Marriage is the process by which two people make their relationship public, official, and permanent. It is the joining of two people in a bond that putatively lasts until death, but in practice is often cut short by separation or divorce.
Marriage brings great joy to many but it also brings challenges, often profound ones. How a couple manages them often determines whether their relationship collapses or holds firm. Preserving long-term connection may require one or both partners to jettison misguided beliefs or dysfunctional habits that they themselves hold, while bearing in mind that trying to change a spouse tends to fail unless the individual also wants to change.
Marriage does more than change people’s living situation and daily routines; becoming a spouse appears to change one’s personality as well, especially in the early years of marriage. Men, for example, tend to become more conscientious and introverted than they were when single, and women more emotionally stable. But both tend to become less agreeable.
Relationship researchers John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman maintain that couples reveal the state of their bond in the way they speak about each other. Specifically, they refer to each other fondly; use “we” more than “I’ when speaking about their relationship; speak expansively and with detail about their past together; and express pride in surviving challenges rather than dwelling on their problems.
The idea of a “honeymoon period” is real: Most couples experience a general decline in satisfaction after the first years of marriage. Those who stay together, research shows, tend to share some habits. They act like they’re still dating; remain focused on each other’s positive traits; express gratitude; and recognize that external pressures may be causing them stress, rather than blaming each other.
People’s habits and personality traits remain fairly consistent, and so when couples express frustration with each other years into a marriage, it’s often about issues that were present when they first met. Those concerns are often ignored or put aside in the early stages of love. For this reason, relationship experts suggest that couples not dismiss things that bother them about potential spouses, and find ways to address them as early as possible.
Living with another person, and their habits and quirks, will always lead to conflict. How couples deal with it is a crucial indicator of whether they’ll be able to stay together. Partners who assume their spouses are doing the best they can, remain empathic toward the other person, speak honestly and compassionately about what bothers them, and seek solutions together rather than demanding change tend to be more successful.
Approximately 40 percent of marriages end in divorce; the risk is lower for those marrying for the first time, but higher for those marrying at a very young age or whose parents were divorced. To divorce-proof a marriage, research suggests, partners should not rush into it; make sure they share the same values and level of commitment; and avoid idealizing each other in ways that lead to eventual disappointment.
Criticism in marriage can lead to heightened emotional reactivity, with one partner triggered by how the other bothers them, and the other by suggestions or criticisms about it. This dynamic can make both individuals feel they can’t be true to themselves: One needs to have their concerns validated by the other, while the other needs not to feel like they’re being controlled.
A core aspect of marriage is the commitment to have sexual relations with only one partner for the rest of one’s life. Sex tends to be a highly positive aspect of most couples’ early days together, but like any other aspect of a relationship, struggles inevitably arise. Physical and emotional issues may change how one or both partners feel about the frequency or style of physical intimacy in a relationship or fuel insecurity that manifests as anger or avoidance. Learning how to address sexual concerns together honestly and openly, experts agree, is the key to maintaining intimacy long-term, but that’s often easier said than done.
Couples that have open discussions about their sexual concerns are the most satisfied with their relationships, but many partners endure unsatisfying sex for years just to avoid such conversations. Individuals may worry that sexual concerns could threaten the relationship, hurt a partner’s feelings, or upset their own self-image. Finding the courage to speak openly about sex, though, should only strengthen a bond.
An estimated 80 percent of couples experience discrepancies in desire at some point. Couples high in sexual communal strength, or the motivation to meet each other’s sexual needs, tend to navigate these challenges more successfully. They are less focused on the negatives of sex than the benefits to their partner of feeling loved and desired, and the benefits to themselves of being in a happy relationship. More persistent differences in desire may be best addressed with a therapist.
In a relationship that can last decades, personalities change, bodies age, and desire waxes and wanes. Couples that manage the changes best not only are able to express their sexual wants to each other but are generally romantic and affectionate outside the bedroom: They say I love you every day, kiss each other for no reason, share compliments, have dates, cuddle, and express affection in public.
The choice of spouse is among the most important decisions most people ever make, but it’s a choice that comes with no guarantees of long-term happiness. The science of relationships offers some insights into how successful partners tend to find each other, but whether or not a marriage will last ultimately depends on the specific characteristics of the individuals deciding to unite.
Love and sexual chemistry are not always enough to sustain a marriage. Experts urge couples to learn as much about each other’s values and priorities as possible before becoming engaged, such as how they approach chores, money, and work, what their triggers and past traumas are, and whether they hold traditional notions about gender roles in marriage.
In surveys, heterosexual men and women express preferences for relationships in which the male is two to three years older than the female, but, contrary to stereotypes, many couples with more significant age differences also thrive. Individuals within the relationship may perceive each other's age differently than outsiders and some people may choose partners based on factors other than age.
A great deal of research has explored whether people have specific “types” they seek out in relationships. For example, many people appear to be unconsciously attracted to a certain eye or hair color. But one longstanding belief has been proven false: Opposites do not attract, or at least they do not tend to have as much success in long-term relationships as partners who are generally similar to each other.
Cohabitation before marriage has long been shown to be a risk factor for divorce, with one key exception: Couples that do not move in together until engagement appear not to take on the risk. One theory is that partners who live together tend to come to value the commitment of marriage less. Another is that partners in less-than-ideal relationships may find it more difficult to break up when they live together and that inertia may carry them into unhappy marriages.
Most marriages are monogamous, based on a romantic commitment to only one mate. Polygamy is the practice of being married to more than one person at a time; men with multiple wives engage in polygyny, and women with multiple husbands engage in polyandry. In polygamous relationships, the primary, or first, wife or husband tends to have more power than other, younger spouses. In some polygamous unions, the spouses live in the same household, while in others, separate homes are maintained.
Human cultures generally did not embrace monogamy until the rise of monotheistic religions and the rise of urban communities. Before that, mankind was primarily polygamous. Evolutionary biologists believe that men being larger than women, dying younger, and being more interested in mating with multiple partners are all remnants of millennia of polygamy.
Polygamy remains an accepted or tolerated practice in some parts of the world, primarily in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It is illegal in the United States and Europe, due in part to concerns over coercion and child marriage, even though it is often portrayed in pop culture, in shows like Sister Wives and Big Love. But polyamory, or consensual nonmonogamy, is much more common in those regions than elsewhere.
Research suggests that people in open relationships are as satisfied personally and with their relationship as are their monogamous peers—but are more fulfilled sexually. Polyamorous relationships can thrive if partners establish boundaries that meet everyone’s needs, communicate effectively, and consciously practice the same relationship maintenance techniques as other couples.