Resources for soothing anxieties about marriage?
May 18, 2017 9:41 AM   Subscribe

There are lots of shitty marriages out there. Where are the good ones and what is a great marriage like?

Late 20s female, early 30s male, dating two years, living together. We love each other, things are pretty good, and we talk a lot. One of us is ready to start thinking seriously about marriage. The other one is open to marriage in theory, but is pretty terrified. Based on the relationships we have grown up around, the relationships we see around us, pop culture, pretty much everything, it's easy to see marriage as a scary prison that traps you in a bad relationship and means giving up all the other good, new stuff that life has to offer.

We will be going to couple's therapy for help working through this, but I'm looking for other resources that can help re-frame marriage and alleviate some of this fear. Things like:

-books, articles, podcasts, documentaries, etc that showcase a REAL couple's happy, fulfilling marriage
-books, articles, podcasts, etc that discuss the benefits (emotional, mental) of marriage
-anecdata about being in a relationship where one person was ready for marriage, and the other one wasn't, but you were able to work through that and ended up happily married
-any media that makes a good case for why marriage is/can be beautiful and enriching

We are non-traditional and non-religious. Thanks very much in advance.
posted by ohsnapdragon to Human Relations (28 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Can you define what marriage means to the two of you? Like, screw the rest of the world. What does marriage represent to the one of you that wants to be married? What is scary about it? What do you want to make sure it's *not*? What are you hoping marriage will change? What are you afraid it will change?

Talking through questions like this helped me and my now-husband go from my drunken statement of "I think I want to get married" to maybe we both want this to hey, we've been married 7 months now and it's pretty freaking awesome.
posted by okayokayigive at 10:42 AM on May 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: There is a podcast called Together started by a divorce lawyer named Erik Newton who grew weary of all the separations. He interviews real couples and you hear the universality of ups and downs and I think it might touch some of what you are looking for.

Keep in mind that marriage is spiritual, social and legal. You don't necessarily have to involve all 3 to have a marriage, although I guess the social part is pretty critical.
posted by crunchy potato at 11:29 AM on May 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

It's easy to find negative examples for most things, but it can take active searching for the positive stories. Do this for marriages and long-term relationships for people around you. What do they look like? How do those couples cope with the ups and downs of life? Heck, you could even interview them, even if it's just to sit with the couple and chat about how they've dealt with the major issues that have come up in their relationship over the years.

You could treat it as something of a study of the reverse Anna Karenina principle, which describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Named for Leo Tolstoy's book Anna Karenina, which begins:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The principle implies that in order to be happy, a family must be successful on each and every one of a range of criteria e.g: sexual attraction, money issues, parenting, religion, in-laws. Failure on only one of these counts leads to unhappiness. Thus there are more ways for a family to be unhappy than happy.

But there are numerous ways to be happy and cope with those potential issues and conflicts. Each couple finds there own ways to be happy. For example, I was startled, even scared, when I first dated the woman who is now my wife, her father shouted at her mother over something in the kitchen. And I mean serious shouting - this was something that never happened in my family. But just as quickly, her father realized that he was the one who had moved the spoon or something, which he proclaimed by shouting again, and everyone laughed. My wife's parents can blow up then blow over, while my parents tend to keep some resentments simmering for decades.

My wife and I are approaching our 10th anniversary. We learn from the relationships we see, and we call each other on the things we see each-other doing before they can have time to simmer. We still talk about our frustrations, and while we individually have traits of our parents, we're dealing with them in different ways. We're not coping like her parents, but we also don't let things simmer like my parents.

Looking back, our relationship has changed, but not specifically because we're married, but rather that we're adults who have been in our wonderful relationship for over a decade. We were in our mid 20s when we started dating, and in our late 20s when we got married. We credit some of our stability to the fact that we each knew what we wanted for ourselves as individuals, which has helped us see what we're willing to share as a couple, and what is still something that makes us different as individuals.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:30 AM on May 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is extremely corny, but whenever I watch the remodeling show, Fixer Upper, on HGTV, I think: "Gee, those two have an obviously happy marriage!" They are constantly showing each other affection, poking fun at one another (lots of inside jokes), and also work together in a complementary manner. I have no doubt they're like that off-camera.

I've got to say that I think a lot of "happy" marriages (including the one above) occur because the inborn temperament, life experiences, and mental health of the two people involved happens to be just right. Sure, there's a lot of work involved too. But it helps to: have no mental health issues; have a secure attachment style; be relatively physically healthy; have a naturally calm and/or upbeat temperament; and be relatively happy with your job/chosen profession. Most of these things were missing in my marriage (for both of the people involved) and that is a large reason for why it has failed!

