Should marriage even be a hard question?
May 8, 2009 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Should marriage even be a hard question? Are there people for whom it was who end up very happy together?

I know some people who think this decision should be mostly easy, and is, when you meet and develop a relationship with the right person. This view is very attractive in some ways: it seems to simplify some decision making. I'm looking for other points of view, formal or personal (but I'm willing to entertain points of view that reinforce the idea that "just knowing" is a better way).

My question isn't really abstract. I'm in a situation with someone who is lovely, sexy, smart, fun, and generally all kinds of awesome. We've known each other for four years, dating occasionally and across state lines for the first two years while communicating a lot long-distance; we've been together for most of the last two years, except for the last few months. She's been head over heels over me since we first met, I've been slower to get in but really liked her from the beginning and have come to love her very much. We've had some very happy times and a close connection.

Despite this, there's been a lot of tension and some trouble in the relationship, no small amount of it related to the fact she's always been ahead of me in terms of how much deeper she was in, and we've managed to make ourselves miserable over the question of whether this would lead to marriage. She's at the point where she's ready to move on. I know we're both wondering if the fact that this is difficult is the answer itself, but I also wonder if sometimes people can get stuck in some ways that keep them from getting to the other side even when it could be completely fantastic.

I'm more interested in abstract answers (studies, anecdotes, philosophy) about how couples who go commit from this point tend to do than direct commentary on my situation, but measured advice is also welcome if my question shakes something compelling out of you.
posted by namespan to Human Relations (32 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
she's always been ahead of me in terms of how much deeper she was in, and we've managed to make ourselves miserable over the question of whether this would lead to marriage.

This, to me, suggests your heart is not in it.

What you're asking is maddeningly vague. Any and all "philosophy" pertaining to human life and self could assist you.

Without knowing why you're not "in as deep" as her, I don't really see what could assist you.
posted by jayder at 6:52 PM on May 8, 2009

Response by poster: What you're asking is maddeningly vague.

Hopefully the short-winded front-page version should be more clear:

Do couples who have trouble figuring out whether they should marry often end up happy together if they do decide to do it?
posted by namespan at 7:03 PM on May 8, 2009

Here's my thought, FWIW. I don't see any reason at all why you *would* commit to the relationship in the same way, and at the same pace. Some people optimize, some people satisfice, some people deliberate, some people are impulsive . . . if you can imagine two people going about purchasing a car differently, you can imagine them thinking about marriage differently, however unromantic that may seem.

Now, lots of times you don't see such a degree of hardship in making a mutual decision, and that may be so very several reasons. Perhaps the people decide things the same way. Perhaps the people have sufficiently intense feelings that it overwhelms their difference in personal styles. And perhaps one has decided to participate, in effect, in the other's decision, so that they are swept along.

I would worry, as you seem to be, as to whether you eventually get over a sufficient love threshold (the second aspect). I would even worry a little if you are not willing to be swept along -- at some point -- by her feelings and her confidence in the relationships (the third aspect). But I would not be overly troubled by the fact that you are resolving this in your own way. You may be the kind of person who takes a while to warm to a jalopy, but once you decide it's for you, you will care for it for as long at lives. Maybe she's your Volvo.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:06 PM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

And as to your clarified question, I have known several such couples. It is hard for me to tell whether it is often or not relative to the number of such marriages. I have a sense that one tends to hear of couples after they break up that "his heart was never really in it" or "she was never the enthusiastic one," but rarely to hear someone presently in a happy marriage say, in effect, "It's a wonder this worked out, because my heart wasn't really in it at first." The only evidence I have heard of the latter is when a marriage is arranged, e.g. by shotgun, and I would not recommend that approach.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:11 PM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sounds like your heart isn't in it. At least not right now.

FWIW, my wife and I waited for 10 years before getting married. She's several years older than me and had been married (briefly, very unhappily) before. We both grew in those 10 years, and I can't imagine life without her now. We're more in love in a different way, now that we're older (I'm 38, she's 45... been married 6 years now). Neither of us want kids, so maybe there wasn't a biological clock issue, making it easier for us. But every couple has hard times, and ups and downs.

I'm not suggesting you break up. You sound pretty happy together. But why rush?
posted by jeff-o-matic at 7:28 PM on May 8, 2009

If you have to ask if marriage is a good idea, it isn't. I knew before my wife and I hooked up that I would marry her if she would have me. I have never wondered, ten years in, about that outcome. I don't call it a decision because it didn't feel like one.

