I recently gave a talk about finding a significant other and first-date experiences. During the Q&A session, someone asked me what has turned out to be a very popular question: “How long should I date before getting married so that I know the relationship will be successful?”
I wish I had a simple answer or a quick way to calculate the amount of time needed. However, it’s not that simple. Such an answer would require some sort of magic ball.
Before considering the amount of time you should put into a relationship before committing, it is important to note the risk factors for dissolution. While the research focuses on divorce, there is still a lot we can learn from it, because the red flags that lead to the end of marriages are often those which end other relationships as well.
Amato and James (2010), in their review article, cite research which has discussed the commonly found predictors of divorce. These include, but are not limited to, marrying young, lower levels of education, not sharing the same religion, living in an urban area, and growing up with divorced parents. Therefore, if we want to “improve our odds,” we would potentially have to move, return to school, or go back in time to alter our childhood. Obviously, these are not realistic possibilities, nor should we try to change the past in an attempt to predict the future. This is a task we would easily fail, as nothing is certain.
The “Goldilocks Theory”
An analysis of divorce rates, calculated by Nicholas Wolfinger, led to what is now dubbed the “Goldilocks Theory.” This theory posits that there is an optimal age to get married. He found that the likelihood of divorce is lowest between the ages of 28 and 32. His original conclusion was the result of an analysis of data from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Many critics called his analysis into question, but he later replicated his findings using data from the 2011-2013 NSFG survey. Once again, he found that ages 28 to 32 were the most successful.
Basically, Wolfinger showed that the divorce rate is higher if you marry young, declines between 28 and 32, and then creeps back up again. In his analysis, he controlled for individual differences, such as race, gender, religion, sexual history, location, etc.
What Does This Mean for You?
I realize I still haven’t answered the question of when you should commit. Technically, based on the research, you should use the statistics as a guide and work backward, essentially entering a relationship sometime before that sweet spot of success.
However, in my opinion, the “perfect age” is variable, and depends on the individuals involved. Looking at the potential risk factors and your own age will help you determine your likelihood of success, but there is one crucial piece of information missing — your readiness.
If you feel that you are at a point in your life at which you are ready to settle down with your partner, that’s a great start. Also, if you have been through enough ups and downs in your relationship to understand how your partner handles adversity, as well as success, that’s another piece to the puzzle. You also need to have a strong understanding of who you are as an individual and what you want out of life. This way, you are prepared to ask your partner all of those hard questions about the future that you need answers to — wanting kids, willingness to relocate, approach to finances, etc. Only when you truly know who you are and what you want will you be able to solicit these answers from a partner and determine if you two are on the same page. Then you are ready to commit. Whether this happens after six months or six years is irrelevant. It matters more that you feel comfortable enough in your relationship to take that next step.
To recap, here are some questions that you must be ready to ask yourself and answer:
Wishing you all the best as you decide if you are ready to take that leap!
Amato P. R., & James, S. (2010). Divorce in Europe and the United States: Commonalities and differences across nations. Family Science, 1(1), 2–13.
Wolfinger, N. H. (2015, July, 20). Replicating the Goldilocks theory of marriage and divorce. Family Studies: The Blog of the Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved from http://family-studies.org/replicating-the-goldilocks-theory-of-marriage-and-divorce/