Also, sexual compatibility (similar sex drives esp.) is crucial. If this is not in place, I would not recommend getting married.
posted by bennett being thrown at 11:36 AM on May 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I also like the Smart Couple podcast for pretty frank discussions about the challenges of being in long term relationship from a growth mindset perspective.
posted by bennett being thrown at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

And because there are so many ways to be happy and stay happy, perhaps talk about where you'd like to be as a couple in 5, 10, 20 years, and try to think of couples who embody those traits or elements in their relationship. Do you do everything together, or are you separately busy individuals who share meals and a home, or something between? What's each of your ideal work/life balances? Do you want kids, and if so, what kind of parents do you want to be? What traditions do you have, and would you like to continue?

My wife and I didn't have any particular guides to follow to cover all these discussions, but as we got more serious, we casually talked about what we wanted our lives to look like, what we thought of various parenting styles, things of that sort, and looking back, I think we touched on a lot of these topics, and found that we aligned pretty well.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I read in an article long ago that some researchers discovered that Anna Karenina had it backward. There are different ways to be happy, but misery is just misery. (I wouldn't take either view too seriously.)

Respect for your partner is basic. Lots of relationships fail when one person's needs are brushed aside.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:48 AM on May 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

John Gottman's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is an evidence-based approach to marriage and it's now a classic in this field. There are other books by him, and now he gives expensive workshops and retreats and so on, but mostly it all comes back to this book. I read it after my first marriage dissolved, and as I was in pre-marital counseling with my now-husband. The book was enormously helpful to me in pinpointing things that were wrong about my first marriage, things that were wrong almost from the get-go and certainly didn't improve in that marriage. I have thought back to this book many times over the course of my second marriage, and it's improved my marriage because I've stopped myself from repeating some of the classic bad behaviors (like bringing up old history during fights).

Strongly recommend.
posted by aabbbiee at 12:12 PM on May 18, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Another resource for why marriage can be beautiful and enriching is a book called Getting the Love You Want. It is based on imago relationship therapy. The basic premise is that a deeply committed relationship is the only place that is safe for us to truly project all our old crap to heal it. Both people need to be willing to work through things and grow beyond things but if that's a given, marriage is more effective for personal growth than any seminar by a (wonderful) giant man can be.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:12 PM on May 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Marriage is actually hugely beneficial in a lot of ways. Firstly, accumulation of family wealth and ease of passing that onto children. Costs are generally halved (roughly), and standards of living go way up with shared housing. You can have many more nice things and afford many more nice things, including non-tangible lifestyle things like vacations or hired help, etc.

Cheaper car insurance for married men. Significant in a lot of places.

Medical visitation. You won't think about it or miss it until you really need it. If you don't have it, it's terrible.

Shared health insurance.

Too lazy to cite this (sorry) but it's statistically proven that married people have more and better sex, despite all the jokes about passion dying, etc.

Married men are significantly healthier and live longer. There's a slight beneficial effect for women as well but not as drastic.

The social benefits are real and people will definitely treat you and your relationship differently.

Controversial, but a lot of researchers still agree that overall children are better off with married parents.

Just in general life is easier with a reliable partner to share labor/tasks with. As long as they're doing something and holding up their end, you generally come out ahead with less work and more free time than if you're running a household alone.
posted by stockpuppet at 12:12 PM on May 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also, since that was a really dry and practical answer:

You don't think about it when you're young, but eventually your parents will die. Your friends will get old and die. At some point there will be fewer and fewer people who share all of your memories and can look back with you on the events of your life. Having a "witness to your life" is hugely beneficial psychologically, especially the older you get.
posted by stockpuppet at 12:22 PM on May 18, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Marriage isn't a set-up that you step into. You create your own, from scratch. If either of you has any assumptions about marriage, those need to be brought out and discussed. Of course you might not realize you're assuming anything until it becomes an issue, but that's okay if you recognize it and deal with it when it comes up, instead of making your partner wrong because of something the two of you never agreed upon. It's a good idea even to define what fidelity means to you. Seriously, you have to get basic.

Everybody knows communication is important, but when it comes to disagreements, you need a certain kind of communication if it's about disagreements or feelings. The best thing my husband and I ever did was go to a therapist to work on "listening skills." You've heard of it -- the stuff about giving "I messages" and saying things that show you're listening. You let the other person talk, and then reflect back what they just said. Some of it seems goofy when you read or hear about it, but it absolutely works (though it can require a huge amount of effort when one or both are angry or hurt. Very few of us saw this kind of communication modeled in our families.

Kindness, respect and appreciation are the most important elements in my marriage. Treat your partner as you want to be treated, and remind them to do the same when they forget.
posted by wryly at 12:32 PM on May 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Also, I really like this article by Herbert Stein.
posted by stockpuppet at 12:44 PM on May 18, 2017

A good marriage is one wherein both partners have occasion to say, at different times, "You know, you're right about that. I never thought about it that way," while the other partner does not gloat.

