What if the world married a little smarter? What would it look like? How would the mental and emotional health of our children improve? How much more productive, connected, and peaceful would it be? The reality is that healthy marriages have the ability to make us happier and even physically healthier. Children who grow up with parents who love and care for one another are protected from a range of problems including social and emotional issues, learning and educational issues, and even some physical health problems. At the same time, an unhappy marriage can be crushing both to the adults in it and the children they raise.
Engaging in or being exposed to chronic conflict impacts quality of life and productivity, and has the potential to hasten mortality. Research shows that telomeres—structures at the end of our chromosomes associated with longevity—show increased cellular aging when a person is chronically exposed to unhappy and high-conflict relationships. Making a smart choice when it comes to your permanent partner can impact almost every aspect of your life and your current or future children’s lives.
Here are five ways to start taking the commitment game seriously, by marrying up in terms of your mental health and emotional well-being:
1. Don’t marry to prove something. Right or wrong, in our culture, the act of walking down the aisle and signing a piece of paper is a symbol of success, prosperity, happiness, maturity, and stability. As a result, people unwittingly use marriage as a way to prove things about themselves to those around them, or to themselves. Some marry to prove to their parents that they are independent and fully adult-ing. People marry to prove to exes that they’ve happily moved on. Some marry to escape their family of origin and to prove they can do it all on their own. And many marry in an attempt to prove to themselves that their future is bright and they are “normal.” At the end of the day, marriage proves nothing. Instead, prove to yourself that you can maintain a healthy relationship in the here and now. Work to be yourself, to communicate and to love someone fully just as they are.
2. Don’t marry to take care of someone or to be taken care of. The urge to take care of, and be cared for, is strong because it's literally wired into our nervous systems. It’s okay to want to feel cared for, and to want to love others. It’s not okay to go around looking for someone to do for you what you can’t do for yourself. And it’s not okay to do for others what they should be doing for themselves. You have to be a fully functioning, separate individual to be in a healthy union. Otherwise, you will start to get confused and overburdened by what is their baggage to carry and what is your baggage to carry. Before you know it you’ve become co-dependent with your partner and you, your separate, unique lovely self, will cease to exist. Happy marriages are true partnerships in which each member can take care of themselves and better the team. To get to true partnership, learn not only how to be on your own but how to like it.
3. Don’t marry to feel self-worth. Finally, you meet the person of your dreams. They are everything you’re not and you feel intact and worthy in a way you have never experienced before. If you feel this way, sound the alarm: We have a problem. What you’ve discovered is not healthy love but fool's gold. If you have never felt fully intact and good about yourself, separate from a romantic relationship, this relationship will let you down simply because no one can give us worth that we can’t first give ourselves. Work on feeling good all on your own before entering into a committed union.
4. Don’t marry because you think you are running out of time. It can be the case that a person gets to a certain age and they feel, "All right, I guess I’ll get married; what else am I going to do?” They see friends or colleagues moving into the domestic sphere and fear they will be the last one standing alone. Pride and fear make them take the plunge, perhaps before they are fully ready. Let yourself be the last one standing. Be brave. It’s hard to wait, but a few more years can be the difference between a hasty marriage to the wrong match that will bring you conflict and upset or a healthy marriage that will bring you well-being and longevity.
5. Don’t marry to have the family you never had. Childhood wounds are hard to heal. A tempting shortcut around the pain is to believe in a fantasy that marriage will give you the family you never had—and that you deserve. You may vow to yourself and your partner that you won’t recreate the patterns and dynamics you grew up in. You believe in yourself and your love. You want to take all that childhood disappointment, hurt, or even abuse, and transform it into a new marriage and eventual family. Sadly the result won’t deliver the goods. Until you clean up those old wounds, on your own or with the help of a therapist, they will continue to plague you, no matter who you marry. Take time now, before you commit, to look inward, understand yourself, and heal.
Learn more in my book, Getting Close to Others.
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