Intellectually, I know it's absurd to expect that marriage will always feel right and natural and inevitable -- but marriage is absurd, isn't it? It is impervious to logic.

I do firmly believe that if you have fought to the point of contempt for each other, don't marry. I don't fear that my wife will look at me with revulsion, and she doesn't need to fear that from me. If either of you has cheated, forget it. If you don't agree on basic ideas — money, time together, basic priorities — forget it.

I think it should feel very simple and straightforward. God knows life will throw enough complications at the both of you anyway.
posted by argybarg at 7:38 PM on May 8, 2009

As a general rule, I believe the answer to anybody asking on Ask Mefi if they should get married is no, or at least not yet. If you are unsure enough to ask strangers on the Internet, you aren't ready to get married. It really is that simple.

*married 17+ years, and just as happy as the day we said I do.
posted by COD at 7:43 PM on May 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

I suspect that even couples who start out both in a reverie of unquestioning joy about marriage eventually settle down to the everyday reality of life together, the annoyances of living with another person and making compromises that hopefully are made worthwhile by the benefits of having a steadfast partner. One's initial mindset may be less influential in the long run than the spouses' propensity to make the best of imperfect situations, work through problems, etc.

I don't know too many couples well enough to have accurately assessed their relative levels of enthusiasm for marriage before actually getting married, but can think of at least one where the idea was much easier to accept for one party than the other, and things have worked out swimmingly.
posted by lakeroon at 7:47 PM on May 8, 2009

I'm not suggesting you break up. You sound pretty happy together. But why rush?
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:28 PM on May 8 [+] [!]

I suspect that the OP's girlfriend is pressing him to get married precisely because of her perception that she's more invested in the relationship than he is. That's an uncomfortable position for most people, especially in a long term relationship, and I'm willing to bet that she wants some kind of security that he won't simply confirm her fears and leave at some point. Personally, I think that's a bit of a trap; if the other person isn't fully committed to the relationship, getting married ultimately solves nothing. It won't make a partner that doesn't want to commit any more likely to stay. However, I can certainly see why the option might look attractive if this is indeed her concern.

If you don't actually have any resistance to the idea of marriage one day in the future, I tend to agree with the mindset that you should wait until you feel like getting married is something you want to do. Very often, I think people forget that marriage isn't a prerequisite for a wonderful, committed relationship -- and I say this as a happily married woman of four years. I wonder if you found a way to reassure her about the relationship if she would be so invested in the idea of "marriage now or else."
posted by theantikitty at 7:49 PM on May 8, 2009

If you have to ask if marriage is a good idea, it isn't.


While it took the mister and I a while to figure out that we were going to get married - everyone else knew that we were getting married, but we were both clueless - once we began to discuss it, we were both on the same page.

Getting married is pretty easy. Getting divorced, not so much.
posted by Leezie at 8:05 PM on May 8, 2009

Check out the resources at John Gottman's website. He's done tons of research into why couples do or don't stay together and how happy or otherwise they are about that fact.

If you find the site cheesy or off-putting, please listen to this.
posted by dogrose at 8:11 PM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have to ask if marriage is a good idea, it isn't.


My experience is exactly the opposite. We had a real tough time deciding whether to get married or not and broke off the engagement at one point, shipping back presents and the whole nine yards. That was 19 years ago. (If Mr. txvt were looking over my shoulder right now he'd be making choking sounds and ball-n-chain motions but we'll just call that a flair for the dramatic.) My college roommate and her boyfriend went through a similar struggle, and they have also been happy.

That said, I know a few no-struggle marriages that have turned out well too. So who knows what the magic formula is?
posted by txvtchick at 8:32 PM on May 8, 2009 [7 favorites]

Do couples who have trouble figuring out whether they should marry often end up happy together

Are you looking for studies or data? Probably somebody here has the social-science background to offer something along those lines. Hopefully they will.

Are you looking for anecdotes? I know a few, yes; I also know more than a few for whom the decision was quick and easy, who ended up divorced. Which raises the question, how do you define "end up"—20 years, with kids? several years, then an amicable divorce? 'til death?

If you're just looking for opinions and chatter, which is what you're likely to get on AskMe (and you're not new, so presumably you know that; "abstract answers," etc.), then I'll dissent from the choir. Marriage is a huge decision. If you're savvy enough to have some appreciation of its consequences, then you're likely to have second and third thoughts about taking the plunge.

