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The Wrong Reason to Get Married—and the Right Way to Think about It

Do you want to get married just to be married?

There are (at least) three ways to think about single people and their attitudes toward relationships and marriage. First, there are people who are happiest when single. They may engage in casual relationships, but even were they to meet the "right" person, they may not want to commit—not out of fear of commitment, but out of a strong preference for being single. (Dr. Bella DePaulo does a wonderful job discussing the single at heart on her Psychology Today blog, Living Single.)

Then there are others who would like to find someone to couple up with, but are content to remain single until the right person (or "a" right person) comes along, especially if the alternative is marrying someone who is not a good match or fit. As a result, some never find the right person, but are happier than they would be with the wrong person. (See Ellen McCarthy's Washington Post article, "The Single Life," for more on long-term single people who would like to find somebody; she also interviews Dr. DePaulo for another viewpoint on being single.)

And finally, some people just want to be married—ideally to the right person, of course, but in the end, just someone "decent." The plethora of articles and books giving advice on how to find someone to marry (and often endorsing "settling" in order to do so) attest to the number of people in this situation, especially as they reach middle age and despair at the thought of spending the rest of their lives alone. For them, not being alone is more important than finding the right person.

These are all valid attitudes, of course, but I am concerned about the people in the third category, whose priority on being coupled up to "somebody" conflicts with the nature of close relationships (romantic and otherwise). The "urge to merge" may backfire on them in terms of what they're utlimately looking for.

I don't say this out of adherence to some romantic ideal of "the one"—far from it. The problem is with the attitude that people have toward their partners in such cases. They place the highest value on the end result—marriage—and as a result they wind up using the other person merely as a means to get it. It's not about the other person and being with him or her—this other person is just a way to avoid being alone. The feeling may be mutual, of course; I'm not suggesting either person was coerced into it. (Think of the marriage pacts that some single friends make, in which they agree to marry each other if they both reach a certain age still single.)

Such an arrangement may seem great at first, very pragmatic and levelheaded, perhaps even "rational." But even mismatched roommates never last long together, and their relationship is a lot less complex and emotional than a marriage. I'm not saying marriages of convenience (which such nonideal couplings can be called) never work, but when they do, it's often because the partners never imagine their relationship is anything more. But if you hope that your convenient match will turn into a loving, compassionate relationship, then your goals are inconsistent with your means of achieving them. In the end, a marriage is only as good as your compatibility with the person you're married to, so finding the right person is essential.

Does this mean you should never settle until "The Perfect Person" comes along—and if he or she never does, then you have to be happy in the knowledge that you never settled for less? Of course not, because there is no perfect person, nor is there a #1, #2, and so on, as I explained before. Rather, there may be any number of people that you'd be great with, all of them "right" for you in different ways.

Furthermore, don't think of it as settling in the sense of lowering your standards—instead, think of it as re-evaluating your priorities, and perhaps broadening your horizons. You need to think about what is really important in a long-term companion—the great body and terrific job might be nice, and may certainly make a person attractive, but do you really need either one to make you happy long-term? If so, fine, but I would tend to think that qualities rooted in the person's personality or character would be more important, such as warmth, honesty, and trustworthiness.

If you want to find someone, forget about what you'd want if you could design the perfect mate and think about what you need instead—chances are, the two categories will include very different things. Focusing on the second will give you a better chance of finding someone who will make you happy in the long term, rather than just happy right now.


See here for a list of some of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships and other topics.

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