What to know or how much time before engagement?
November 9, 2005 8:56 AM   Subscribe

When it feels right, how long should I wait before asking the woman I love to marry me? What do you wish you knew about your significant other/ex-significant other before you took this step?

My girlfriend & I have discussed marriage. We are both 30. We have been together for only a few months, but have connected in a way I have never felt with anyone. I have been in some long term relationships & have been head over heals in love before, but everything about this relationship, every level of this relationship and of this woman coinside with everything I would ask for in a wife or partner, warts and all as they say. We have been very honest with each other about our pasts and other health and life issues. We have already met each others immediate families, though briefly. If we are both on the same page...

The question is what should I know? Does time truely provide the only test? Is living together first really a better idea?

I've searched the archives and found some valuable advice, but I guess i am fishing for something more specific to this situation.
posted by jeffe to Human Relations (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My aunt told me that I should always date someone for a full year before getting married. Her husband is seriously obsessed with football, and she never realized it until they were married because they only dated for 6 months and it wasn't during football season.

Of course there are plenty of people (and I'm sure some of them will turn up here shortly) who got married after dating for two weeks and lived happily ever after. I'd personally recommend a year. There are lots of ways you can get closer before you tie the knot: get to know each others' families really well, travel together, move in together, get engaged... If you're sure you'll be together forever, what's the hurry?
posted by bonheur at 9:02 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

and experience, in current situations or with exs you have made a long term commitment to, such as marriage?
posted by jeffe at 9:03 AM on November 9, 2005

I don't think that time has a whole lot ot do with it, especially as you get older. You know who you are and what you want a lot faster than you would were you 20 years old. However, I knew I wanted to marry my husband after about 5 months...and I was only 20 at the time. If you feel that you wouldn't want to live without this woman and that you feel comfortable and accepted by her, and that you've been honest with her, I would do it. But if there's ANY DOUBT in your mind whether or not she will say yes, then don't do it. After you're engaged, ABSOLUTELY go get pre-marital counseling. This is SO IMPORTANT.

We were forced to have six sessions before our wedding by the minister who married us, and although I thought it odd before, I discovered it was so very valuable. We discovered we were very compatible but talked through issues we knew and didn't know we had as well as things we never thought of. As an added bonus-you may be able to use that counselor later on should you need them. I remember her saying "I know you can't imagine it now, but there will be a time in your marriage that you will need to talk to someone and get help, and you will be able to come to me, who remembers you "way back when" and who will be able to help you through your issues." So true. We've seen her a few times in the past 8 years and it's been like magic.

Again, I don't think you need to wait a specific amount of time-do it if you know she will say yes and you can't imagine being without her. And then go get counseling to talk through religion, in laws, sickness, jobs, money, long term life goals, ways you communicate and fight, ways you deal with minunderstandings, kids, etc. etc. etc. Good luck. Being married is wonderful...
posted by aacheson at 9:09 AM on November 9, 2005

I would definitely recommend living together first...its a good dry run for what it will be like to spend the rest of your lives together.
posted by trillion at 9:12 AM on November 9, 2005

wait until you've had your first real argument and resolved it. No matter how much you love someone, if your styles in that area are wholly incompatible, you need to know and address it before the wedding.
posted by miss tea at 9:17 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Six years, and you should live together for at least half that time.
posted by togdon at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2005

Cohabitation is not shown to improve the success of subsequent marriages. However, it might help keep you from making a mistake in getting married.
posted by footnote at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

My parents dated for six months and have been married for 40 years. YMMV
posted by drezdn at 9:24 AM on November 9, 2005

I think the only questions you really need to consider are the probability that she will say yes, and whether or not you're ready. If you're ready and you think she's ready, then ask. Otherwise, don't.

I would also add that your need to ask this question means that you probably know that one of you isn't yet ready. Otherwise, why ask us?
posted by jaded at 9:24 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

My parents dated for a year or two and have now been divorced for 16 years because they ended up hating each other. YMMV.

Seriously, live together for a while first.
posted by cmonkey at 9:27 AM on November 9, 2005

Don't be rash. You don't know this person on an every day basis.

A year of dating. If you need to (if she's jonesing for it) plan a month to get engaged.

travel together for two weeks under stress and you'll really know what she's like (and vice versa). Get engaged, move in...and schedule the wedding a year from that.

In other words: Be slow and steady. Flip a coin. 1/2 of all marriages fail because of all sorts of reasons. Getting to really know each other isn't one of them.
posted by filmgeek at 9:35 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

What do I wish I had known about my wife before I married her? Nothing, actually. We had been together for three years--a period which included some really difficult family emergencies--and we knew each other very, very well.

So let me turn your question around and ask, "What am I glad that I knew about her but that I might not have known in the first few months of dating?"

• That she and I had roughly similar attitudes towards spending money vs. saving it, and that insofar as our attitudes weren't identical, we could meet in the middle.

• That she and I had exactly the same feelings about having children.

• That we would stand by each other in difficult personal times.

• That we would support each other in risky and ambitious personal goals.

• That we agreed on gender roles, in regards to short-term issues like not sticking one person with the housekeeping, and long-term issues like not making one person's career more important than the others.

• That we wouldn't run out of things to talk about after that introductory "tell me about your life period."

• That we'd be able to reconcile our different standards of household organization/cleanliness.

Some of these are things I could have found out at any time in our relationship just by talking with her about it, but others really required the passage of time.

By the way, I would definitely recommend living together first, if there aren't any religious and/or practical obstacles to it. Sharing a bed, a roof, and a budget with somebody teaches you a lot about them, and about your relationship with them. In some ways, I would say that getting married is actually less of a life change than moving in with somebody.

Barring the rare issue of health insurance or residency permits, I don't think there's any rational reason to rush into marriage. But of course, love/sex/romance aren't exactly rational activities. One possibility, if the two of you feel you really need to formally commit to each other NOW, is to get engaged now, but to plan on a really long engagement.
posted by yankeefog at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2005 [6 favorites]

I second the recommendation that you travel together first. You learn a lot about a person that way.

Beyond that, ask yourself how many extreme situations you've seen your girlfriend in. Have you seen how she handles a crisis? How she deals with gaining or losing a lot of money? How she treats people she hates? Peole she's afraid of? Children? How she handles moral dilemmas?

If you have, then you've known her long enough. Of course, if you have, then you've had a damn busy couple of months and maybe you should sit down and take a rest first.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:48 AM on November 9, 2005

My wife and I dated for two years before I asked her to marry me, but we had been living together for about 18 months. I knew she'd say yes. Who can resist xmutex? But, no, seriously, I think what made the big difference is living in sin together. I cannot imagine marrying anyone with whom you haven't cohabitated. You just don't know someone until you live with them.

That being said, I just knew it was right, couldn't imagine living my life without her or with anyone else; she was my best friend at that point. All that and we had been talking about marriage a lot.

Good luck!
posted by xmutex at 9:49 AM on November 9, 2005

yankeefog's list sounds pretty spot-on to me; those things definitely influenced how confident I felt about marrying my husband (except the one about risky and ambitious personal goals, because neither of us is particularly risky or ambitious--which is a consideration in and of itself). We married after being involved for fifteen months, with about two weeks elapsing between "engagement" and wedding (triggered largely because his ex-wife threatened not to allow his children to stay overnight at his home if we lived together--which we were going to do--without being married; we called her bluff, and neither of us has ever regretted it).

The one thing I'd add to that list is how your partner handles conflict and if your style of handling conflict can mesh with it. I, for instance, need to deal with issues of conflict immediately and get them over with; my husband needs some time and space before he can discuss any hot-button issues sanely. We've learned to be able to deal with those conflicting (no pun intended) styles, but it's something that can be very difficult during crisis situations.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:02 AM on November 9, 2005

I would highly recommend living together first, even if only for a few months. You ned to know that you can coexist in the same space for long periods of time.

Along the same lines, travel together first. The stresses of travel are a great way of figuring out what you can and can't put up with together.

Please, please make sure you are on the same page about money. It's the number one reason for divorce, and even if you keep your finances separate during the marriage, money absolutely affects your marriage.

Other than that, go for it! I personally believe that once you hit 30, you have a fair idea of what you're looking for in a partner. Which means that speaking generally, I don't think you need to wait as long to make this decision as you did in say, your 20s.

I knew within 6 weeks or so of dating my wife that I wanted to marry her. We moved in after 3 months and got engaged after 4. We were both in our 30s and knew what we wanted - why wait?

Good luck!
posted by widdershins at 10:03 AM on November 9, 2005

I have a few divorced friends who have opened up about "what went wrong." I was about to list the types of problems they talked about, but most of them fall into the same category: expectations about marriage, or about their partner, didn't pan out.

Everybody's got expectations and ideas about the way things ought to be. A wife should be _____, a husband should _____, this is what marriage is going to do for me... Get as much of that as possible out in the open.

I don't personally think that living together is necessary, but I don't think it can do any harm if you both start out believing you want to stay together.
posted by wryly at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Living together is not absolutely necessary - it's more like playing house, IMHO, but I don't think any harm can come from it either.

Wryly's comments on expectations are dead on, too - this was a contributing factor to the failure of my marriage.

Realize that there will be times when you're very much in love and times where you just don't want to see each other. It's those times and how you handle things that matter most. Trust your instincts.

Also - pre-marital counseling: bloody essential. The counselors will ask you some probing questions that you may not have asked and answered yet. That's your time to really examine things and figure them out safely. I wish we had done more premarital counseling.
posted by TeamBilly at 11:33 AM on November 9, 2005

I always had in mind that it would be rash to get engaged before living together for a year. Then I met my wife-to-be. 6 months later, we were talking about buying a house together. 4 months later we did. 4 months after that we eloped (the timing of that was inspired by health benefits issues, but it was already clear that we'd wed.)

That was two years ago. We're very happy, and my only regret about the timeline is that we didn't meet sooner.

My generic advice would still be to live together for a year before jumping to conclusions about marriage.

But it all depends on the individuals and their relationship, so I don't know what to tell you.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:00 PM on November 9, 2005

Yankeefog's answer is terrific -- I'm bookmarking it for future reference, frankly, if I ever consider getting married again.

Re: "things I wish I'd known" going into my marriage: first off, I should say that my former husband is a standup guy and we're still very friendly, and there's long been no ill will between us. Having said that, I will say I think we had quite different expecations about marriage that we simply didn't (and probably couldn't) articulate at the time. I think a lot of this stemmed from two general factors:

1) we had very different histories in terms of past relationship experiences, which basically wound up meaning (though we didn't realize it at the time) was that while I sort of felt "done" with dating and was looking forward to settling down, he wasn't actually in a similar place in his life. (This may make it sound like we split up specifically because he wanted to start seeing someone else, which I hasten to add was not the case.)

2) we did not have enough practice really communicating and learning to compromise in the face of conflict. Some of this (I feel in retrosepct) stemmed from different gender role expectations that we'd picked up from our respective families.
posted by scody at 12:33 PM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Financial issues are one of the worst things for a marriage, and if you don't know how your future spouse deals with money, you better take a big step back. If she is the type of person who saves a lot of money and spends very little on herself, and you are the type of person who is always buying things that you want and saving very little, you will have problems unless you address this issue beforehand. I would suggest that (if you haven't already) you get a joint bank account, put both of your paychecks into it, and act financially like you are married. If that works out for you, than you are one step closer to having a happy marriage. If you can't deal with that, than you need to work out another plan, because the finances can make or break a marriage, even if everything else is going fairly well.
posted by markblasco at 12:42 PM on November 9, 2005

Scody reminded me -- I can't say this strongly enough: you must, must, must know about one another's families and how they get along. I'm not one who believes that guys turn into their dads and women turn into their moms. (Not all the time, anyway. A lot of people knock themselves out trying to be different from their parents.)

But it can only help to find out first hand about the folks, and the sooner the better. And to see how your sweetheart interacts with them. I guarantee it'll be interesting.
posted by wryly at 1:19 PM on November 9, 2005

I don't think any harm can come from [living together] either.

It can make you get stuck longer in a relationship you should have gotten out of sooner. Even if you stay over every night, having your own place to go home to will make it easier to break things off if need be.

Also, some people (and not just crazy fundie people) speculate that living together before getting engaged sort of stunts the development of your relationship, making it harder to transition into marriage, because you get used to treating each other like boyfriend-girlfriend (esp wrt money & chores) instead of having a clear point where you definitively combine your lives.
posted by footnote at 1:42 PM on November 9, 2005

I have come to the conclusion that I, personally, do not believe in living together before marriage. Well, not before engagement. I think in this area everyone's position is different and equally valid and I mention it only because it came up upstream.

I'd suggest that you use six months as the bare BARE minimum amount of time before you propose. There's just so much stuff you don't reveal very often, you should give it time to show up. That doesn't mean you hide it, it just may not come up.

Most importantly... what's the hurry? If they're the person for you, they want to be with you as much as you want to be with them and no rational person is going to bail on a one-year relationship just because a proposal hasn't come. You're in a fun place right now - dating the person who might become your life partner. Why shorten that period? There's a huge potential for trouble with getting engaged too early, even with the Right Person. The potential for payoff, on the other hand, is very low.

Relax. Enjoy the moment.
posted by phearlez at 2:11 PM on November 9, 2005

I have read many times that couples who live together are actually MORE likely to divorce.
I lived with someone who I did not marry, and as footnote suggested, I probably would have (and certainly should have) left the relationship much sooner had we not been cohabitating.
posted by clh at 2:20 PM on November 9, 2005

I do think living together before marrying is smart. But since you asked for feedback "specific" to your situation: If what you wrote above is an accurate representation of your feelings, then propose. You're as certain as anyone gets.

There are myriad issues that can arise to throw a couple off-track. Maybe you didn't realize she can't handle money. Maybe she leaves her clothes strewn about, or maybe she lets the dog sleep on the bed. Living together beforehand will usually sift out these issues. It's like a dress rehearsal. It's not necessary...there are always unforeseen problems, and it's a way of ironing them out before the performance.

I wouldn't recommend that any couple, at any age, marry after only a few months of dating. But who knows? It works for some couples, just as others date for years before marrying and divorcing within nine months.
posted by cribcage at 3:39 PM on November 9, 2005

When it feels right, how long should I wait before asking the woman I love to marry me?