I like the phrase "tested by doubt." It's invoked in a variety of contexts—religion, science, rhetoric. I worry about anybody making a significant life decision whose reasoning hasn't been tested by doubt. Doubt can indicate a lot of things, and I'm not a psychologist so I don't dispute that in some cases, maybe it should be a red flag; but I think it also arises in smart folks who are blessed/cursed with enough perspective to realize what they're about to do at any given moment. It doesn't mean you're making a bad decision, just one that's big.
posted by cribcage at 8:37 PM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I know people who had trouble deciding who are having a great marriage.
posted by salvia at 8:43 PM on May 8, 2009

Important note: I am an unmarried person in her early twenties who has not observed the long-term evolution of any marriages! Take the following advice with a salt boulder!


I think this depends on a lot of factors. For instance, two older people with a lot of experience under their belt are going to have a different view of marriage than a sixteen-year-old who wants to marry her prom date.

Do you have a fundamental view of marriage as a passionate union of two souls (and will be sad if yours is not) or do you take a more practical standpoint that hey, you're pretty cool, and we get along pretty well, and you do the dishes, and we could have a financially stable future, so let's do this thing? Do you believe in the concept of "The One" or do you think that love is a many-faceted, complex thing that can evolve depending on the person, and there are many possible iterations of people who can create healthy long-term relationships?

I mean, some people may find that latter view depressing (dismissing it as "settling"), but note that many, many stable marriages for thousands of years have been based on [i]only[/i] the "we could have a financially stable future" aspect. Marriages based on "lightning strikes" and knowing This Is Who I Want To Be With ForEVAR are a pretty recent development, and realizing that marriages must involve practicalities as well as love are important. Some people gotta feel that they're marrying The One, and others think if you've got a good thing going and you're comfortable with your level of experience, why throw away a good thing?

This isn't to say you should get married, but that you should carefully consider the pros and cons, figure out what your personal views on marriage are and what you are comfortable with and what you're not, and make the decision from there. For instance, regarding her being quicker to love you--are you OK with that personally, or is it that you're worried relationships where one person is more invested simply Aren't Done?
posted by Anonymous at 8:44 PM on May 8, 2009

I think the issue is what you want out of a marriage. What are your goals in getting married? If those are aligned, and you both "want" to get married for whatever level of love you have, then go for it. I will be married 17 years this month. I love my wife and kids. I would be lying to you if I said I never doubted my decision. But, I think I made the right decision and I think my wife was much more ready to get married than I was (although I was ready). I fall into the category that those who say they knew right away are either not deep thinkers or rationalizing to themselves. Heck, my grandparents got married at the age of 19, were married 60 something years, and each of them would tell you that they still weren't sure about marriage, but they wanted to keep working at it. They were inseparable too. A long term relationship is build on mutual trust, common goals and a willingness to work hard and forgive.

I say go for it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:48 PM on May 8, 2009

I'm afraid there's no right answer. There is no one way marriage should be; thinking there is will only foster discontent. There aren't any rules and it is what you make it. My own came to be organically and very easily, and it's the best thing I've ever done. But I don't think that means it has to be that way for everyone. Indeed, many people I know would run from such ease.

If she's ready to move on, it might already be too late. I suppose I would caution you that there aren't that many people in the world who can check off the lovely, sexy, smart, fun, and generally all kinds of awesome boxes without leaving any blanks. FWIW, I wouldn't recommend letting that get away.
posted by willpie at 9:14 PM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I nearly broke off our engagement several times, but I was 100% sure when I started to plan the wedding. I sincerely hope I wouldn't have gone through with if it I hadn't been sure, because damn, it's hard work and a huge commitment. That commitment has to carry you through, because whatever rough spots you've encountered in your relationship aren't going to magically disappear after a ceremony. If your gf is pushing for marriage, I think she has the idealistic view that everything will be wonderful if you just walk down the aisle. Um, no. You're still the same people with all the same problems, except now you have rings and legal ties.

Anecdotally, I've known 3 couples who had shotgun weddings. 2 are now divorced, and the other is struggling to keep her marriage afloat.
posted by desjardins at 9:56 PM on May 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

My mother made my dad wait a week before she would answer his proposal of marriage she was so conflicted. They have one of the strongest marriages I know.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:10 PM on May 8, 2009

I was, and am, pretty ambivalent about marriage in general. I'm a feminist and pro-gay rights, and I'm not a huge fan of marriage as a patriarchal, sexist, hetereosexist institution.

And I am happily married. My husband and I will celebrate seven years of marriage this fall. We were together about five years when we married.