Another thing: good manners. "Please," "thank you," and you're welcome" are the WD-40 of marriage as well as civilization.

Say: "I would like;" NOT "I want."

Don't ever say:
"You always..."
"You started it"
"you're the one that..."

These phrases are throwbacks from the playground. We are all better than that.

Make sure to listen to your partner, and expect the same courtesy from him/her.
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:45 PM on May 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you have lived together for two years, it most likely means that you are already exclusive about not having other lovers, right? (#1 of a number of other elements of a healthy long marriage) I lived with my husband while we knew we were marrying within months ,so since it was ridiculous to have two apartments/houses. I often though wonder how couples feel differently when they marry vs. living together, because of commitment I suppose. To know that you will always be there for one another is huge.
Also, you have accomplished much of the important yet often mundane stuff,(#2) like hopefully, have worked out the things together that help run a household, seen if one another agrees on the way you clean house, including laundry, so that both at this stage are sharing it evenly. This goes for cooking and shopping , if you both are working, as it needs to be done by each of you. This is very important in a marriage, and actually was one of the first things we talked about when we were in our home- 36 years ago. I still remind guys to leave the toilet seat down, it was designed to be covered. Feng Shui experts say it is a symbol of money flushing away from the home. (that one is good to use as a reason when you talk about it!).
Our marriage has been totally consistently strong-- (#3) I have to say that first of all a couple really must be head over heels in love with one another, passionate in and out of bed, but not basing a relationship on how often sex is or what you do with it. We said that we loved one another within 3 months, shocking even our own selves, as it seemed impossible to be in love at first sight. Both of us were shy with the opposite sex,and had not found a partner so incredible before, nor one that lasted longer than one or two years.
What are your interests?(#4) Ours' are and were, so much alike when we were just talking on our phones early in our dating days, that we ourselves were shocked that when we shared what our dream since childhood was about where and how to live, we had identical ones: on a horse farm, and preferably at the beach. We have done both. We have many activities that we share our love for. It's cool if one has a different or just a stronger passion for even one we both enjoy, naturally.(#5) Always provide that open space for one another! We sail, started w/ a 27' solid beauty we loved for a decade, moving up 3 more times 'til we now have our dream boat. Our beach home is separate from our horse farm, and now we are living here though the horses are gone now, the beauty of our peace in nature here is stunning. We still always loved the beach, meeting new people, parties,travel to other countries learning about different cultures; we are both certified divers, by PADI, as are our sons; enjoy parties and entertaining, as well as our quiet time and we always find space to be on our own, unafraid of separation or being alone.
Our first son was not born for five years! We worked to buy our first house, and sought to be working in desired, beloved fields relative to our degrees from college, (#6)is most important that both are happy in individual careers, and how they effect one another; and honestly both of us were tentative to even become parents for a few of those 4 years prior to his arrival!
Important-(#7) Our core values, integrity, around everything we did and do, including how we raised our 2 sons came naturally to us, we were ready, and agreed on everything we did as a loving, nurturing for these little ones became our center of our world from day one . Always put family first. (#8)That is a must. We agreed and just naturally lived overall without bickering, arguing, no yelling, and no hitting. Violence did not happen in our home--it was full of love, children, parents, neighbors, work colleagues, well you get the picture. Our mutual love of raising our kids with intelligence as well as total loving devotion is important as anything in the Universe. Of course, still we are human and have moments and even longer, of disagreement before something is settled.
Honestly, though, our rule as a couple was not to discuss or argue in any un-reconciled ways in front of the boys. It is important that they learn to discuss, argue without hurting and using negative or harsh words against one another. (#9) A great resource to learn more about this for yourselves now, is by an author who sadly died around the time his 2nd book was published; I worked in one of his team's workshops locally, to earn hours toward my yoga instructor certification, it is "Living Non-Violent Communication-Practical tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situation", by Marshall Rosenberg, PHD. It will change the way you listen, talk, and resolve anything. We displayed enough discussions, and yes a few arguments , usually due to me who like most girls do at home when raised with mom and sis; my husband's background with mostly guys was quite different, not much fighting, so he had to get used to my ways, and me to his. It's always been the one source of any friction yet we deal with it openly.
Otherwise- wow, we have and still do enjoy so much together(#10) throughout our ventures, several moves, found our horse farm, (actually bought a 2nd one for the four years out of state move), first bought a sailboat and later, the beach house. We always found that having things to share together over some weekends like sailing, traveling overseas, even catching a local Amtrak to Washington, D. C. was a huge thrill for kids, as well as for us. If you have children, do this whether it's camping, traveling to a new place together, even a local beach for a week in summer, it's a common experience shared that will create memories and opportunities to be simply together.
Especially important factor in our good lasting marriage, has been discovering what we could do what we all loved and brought the four of us together over weekends, around the outdoors and nature. This is true whether you plan to raise a family or not! We had the decision to make about me staying home to raise our sons. Budget was tight the first few years of adjustment, yet it is the most rewarding job of my life. It also became important for someone to be home, as their Dad's career always was in International Director of his expertise, and several times so. His travels truly took him to every Continent; I made it alongside him a number of times, as did our children.(11) I add to emphasize once again, as it is common in marriages to forget what it is like to go off on your own, not to work, but to have something whether it be a destination spa, or a group of friends who are kayakers, heading out into the wilds somewhere with an organized knowledgeable guide, do create time on trips away on your own, or with friends, without your partner. It can be a very liberating and necessary part of your relationship to respect the one you love and his/her needs outside of your marriage. I will treasure my yearly winter Florida like weather destinations to a home of one of 8 of my girlfriends, where we were each respecting one another's time, some alone, a lot together, reading, walking, running, sharing recipes as we took turns cooking, going out for at least one or 2 great dinners with top shelf wines accompanying them during that week of spa/massage/or just plain steam room time.
My grandmother , God rest her soul,( I miss her so much, we loved one another at all ages) - her wisdom and love abounded, at any point in my life, from when I was a little girl until I was old enough to understand this (12) most awesome, IMPORTANT MARRIAGE ADVICE : Be sure that you marry someone who you can always laugh with, which surely she meant that it will always get you through anything in your lives together forever. It is really the truth, laughter and lightheartedness keeps everything good, prevents anyone from taking themselves too seriously, when we all know Life Is Short,and definitely joy raises one's spirits no matter what we face . BEST of luck! Enjoy your lives and make it work if you truly feel the strength of your life's common directions, honor the differences, and can do this in all situations, and never forget that your married for love, passion, keep it in your lives, bring flowers home, cook cool dishes as a surprise, have a surprise party for the partner, keep it alive.... perhaps sex is yes, true, usually, one part that will not be the same as that initial passion so it's then time to never say no or never say die?, anyway,-be creative, leaving you to figure that out! Discover how it improves with time, how much freer it is!
posted by Journal for Journeys at 1:35 PM on May 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

