pink panda/Shutterstock
Source: pink panda/Shutterstock

You're in an enviable position if you think you've found your match. Maybe you've been together for two weeks, or maybe it's been eight years, but if marriage is a goal for both of you, when is the best time to make that happen?

As idiosyncratic as romantic couples and their experiences are, scientists who study relationship processes are aware of questions that couples grapple with as they consider their future: When should a couple get married? After two years? After five? Is there any reason to wait? In other words, if dating is an important part of determining if someone is right for you, after how long will you have enough information to know?

Researchers at Emory University surveyed over 3,000 people in the United States who are or have been married about various aspects of their dating, their engagements, and their weddings (Francis-Tan & Mialon, 2015). Although their primary focus was the costs of a wedding, they included other factors predicting marital dissolution.

Compared to dating less than one year before a marriage proposal, dating one to two years significantly dropped the future likelihood of divorce, about 20 percent lower at any given time point. Dating three or more years decreased the likelihood of divorce at an even greater rate, to about 50 percent lower at any given time point. This suggests that it can be helpful to have at least a few years together prior to entering a marriage.

But these suggested time frames can't possibly apply to everyone. If a couple meets at age 21, that's different from meeting at 31, which itself provides a different context from meeting at 41. Further, some couples meet as strangers, while others have been friends for a long time prior to introducing any romantic element. Adding some clarity, the perception of knowing a partner "very well" at the time of marriage reduced the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent at any given time point as well. The subjective judgment of knowing someone well, then, needn't correlate with time.

Instead of focusing on how long you've been dating, consider these other ways to evaluate whether you're both ready for marriage. For example:

1. Do you view marriage as a relationship reboot?

Your wedding might be magical, but becoming married isn't a magical experience that will instantly transform an unstable, unhealthy relationship into a stable, healthy one. One reason some couples experience sharp declines in satisfaction during the first two years of marriage (Huston et al., 2001) may be because they entered into their marriages as a way to change a relationship, leading to disillusionment and disappointment.

2. Do you know many sides of each other?

One problem that can detour a marriage that seems to be headed in the right direction is the introduction of unexpected new knowledge about a partner. Do you know, for example, how your partner thinks about and values money, or how he or she would approach being a parent? Learning more about your partner now could ward off some common sources of conflict later (Stanley, Markham, & Whitton, 2002).

3. How happy do you think you'll be?

Recent research suggests that expected future satisfaction translates to current relationship commitment; doing the necessary relationship work; and, ultimately, a lower risk of divorce (Baker, McNulty, & VanderDrift, 2017). In other words, don't discount your personal assessment of future happiness: It's tied to underlying processes you're doing now that will later affect relationship well-being.

4. Any signs of "fatal attractions?"

Sometimes what attracts us to a certain person can ultimately become what drives us nuts about that partner. Research (Felmee, 1995) examining these "fatal attractions" has discovered that they often take a certain form. When a partner is dissimilar from us in a specific way, or has traits that are extreme — "She's super enthusiastic!" "He's a super-marathoner!" — we sometimes see these as highly attractive qualities during relationship initiation, but they later become highly disliked qualities that can reduce relationship satisfaction. Prior to entering a long-term commitment, consideration of you and your partner's long-term compatibility along the dimensions that connected you could be an important step in identifying potential "fatal attractions."

5. Do you expect that things will be different in marriage?

Before you get married, consider how your relationship typically operates. Specifically, are you a low- or high-conflict couple? Countering the idea that marriage launches new experiences that introduce declines in satisfaction, Huston and colleagues (2001) found that what happens early in a couple's time together  tends to happen later, too. In support for this enduring dynamics model, they observed that levels of negativity are generally stable in couples over time, but that increases in disillusionment differentiate couples that stay together versus those that fall apart.

6. Do you want to test out your relationship first by living together?

It's common for contemporary couples to live together before marriage, but their reasons for doing so appear to predict how happy their marriage will eventually be. When couples use cohabitation to test out a relationship, or when they cohabitate for practical reasons (e.g., finances), they tend to report less dedication to their relationships and less relationship confidence. Should their arrangement transition to marriage, these initial uncertainties could help explain why cohabitation before marriage sometimes leads to lower marital satisfaction (Kamp, Cohan, & Amato, 2003). Couples that are already highly committed, and cohabitate for other reasons — e.g., to spend more time together — might be better poised to move towards marriage.

In sum: A one-size-fits-all time frame for when couples are ready to transition to a greater commitment like marriage isn't appropriate. Couples enter into relationships at different ages and stages in their lives; however, evaluating how well you know your partner, your relationship certainty, what you're expecting marriage will do to your relationship, and what you see as the current and anticipated quality of a relationship could be more useful ways to judge if it's truly time to take the plunge.

References

Baker, L. R., McNulty, J. K., & VanderDrift, L. E. (2017). Expectations for future relationship satisfaction: Unique sources and critical implications for commitment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 700-721.

Dush, C. M. K., Cohan, C. L., & Amato, P. R. (2003). The relationship between cohabitation and marital quality and stability: Change across cohorts?. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 539-549.  

Felmlee, D. H. (1995). Fatal attractions: Affection and disaffection in intimate relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12, 295-311.  

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