I know plenty of people who were full-on excited about marriage who ended up divorced. I know at least two "perfect couples" who are divorced (and in the case of one couple, both are now happily married to other people).

When my husband and I decided to get engaged, we were in the middle of a romantic vacation. The issue of marriage had been in the air, mostly because the practical realities of life were that I was at a crossroads after finishing a grad program. He was a widower and was always more keen on marriage, eventually, because he had had a happy marriage before his first wife died suddenly.

Even after we decided, it still took me the rest of the vacation to wrap my head around it.

I suspect couples who aren't traditional (or maybe I mean conservative) aren't necessarily going to have the same "she's-the-one" approach, which is very romantic and rarely an indicator of long-term marriage happiness. The swooners don't always make it any longer than the non-swooners. I also think the success and happiness of the marriage isn't a magic formula either.

My husband is great, and more than being great, he is great for me.

Are you over, at least, say 30 years old? My advice is to go together to a couples therapist and talk this stuff through. You say this woman is sexy and smart and fun and you love her--don't let her walk away without thinking this through.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:51 AM on May 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you are looking for a predictor of certainty in a human relationship, you've wasted a perfectly good metafilter question.

All you need to predict the outcome of this potential marriage is the following:

Perfect knowledge of the two participants.
Perfect knowledge of the future conditions they will face.
A commitment from both of you to either not change at all or to change in the same way at the same rate.

See the problem?

Doubt and uncertainty are INHERENT in the human condition. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with being married? You obviously seem uncomfortable NOT being married.

It's better I think just to dive in and see what happens than to perpetually fret over what might. It'll either succeed or fail, just like everything else you do. Life comes with no warrranty. In my experience (55 years worth of breathing and 30 of marriage), no major decision I EVER undertook was accompanied by certainty, but one cannot let uncertainty dictate inaction, lest nothing happen at all.

Also, the probability of you picking "the one" is zero. She isn't it. The probability of finding "the one" is also zero. You won't. Give up on that line of reasoning. (The math is 1 / 3.25 billion... her percentage of the entire female population of the planet now living..... basically zero. Her probability of having chosen "the one" in you is the same. The combined probability of you both having chosen "the one" is basically 0 x 0.)

In life, as in business, trying a bunch of stuff and keeping what works is a good strategy.

Good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 4:28 AM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Like argybarg, I knew I would probably end up marrying my husband the moment I met him, which was an extremely bizarre feeling at the time. For me it wasn't a question of "do I love him enough", it was more "everything makes more sense when he's around". Which isn't even a question. So marriage wasn't a question either.

If you're not sure, don't do it. I'm sorry you're feeling pressure to be sure.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:58 AM on May 9, 2009

Counter thought: Yes, it should damn well be 'hard', otherwise both sides aren't really thinking about it. I say this, because the divorce rate is >50%. Which means people are too willing to jump into the water. I'm not saying 'overthink' it, but I saying it's more than just 'oh it feels right.'

Go talk to your friends who are married. Ask them if they have had tough times (they have.) Go talk to your friends who have been divorced, ask them if they've had good times (they've had both good and bad too.) If you're over 25, you already know a few. I always wonder what would happen to the marriage rate, if there were no such thing as a divorce.
posted by filmgeek at 5:21 AM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a few months away from marriage, but my partner and I have been together for five years. For the first three years, we were in a situation close to yours -- I was always ahead of him, and it created a lot of tension in our relationship as I was always looking for some kind of "big" commitment from him to assuage my fears that I was wasting my time.

We resolved it two ways: one, we moved in together and I realised that he was actually more prepared for a proper, non-symbolic commitment than i was in terms of sharing personal space, making small everyday sacrifices, etc. Secondly, I figured out how to let go of the need for big symbolic commitments and take joy from the small everyday ones that he had been giving me every day. Marriage was always a big issue looming on our horizon, and the moment that I stopped worrying about when we were going to get married, he proposed.

We're not married yet, but to answer your question, i think my partner was not convinced for a very long time but we got there in the end, largely due to a lot of growing up on my part and patience on his.
posted by ukdanae at 5:56 AM on May 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

My wife decided she was going to marry me after the first date. It took me about 5 years, some of them on again, off again, to come around to that view. In the process I had to figure what I wanted, jettison what I thought I wanted i.e. what society said a marriage should be and grow up a bit.

We've been married about six or seven years. I always forget the exact number because I'm happy and content and it feels like we've always been together.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:10 AM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you have to ask if marriage is a good idea, it isn't.