p. s. understand that I did not intend to put the numbered points of what is a strong marriage or what has lead us down the path of 36 years of a great one, in proper or prioritized order. It just turned out that way! Also, in-laws.
How could I forget them? IF there are a lot of differences and you and spouse aren't in agreement, first of all as my Dear Mom who is gone from this Earth, we will be together again I know, as she watches over me, said more than once, "You aren't just marrying him/her, you are marrying the whole family". Now this was coming from a woman who had so many differences between her family and my Dad's, whose mother was the one who always hugged, loved me unconditionally, helped me through my Dad's death and wasn't afraid to cry in front of me as we embraced- she was compassionate especially when it came to family, surely it was very hard for her to lose her own partner, my Grandfather, same year as her only son- I cannot imagine. I knew how Mama felt, it was difficult to be together with her quite often as she would make remarks, attempt to engage me in conversations about them, and my wise young then husband, once said to me "Remember that it may be a good approach to get together expecting nothing at all, and then you can be happy and celebrate what you do take away from the family being together." Read the book about communicating, and you will see how wise HE is! And yes, there were differences in how he was raised as compared to my family; we did converse when either of us had to bring up the opposite family's ways, or needed help with a conflict, hurtful remarks, etc. Keep a "Buddha Mind", which means let it pass over you if possible, as in another book, "Radical Acceptance", discusses how it is possible not to let it effect you nor disturb you. You are loving within, and are loved- nothing will help nor change you if you hold onto the belief that you are who you are without judgment on another: your potential is realizing that you are a perfect being, who loves all others.
Again, best of everything, love yourself, love all others, forge your paths in life as parallel ones- along the same direction yet separate spiritually, even if you are not religious, because you will be on one to pure happiness and peace through devotion and love, work, acceptance as well as being a source of love for others. Cheers.
posted by Journal for Journeys at 2:05 PM on May 18, 2017

We'll be celebrating our 38th wedding anniversary in August.

2nding Gottman's Seven Principles. The other text that helped us recently is the Levine and Heller book Attached.

My husband is an "anxious" type. I am "secure". This has led to decades of him doubting, me reassuring, him content and secure for a while (months, maybe years), until something triggers his anxiety and the cycle begins again. I got impatient with the anxiety; he felt that my security meant I wasn't as invested. We recently figured this out with some counselling help.

