Couples often enter counseling with me asking: “Marriage—is it worth it?” as well as the variation, “Should we live together or get married?”
As a man who’s been on the planet more than five decades, I’ve cohabitated and been married a few times, so I’ve definitely got an opinion. As a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples and relationships, I have over 20 years of professional, real-world, experience as well.
First, my story. I moved in with my first love a few months after dating her in my early twenties. I was younger than young, totally clueless and yet also fearless about jumping in. After six months of cohabitation, she wanted to get married. Actually her parents wanted her to get married. I had became persona non grata for corrupting their little girl—who was a few years older and a bank vice president—but living in sin.
I didn’t know much back then but I did have this belief that you should know someone for two years before you got married. She succumbed to parental pressure after less than a year and broke up with me. The pain of first, deep, living-together-love really sucked and it was a long, long time before I didn’t automatically see red Datsun B210s everywhere I drove, looking for her.
The first time I got married it was purely lust and timing. I only figured this out way after the fact. I was almost 30 and I truly believe a huge part of my unconscious psyche was just ready to get married and it probably didn’t matter a whole lot who my spouse-to-be was. Can any of you biological clock people relate?
And given my cohabitation experience, I felt living together was chickensh*t and that marriage was the way to go. We got married maybe three months after the first date. Guess that two-year-rule went out the window.
While I loved being married, it didn’t last for more than a few years. We didn’t have a lot in common aside from an incredible, twice-a-day passion.
Was the marriage worth it? Yes.
The experience did get me into psychotherapy, which ultimately became my dream career. And yes I am truly grateful for the lessons I learned from that union, and the way it guided me toward my calling.
My second marriage was for family. I fell in parental love with my eventual wife’s daughter, Anique, my heart opened up and I experienced unconditional love for the first time. I completely thought of her (my stepdaughter-to-be) as my child and was at peace. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a purpose, a meaning. And my daughter, Alana, was born a few years later. