Monday, September 20, 2010

What Marriage is Really About

Going against the conventional wisdom, a study published last year says that couples who cohabitate before marriage are actually more likely to divorce than those who do not. Being logical and rational folks, we have the idea that we should try something out before committing to it. We test drive a car before buying it. We read a couple of pages of a book we are thinking of getting. What if, however, that attitude, rather than keeping us out of undesirable relationships, actually causes our marriages not to last.

Rationality is all well and good, but it is a double edged sword. Too often, we apply a seemingly rational process to a situation. We then pursue the result that we find with absolute confidence. After all, we reached the decision rationally. What if the process was flawed?

When heading towards marriage, many people believe that they know what they want. They might want a person with a good income, a good heart, or a good sense of humor. Perhaps they want love, attention, and passion. Marriage, however, is not about any of those specific things. Marriage is about a lifelong commitment between two people. Two becoming one. Of course, this does not appeal to us Americans. We are rocks! We are islands! We need no one else and can do everything on our own.

If you are truly an island, don't get married. You don't need to, and you will eventually divorce, finding the situation too confining for too little benefit. If you are a mortal like the rest of us, however, understand that the true value of marriage is having someone in your life whose destiny is tied to yours. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, two people are joined, sharing dreams, aspirations, and defeats, but always knowing that their partner is there for them on their side.

You cannot trade up from this situation. Perhaps you have been married for a long time and your spouse is showing their age a bit. You think that maybe you can do younger with a younger person. Even if this new person is everything that you could ever dream of, there is something that this younger person will never be able to offer you: the relationship that has grown through decades of sharing with and depending on each other.

The strength and value of marriage is in the connection. It is that simple and that complicated.


  1. I think what you're driving at here is that a lot of Americans, maybe as a result of an instant gratification consumer culture, shop for a partner with a laundry list of requirements and forget that a long-term commitment is about accepting and loving a person, not just the sum of that person's traits/attributes/flaws.

    But as far as "living in sin" before marriage, the only thing that statistic says to me is that people who don't move in with their partner before marriage are likely to be the kind of people who don't seek a divorce when it's clear that the relationship is failing or the pairing is sub-optimal. Once you make that commitment, sure, do what you can to keep it; but don't stay in a marriage if you're unalterably unhappy with it. That's not a successful marriage, it's a self-imposed prison.

  2. That's good common sense there.

    On a side note, it looks like your interpretation of the article is the opposite of what the authors intended. (Thanks, science journalism!) Their point was *not* that cohabitation is a risk factor for divorce because the parties involved are more likely to be rational, but rather that dissatisfied cohabitators are more likely to marry *because of inertia*!! As in, the couple opts for wedding instead of breaking up because it's too much work to separate their stuff. So, unless that (extreme idiocy) sounds familiar, there's no need to overthink your own life choices.

    The article described by the blurb in your link:

    Rhoades, G., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(1), 107-111.

  3. Obviously late to the party, as it were, but I've heard this statistic myself - one of the running theories I've heard regarding the cohabitation issue is that a significant portion of that population may have commitment issues. Essentially, they choose cohabitation as an alternative, and over time the commitment-averse partner becomes reconciled to the idea of marriage. But the idea and the fact aren't always the same, and the fact of being legally bound to another person can be very different than the idea as a hypothetical situation.

    Of course, I tend towards this theory as someone who cohabited with my now-spouse for over eight years before our wedding; our rationale for waiting was that we both felt too young for marriage when we met, even though we also felt like it was a step we definitely wanted to take together. Inertia then maintained the status quo of cohabitation (planning a wedding is a lot of work!) rather than maintaining the status quo of a relationship.