We've gone through four short rounds of counselling over the years (maybe 4 - 6 sessions each round), plus we've each done work on our own. We don't see counselling as a last resort, more like a midway resort: we've tried on our own but we keep getting stuck in the same loop, so it's time to bring in someone who can guide us out. Counselling is not an admission of defeat; it's the realization that we need different tools.

Good luck. It's an amazing adventure.
posted by angiep at 2:19 PM on May 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I can think of books that have encouraged me to live deeply - authors include Leo Buscaglia, M. Scott Peck, and Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. But I can't think of anything about marriage per se, because marriage is not magic, exactly. It has social and financial perks. But in its best case, I think it is merely the outward acknowledgment of a couple's alreaady-created commitment to honour each other above all others, to a life together at the center of a shared family.

For complicated reasons, I married my husband both long after I bonded with him and long before I had any real understanding of what commitment really means. Our marriage happens every day even if our wedding was 23 years ago.

There have been a few points at which our vows mattered. A couple of times I was at the edge of cheating, although I think I'd've made the same choice without actual legal vows. And then after our daughter died my husband checked out, and took a contract 5 hrs away for over a year, in the aftermath of that explosive loss, and I felt like I had been flung to the very edge of our life together, like with a few more steps we could each just bury the whole thing and turn into different people was there, yes, but I have to say I was so numb It was hard to reach. Not as she was dying but like 4 months later.

And at that point I really did sit on the roof and think about my actual, hard-core promise, "as long as we both shall live." Had my husband deliberately hurt me or other things I would have considered our marriage over, and he was so absent on most levels it was close to that but I decided that I owed The Vows a year, and I moved to be with him and...13 years, about, since then we have had two sons and more joy and connection than I even ever had before, I am choked up on the train thinking that I could have missed that.

So...I don't know what marriage means to you, or a wedding. I hope you two never need vows like I did because that was awful, but that is the one time Married, Capital M, mattered to us.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:27 PM on May 18, 2017 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Anecdata: I have been with my husband for 16 years (married for 9).

It took us six years to get engaged and another year to get married. I would have happily married him straight out of high school but I think my husband was under the impression we had to have a house and a dog and a white picket fence before getting married (because it was an "adult" thing to do and he didn't feel like an "adult" yet). I pretty much just had to give him time to come around to the idea that we didn't have to be homeowners in order to get engaged as the two are not remotely correlated.

One of the most important things we do that makes our partnership so successful is that we say "please" and "thank you" daily. I thank my husband for making our dinner. He thanks me for setting up the children's well-child checkups. I thank him for cleaning up the house after coming home from being at work. He thanks me for doing all the Christmas and birthday shopping. etc. etc.

Acknowledgement that seemingly simple, mundane household tasks are still a burden somebody has to bear is immensely helpful for us so we don't feel resentful or like we're being taken for granted. (See also: emotional labor.)

I often say that my husband knows me better than I do. It's incredible to be with someone and know that they get you - like, REALLY GET you. He knows which gifs/memes to text me that will make me laugh. He can tell when I'm getting overwhelmed and will give me space to calm down or cool off. He recognizes I am my own person outside of our partnership and is supportive of that - I recently got a semi-unconventional haircut and he was my biggest cheerleader. I know I can count on him. This, I guess, is our version of what a great marriage is like.

For books, I really appreciated The Truth Behind the Rock by Jessica Kaminsky while I was in that limbo of wanting to get engaged but having to wait for my then-boyfriend to come around.

In terms of articles, I highly recommend "You May Want To Marry My Husband" by Amy Krause Rosenthal, published ten days before she died of cancer.
posted by meggan at 3:09 PM on May 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Hello, me from the past, I am here to help.

When my husband and I married eight years ago (we've been together for 10), I was very anxious about marriage; he was less so. It didn't help that I was young—22, to be exact. I'd grown up in a conservative, evangelical household that had incredibly specific ideas about marriage. The older I got, the more skeptical I was about those ideas, the more I found they were in direct conflict with my own beliefs. But where did that leave me? Well, for me, it didn't quite matter. We needed a marriage visa to stay together, and so we got married. I won't lie: I was incredibly stressed about it, and it took years for the fear and anxiety to go away entirely, simply because it took years for me to understand that fear and anxiety.

To this day, I'm not sure I ever wanted that state-sanctioned piece of paper, no matter how much I did (and do) want to be with my now-husband. I can be both happy to be married to him and skeptical of the way our culture defines marriage. It took time for me to understand that such fears rarely say anything about the quality of one's love or relationship.

For me, they said something about my upbringing and the relationship narratives we embrace and perpetuate in society. Those narratives are often based on fear and anxiety, borderline abuse and neglect, jealousy, possession, and obsession—not love or freedom of choice. What's worse is that these narratives, being familiar, are almost as comfortable as they are a source of at least some of our anxieties. Who doesn't love a good love song or romance? Who doesn't love the stories where families stick together through thick and thin? And yet many of them are quite toxic, deep down.