I couldn't disagree more, at least for myself. Marriage is a pretty big deal. Yes, you can always get divorced if things don't work out, but that's painful and expensive and sometimes embarrassing. And then there's all the weird social baggage that comes part-and-parcel with marriage, too, which is pretty inseparable from the rest of it.

So when we were contemplating marriage, it was a big deal, and I sure had to spend a lot of time grappling with whether or not this was a good idea. It worked out really well, and I'm glad we took that step. I don't know how you would rank such things, but I think we have a pretty rocking marriage, with a lot of respect and love, and I think that the ambivalence that we both felt at the beginning is part of that. A relationship has to be recreated every day, not just taken for granted and assumed -- those initial strong feelings and tensions remain, and are part of what makes things so good.

So, just because things aren't easy doesn't mean it isn't right, any more than just because you've been together a few years means that you have to make a stronger commitment. At the end of the day, you really have to listen to your gut on this one -- I suspect you already know the answer, though finding it may not be easy.
posted by Forktine at 6:47 AM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nothing in life worth doing is ever easy.

My husband and I had arguments over getting married (I was already on the boat, waiting for him to get on board.) I wanted it sooner, he wanted it later, or maybe never... Anyway, it reached the 'shit or get off the pot' point, and we compromised on how much longer we would wait before getting engaged (or not). We'll only be married a year in August, so I guess only time will tell, but we both definitely happy, and plan on being together forever and ever and all that jazz.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:55 AM on May 9, 2009

Nothing in life worth doing is ever easy.

Eesh. I really cannot get with this. I think you should marry someone who makes hard things easier, and sad things happier, and in general makes you feel even more like you. The relationship itself shouldn't be hard -- and it certainly needn't be hard to be worthwhile.
posted by palliser at 12:58 PM on May 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nothing in life worth doing is ever easy.

I'm willing to agree that good marriages can be born out of struggle (although, like palliser, I suspect they rarely are). But I can't get with the idea that marriages can't be easy, or that they have to be hard to be "worth doing." I suppose I should wait until my 40th anniversary to say this, but my marriage has been very easy compared to the rest of the life that has gone on around it. Friends of family die, jobs fail, and there's always the shift of moods or fortunes. But the marriage is straightforward; we're glad for each others' company and help.
posted by argybarg at 1:24 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel sorry for your girlfriend. Being "so awesome" and yet having a dude who even after four years, is willing to let all tha "awesomeness" walk away.

The answer to your question (assuming you and your gf are over 25), "should marriage even be a hard question?" Yes, after one year (maybe). No, after four years. Something's wrong.
posted by GeniPalm at 4:41 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm with palliser and argybarg here. I've known my husband for ten years and we've been together six years, and being married hasn't been hard at all. We never argue -- I think we've had maybe two arguments the entire time we've been together, both early on. I'm not ignoring things like daily bickering, either, because it just doesn't happen. As palliser says, my husband is someone who "who makes hard things easier, and sad things happier." He can cheer me up, no matter how horrible something is, in literally minutes, and we've had some hard financial times, my dad dying, his brother having dangerous bipolar episodes, etc. If I felt he was a source of conflict in my life, or something that I had to deal with, or a source of things I need to get past or overcome, I wouldn't subject myself to the marriage. If that were the case I'd personally rather be alone, despite whatever good times we might have.

Different relationships work for different people so I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes, but it's odd to me when people try to characterize marriage as something that isn't ever easy.
posted by Nattie at 7:26 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nothing in life worth doing is ever easy.

You shouldn't make important life decisions based on trite fortune cookie advice. There are plenty of things in life that are worth doing and are very easy.

I think at this point in your relationship, you should really know what you want in terms of marriage. You've been together for four years, which is quite a while. I'm not sure what new facts about your girlfriend you would divine in another four years.

(This is what I wrote the morning of my wedding -- which wasn't that long ago, so really, what do I know? -- and how getting married never felt like a battle: I was going to write something late last night, but Shima doesn’t like it when I type away on my keyboard. (This doesn’t stop me usually, because a part of me likes to wake her up when I get home late and she’s already sleeping.) We’re getting married in a few hours from now. I had thought i’d be more nervous the closer this day approached, but no: I’m feeling just fine. Asking someone to marry you is one of those questions you should really only ask when you already know the answer. I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned with regards to follow through based on how I feel at this moment.)
posted by chunking express at 10:38 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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