When I give talks on how to make wise decisions about love relationships, the burning question that someone almost always asks is, “How long do I have to wait?” The phrasing of this question illustrates the fact that waiting can feel like working against the tide of biology and the romantic rush of falling in love and making it official.
To this question, I respond that most of the things that are worth achieving in life require us to delay gratification and to prioritize restraint over indulgence in more primitive drives. Recall Walter Mischel's marshmallow study which showed the value of the ability to delay gratification.* Mischel offered a group of four year-old children one large, puffy marshmallow but told them all that if they would wait for him to run an errand, they could have not one, but two, lovely marshmallows.
Some of the four-year-olds were able to control their impulse to snatch up and consume their marshmallows for the duration of Mischel’s 15–20-minute errand (which must have felt like several lifetimes for these four-year-olds). Others could not. Mischel followed up with his subjects many years later and found that the ability to control impulses and delay gratification was associated with success in many different areas of life as an adult.
So, in the realm to waiting a sufficient length of time before marrying, are you willing to wait for an endless supply of lovely marshmallows, or do you want to bite down, right now, on something that resembles a marshmallow but may well turn into a bag of pus once you’ve committed? I wonder if this explains why the Spanish word esposas means both “wives” and “handcuffs”?
But, of course, pointing out that not rushing into a pre-mature commitment is very difficult when we’re in love doesn’t really address the question at hand—that is, how long is it until the cocaine-rush of initial infatuation wears off and you can make a good decision?
Some marital experts would argue that two years is a good amount of time to wait. If you are looking for a general rule of thumb, then two years is probably a good length of time for most people, but I don’t personally favor any hard-and-fast rule about how long a courtship should be. I think it depends completely on the character of the people involved, how often they see each other, in what situation(s) they spend their time dating, and how intentional they are about discovering their degree of fit. In some cases, it may be wise to wait three or more years before making a decision, and in other cases, a couple may be able to make a wise decision in less than two years.
As I write this, I’m imagining that some readers may be thinking, “Three years? Really? That seems like much too long!” If you are thinking along these lines, the question to ask is, “When might it be wise to wait three years or longer?” To this, I would say, a lengthy courtship would be wise any time three years (or more) have passed but you still know relatively little about each other.
For example, consider the case of a courtship that has played out during multiple successive military deployments. A military combat deployment is one of the most emotionally super-charged environments imaginable. Life and death may be at stake daily. The threat of loss of the other boosts attraction considerably for both partners. Lack of access to each other, paired with short-lived reunions during R & R weekends, fuels unrealistic fantasies of the true potential of the relationship. Real compatibility is hard to assess based on limited opportunities for interaction. The fantasy script of the stateside partner incorporates the potent thought, “My partner is a hero,” and all sorts of positive traits are then linked to this global perception. On the flip side, it’s quite heady stuff to be told that you are the person a soldier holds in his or her heart amidst the chaos of war. In this case, a much longer courtship may be necessary if you want to make a good decision.
Extending the courtship period in all cases will progressively minimize your relative risk of developing lasting regrets down the line. Getting married is described as a leap of faith for a reason, but when you wait a significant length of time before you “make it official,” the leap is not nearly so great.
In each audience that I’ve spoken to about marital decision-making, there is almost always someone who raises a hand and says, “My parents fell in love and got married a month later, and they’ve been completely happy together for the last 50 years.” The core of this statement is an assertion that lifelong happy marriages are possible with very short courtships. I wouldn’t disagree with this. My point is that it’s a matter of relative risk. Sure, a handful of marriages might thrive after short courtships, but for every one of these examples, a much greater number end in divorce.
So, in all cases, if we were to honestly weigh the emotional, psychological, and financial costs of a bad decision, wouldn’t wisdom in all cases suggest a relatively long courtship?
*Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., and Rodriguez, M. (1989). “Delay of Gratification in Children.” Science, 244, 933-938.