I'm happy to say marriage has worked out for both my husband and me, but saying so feels a little technically incorrect. What's worked out—really well, in fact—is our relationship. We, and those who love us, care about our relationship. The state, a bunch of religious folk, and the occasional busybody care about the paper and the wedding rings (that we don't wear).

So here's my advice:

First of all, try to embrace the fact that marriage is whatever you want it to be. Really. This means sloughing off old or irrelevant ideas as much as it does adopting or creating new ones. More easily said than done, but nonetheless true!

Many people don't like the open secret that is marriage's panoplied history. It makes them uncomfortable. But the truth is, historically—and even to this day in some cultures—marriage is purely social and easily (ex)changed. Sometimes it's been deeply spiritual and had no connection to the state, and sometimes it's been political with little to no element of spiritual connection. It's been a way to exchange women as property or increase land ownership, and it's also been none of that. It's straight, it's gay; it's religious, it's agnostic; it's arranged, it's random; it's a tad bit incestuous, it's international and interracial; it's monogamous, it's polygamous, it's "open." In other words, marriage has been, and remains to be, a whole hell of a lot of things. Whether that is freeing or terrifying for you, I don't know, but surely it's a little nice that you can choose your own adventure.

Your marriage could be serious, we're-going-to-be-together-until-we-die-in-each-other's-arms, or...not. It could just be this thing you do one afternoon in a front of a judge with strangers for witnesses, where you come away with a tax-altering piece of paper that you stuff into your filing cabinet. While you do belong to a society that's affected by religious opinions on marriage, you don't belong to a religion and are not required to adhere to any particular definitions or beliefs. If you and your partner woke up tomorrow and wanted to get married, but, say, only for five years exactly, congratulations, that's marriage (for you), doesn't matter how arbitrary it is or how much it pisses someone else off. If it appears safe and is consensual, go for it. It's no stranger than some of the relationships people do accept and even call "normal."

The second thing you should realize is that "50% of marriages end in divorce" is utter bullshit, and not least of all because divorce is not indicative of anything unhealthy. None of us wants to end up in a bad or unfulfilling relationship. Being able to leave one is a very good thing! The only reason we have and use divorce as a legal tool is because of how we have defined marriage as its own kind of legal tool. Neither tool is a good indicator of relationship quality.

We care too much about marriage and divorce statistics. Ask yourself, do marriages and divorces matter any more or less than when unmarried couples begin or end long-term relationships? (Don't forget children can be involved in those, too, so they can't be used as some excuse here.) We just don't do nearly as much to keep track of cohabitation. The result is many people believe divorce happens far more than it does, while they also completely ignore millions of legitimate, long-term relationships that may or may not be great. When it comes to relationship data, remember the great saying:
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
I think you can ignore most media and self-help guides on relationships, too, though you'll find useful tidbits here and there. After ten years of being with the same person, I've not found anything that looks exactly like my relationship, which, in my opinion, provides further evidence that marriage/relationships are whatever you make of them.

It does seem that good habits or traits are more common in longer-lasting relationships, however. They can be boiled down into something like this:
  • You communicate openly and frequently, even when it's painful (e.g., "One of us wants a kid, while the other doesn't. How do we deal with this?") or awwwwkwaaaard (i.e., "One of us is into some kinky shit that the other is not."). And you rely on knowledgeable, outside support when communication is falling apart. (DBT has been great for my relationship in the past, for what it's worth.)
  • You have at least a few similar interests or beliefs—and probably a similar sense of humor. Just my opinion, but I can't help but believe that the couple who laughs together is the couple who stays together.
  • You desire to grow together. This doesn't mean you "become one" person. This means you're open to changing alongside your partner.
  • You acknowledge and accept that you can never be everything to one person, and that another person can never be everything to you. Similarly, you recognize that interests, beliefs, and desires change, ebb, and flow. Some years you will be much closer to being everything your partner needs and vice versa; other years, less so.
  • You understand what "sacrifice" means to both of you (e.g., Would you quit a job you loved and move away from everything you know, just so your partner could pursue a dream? Would he/she expect that level of support? Is that a good example of sacrifice, or is it something more or less?).
  • You actively try to recognize your partner's efforts and thank him/her for them.
  • You have both promised that, should things go awry, neither of you will try to screw the other over. If you know you are both reasonable, peaceable people, entrapment is far less likely.
If you have all that, or are working towards it, I think there's a good chance your relationship will last a long time, with or without the piece of paper. So, you've just got to figure out if the piece of paper and/or ceremony is what you want, and, unfortunately, no one can tell you that. If you're in the U.S., there are certainly some useful legal and financial benefits to marriage; maybe that alone is reason enough to wed, and maybe not.