What do you wish you knew about your significant other/ex-significant other before you took this step?

That the bitch would walk out after ten seemingly blissful years, shack up with another man who'd left his pregnant wife of 18 months for her, and refuse to even discuss the possibility of trying to patch things up. Yeah, that, I think.

Good luck!
posted by Decani at 3:40 PM on November 9, 2005

In addition to everything mention above, except perhaps poor Decani's advice, I also recommend spending some time apart for a while. My husband and I lived over 300 miles apart for two years while I attended college, and that experience really helped strengthen our trust and appreciation for one another. We then went to the other extreme by getting engaged, moving in together and working at the same company for another two years before the wedding.

I realize it won't work for everyone, but knowing that our relationship could survive both of those extremes reassured us that our relationship was strong enough to last. Thirteen years and still head-over-heels in love!
posted by platinum at 4:29 PM on November 9, 2005

I 2nd the getting to know the families part. How important are your families to each of you? Will you be providing elder care, will a relative be coming to live with you, will you have to go to every holiday at one person's house, will their parents be calling all the shots in your relationship? If his/her parents hate you, can s/he live with that (and vice versa)? How will having (grand)kids affect this? With some people, you really are marrying their entire family. With others, not so important.
posted by Marnie at 7:24 PM on November 9, 2005

Some essential issues (just to reinforce upthread comments) brought up in premarital counseling with the pastor who conducted our ceremony: do you have compatible approaches to 1. handling money 2. handling problematic in-laws 3. housekeeping, and who's responsible for what and how much 4. how to bring up kids / having kids at all / what to do in the event of an accidental pregnancy / what to do if you both want kids and the reproductive systems aren't co-operating 5. self-care (diet, exercise, recreational substances)?

In addition, the key for me to say "yes" was that he proved during our first few arguments that when he was wrong or inconsiderate, he was able to recognize and admit it, and changed his behaviour accordingly (for good, not a two-week flare of conscientiousness that gradually faded back into his old ways) eg leaving his dishes for me to do, or stereotyping African-Americans.

Same went for me too of course, but I was used to ruthless self-examination and he wasn't, when we first met. I didn't think it would realistically go anywhere, because of this, even though the attraction was so strong (started talking about marriage a week after we met). But we hashed out all the essential issues in the first two weeks of discussing marriage, and then he proved he could learn how to change.

We got engaged after two months and had the wedding ten months later. Lived together for a month before the wedding. It's been two years. The first one was hard work - lots of childhood issues came up for him, for which a therapist has been essential - but it's paying off now. Every argument gets resolved in a way that makes us a happier couple.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 7:32 PM on November 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

When I first met my bride-to-be, it took about a month of steady platonic dating before we realized that we both loved each other -- in other words, it "felt right". We very casually agreed we would wait 3 months before getting engaged, and we would have a 3 month engagement. And that's pretty much the way it worked out. We were on our honeymoon 6 months after first meeting! We've been married 8 years, but it seems like hardly two.
posted by fuzzy_wuzzy at 12:02 AM on November 10, 2005

Is living together first really a better idea?

It's very interesting that so many people suggest living together before marriage is a terrific idea, because there is no commitment and you can both go your separate ways if problems crop up. But I'd counter that with "you could always get a divorce if things don't work out". What's the difference? You and your spouse will either be mature enough to work through problems as a team, or the relationship will fizzle. And for that it won't matter if you've tied the knot -- or not. Unless! Unless you consider marriage to be a special kind of relationship, involving one man and one woman and "someone above"; and believing that, a couple might take pause before "playing married".
posted by fuzzy_wuzzy at 12:37 AM on November 10, 2005

Strangely enough, atheists can recognize that an acrimonious divorce is apt to be a much, much more unpleasant and expensive experience than you'd expect even a really bad break-up to be.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:54 AM on November 10, 2005

On cohabitation affecting divorce rates:

"The problem with this research is that it does not adequately account for selection -- people who choose to live together before marriage are not the same people who choose to marry directly. They comprise at least two different groups with different attitudes toward marriage, religion, and relationships in general. ... To attribute premarital cohabitors' higher subsequent divorce rate and non-premarital-cohabitors' lower subsequent divorce rate to the fact that they did and did not cohabit before they married is unwarranted and bad science."
- William Pinsof, family psychologist and President of the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Family Process, vol. 41, no. 2, 2002 (via the Alternatives to Marriage Project, What Experts Say on Cohabitation)

See also: SHOULD WE LIVE TOGETHER? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage from the National Marriage Project (BushCo)
Alternatives to Marriage's response: 10 Problems with the National Marriage Project's Cohabitation Report
posted by heatherann at 6:06 AM on November 14, 2005

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