relationship assessment to help identify your relationship strengths and weaknesses. The Relate Institute has one you can take very inexpensively. The tool can be found here. You and your partner both fill out a relationship assessment with questions about yourself and your relationship. You will both get a printout of your strengths and weaknesses to address in a discussion. The instrument isn’t a compatibility test or predictive, but is meant to inspire communication to reduce surprises in marriage. I don’t see any good reason to not take this type of assessment.
- Take a premarital education course in person or online. With the internet, it’s easier than ever to access education.
Take comfort in the reality that people who are committed to a high-quality marriage can be intentional about making it happen. As I have previously mentioned, soul mates are more crafted than discovered. There is not just one “right,” person. We are born with the potential to attract and set up a long-term relationship with a variety of possibilities.
Lastly, there is wisdom in the saying that marriage is more about being the right person than finding the right person. In short, be the kind of person you want to attract. It works much better than trying to find someone who meets your checklist.
Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability (1994) by Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman in Family Relations,43(2), 228-237
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