Perhaps the real question here is, should you two not come to a solid conclusion after therapy—unlikely, you hope, but possible—is there some way you can / would want to compromise? Would a small commitment ceremony, minus the state's involvement, be good enough for the one who desires marriage? Would a quiet courthouse wedding not bother the one who is nervous? Can you both find a way to satisfy each other, while also soothing yourselves?

If the answer's no, who knows, maybe you guys just need more time. But the ability to compromise, even when it comes to really emotionally, financially, or legally challenging things, will be necessary for the whole life of your relationship, married or not.

Best of luck.
posted by iamfantastikate at 3:35 PM on May 18, 2017 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Before my marriage I found Alain deBotton's "The Course of Love" to be incredibly soothing. His point is that love does not always express itself as a positive emotion. We even read an excerpt of Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person at the ceremony.

In particular, this sticks with me:

"The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.

Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating."

If any of that resonates, try his other books and writings on the subject. They're really beautiful and truthful and were a huge source of help to me.

Also, this:
"The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition."

That last line. It is tattooed on my brain forever.
posted by GilloD at 4:30 PM on May 18, 2017 [14 favorites]

Great marriages are a commitment to having those painful, awkward conversations that stomp on every sore spot in your psyche, and doing it in as gentle a way as possible. It's worth doing because life is way more terrible without that person in it.

I don't have resources to add, but here's my example of a great marriage:

My parents have been married for longer than my whole life. They're super adorable together. I want my marriage to be as close as theirs is. They are are a great team who love each other and love living together.

But I can still remember being 4 and huddling outside their room as they had screaming fights about the bills, because the parent who is terrible at remembering things insisted on handling the finances, and the parent who is good at remembering things was busy remembering literally everything and got too overwhelmed to track the bills.

The solution wasn't about who was 'right'. The real issues were one parent's inability to have someone else in charge of their finances, and the other parent's inability to not be in charge of everything. Neither of those was ever really 'solved'. The 'solution' was trusting each other, recognizing their missteps, and then hammering out a compromise they both could live with. It wasn't a one-and-done thing, and occasionally it flares up again. But they chose back when they got married to prioritize their love and trust in each other. And so their love and trust grew in step with their ability to run a household together. Now they've got most things ironed out and have time to bug me about grandkids.

That doesn't mean they don't get upset or complain. But they prioritize being a team over any particular hangup they have, or any thing that might be happening to or around them. They're so clearly happy when they're together.

That's the story of a great marriage. A deliberate exercise of love and trust that eventually becomes deep joy and contentment. And I think that's part of why actually getting married is different from living together; the legal commitment is a step that's important in ways that are hard to articulate.

It is terrifying, especially if there aren't a lot of examples in your life. I'd be terrified of marriage if I didn't have my parents and grandparents as examples and sources of advice. Do you have older couples you can talk to? Family, friends, people in your community?
posted by Ahniya at 4:49 PM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

To address this point specifically: a scary prison that traps you in a bad relationship and means giving up all the other good, new stuff that life has to offer.

All the long-married couples that I know (~10 with decade+ marriages off the top of my head) view each other as a source of ideas for things to try and support for going and trying them.

Going by report, the highlights seem to be that it's quite nice to have a built-in travel buddy/partner-in-crime, and it's great to have a partner for managing household things when you want to take some time for fun. They also think of their spouse as a source of fun. Ex, my aunt is a stonecold badass who thinks my uncle's wild stories are hilarious, my SO's parents enjoy making terrible puns at each other, my parents are always coming up with projects to work on together and then making calf eyes at each other mid-planning ( :p ), my grandparents supported each other in trying out new hobby/careers, etc.

All the long-married couples I know have hobbies they support each other in doing separately, hobbies they do together, and hobbies they share with their kids.

They also have divided up areas of concern, which seems to reduce worry so long as they're communicating properly. There's a subtle but clear handoff of which spouse is making the decisions based on what they're talking about, and some subjects where they're both non-committal until after a private discussion. The exact breakdown of responsibility varies a lot from couple to couple.
posted by Ahniya at 5:09 PM on May 18, 2017

The medical research suggests that married people are healthier (although fatter) and they live longer.

Anecdotally, I see the benefits of marriage at work in the ER every single day, usually multiple times in a shift. There is a world of difference between a confused, injured, or ill elderly person who comes in alone and one that comes with a spouse (to be fair, often a child fills this role, as well, but more rarely a friend, except in the case of nuns). The conversation typically runs thus:
"So, why are you here today?"
"Um.... why don't you ask my wife?"
[wife gives concise, clear and detailed explanation of why the patient is there]
"OK, can you tell me about your other medical problems?"
"Well, I have a bad heart, and, some other stuff..."
[wife jumps in to run down list of 20+ medical diagnoses and hands me a current list of all the patient's medications with full dosing information noted, gives me contact information for all the patient's doctors, and tells me about recent hospitalizations and interactions with primary care]

Another typical example:
"How can I help you today?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'm fine."
"So you feel completely normal?"
"Why, yes, fit as a fiddle. Can I go home now?"
"But how did you end up in the ER today?"
Husband: "She has dementia, she doesn't remember. I made her breakfast this morning and got her dressed, but then she just went back to bed and said she wasn't feeling good. She slept for a few hours in the middle of the day, and that's not like her. Usually we take a walk and then have lunch with our grandchildren who live next door. Eventually I went to wake her up and I found her lying on the floor next to her bed. She seemed too weak to get up and she was saying her head hurt. She is on blood thinners and I knew a head injury could be dangerous. I called an ambulance right away."
[I send patient for a CT scan and she has a head bleed, then find the urinary tract infection that caused the fall]

Opposite kind of also very common encounter:
An elderly person arrives alone by ambulance, unresponsive and with very abnormal vital signs, often covered in urine and/or feces.
"What happened?"
Paramedic: "Well, the neighbor noticed that newspapers were piling up in front of her door and they hadn't seen her out having tea on the porch that day, so they went to check things out and found the house in complete disarray. She was lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs so we assume she must have fallen. It looks like she might have been there for 2 days."

Now don't get me wrong, I've seen plenty of unhappy marriages too, and marriages in which one partner has actually caused harm to another. I'd never advocate staying in that kind of situation. But innumerable encounters like the ones above have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that living with a person you care deeply about for life (whoever that person might be and regardless of the legal status of your relationship) is one of the best things you can do for your health.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:42 PM on May 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would say this... I'm not familiar with any other the resources you're looking for, but many suggested on such things have already been made. My advice (married for 1.5 years now) is to not make marriage bigger than it is. It's easy to do that in our culture of shock and awe, where everything is breaking news, about to explode, and hyper-sensationalized. But at the end of the day, your partner should be your best friend. You're gonna fight, argue, get on each other's nerves, and want your own space from time to time. Acknowledge that and actually argue, and bicker and when necessary (we do this all the time) hang out with your friends without your partner!

Things really don't have to change that much. I like to think of my wife as my girlfriend, except we now get awesome tax breaks haha =)

If you love him, that's all you need.
posted by FireStyle at 8:03 AM on May 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Most bad marriages are doomed from the start.

What are some ways to avoid that?

Only marry someone for whom doing / being the things that are important to you are already their fully ingrained high priorities. Odds are those priorities won't change and they will be at best inconsistent in doing / being the important thing you want if they aren't already doing / being it, but they will keep on doing/being the things that are important to you if they were priorities before and having nothing to do with you.

Even if these qualities aren't top of mind for you now, only marry someone who is evidently kind, calm, sober, sane, flexible, tolerant and solvent. It's a hard truth, and it sucks for people who don't have those qualities, but the reality is that they lack the ability to be a long-term successful spouse unless you get very, very lucky.
posted by MattD at 9:00 AM on May 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

And I will say something that isn't advice as much as it an observation. Yes, successful marriages can have some variance in their ground-rules, but the notion that marriage is fertile ground for experimentation and innovation is ... flawed. Marriage is a specific social structure with very strong supports around its generally-understood key principles. Humans are social animals who are wired to follow prevailing rules of order, decorum and fairness. "Forsaking all others" is simple, culturally supported and a certain sense easy, whereas "open marriage" is complex, poorly understood (at best) and disdained (at worst) and requires a hard to formulate, execute and enforce rulebook -- and guess which one has the higher divorce rate?
posted by MattD at 9:06 AM on May 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Totally anecdata, but we've been married four years, together for about 11. Both mistersock and I have found that our marriage makes us more, rather than less, free in a lot of important ways. We have more financial and emotional security, meaning that we can travel more; take more risks in our careers when there's something ambitious we want to pursue; and bounce back faster from trouble.

Meanwhile, our complementary skills and interests mean that I'm around to plan things that he would once have considered too much trouble (complicated vacations and social events), while he does a better job of keeping the kitchen stocked and daily chores ticking over than I would on my own.

Since our wedding, my life become more secure, more comfortable, and more peaceful, but has also become more colorful and interesting. I think I'm healthier, too.

Context: we are (happily and intentionally) monogamous and without children. We also have roughly equal need for alone time and each do a bit of solo travel as well as our couples' trips.
posted by shattersock at 3:41 AM on May 21, 2017

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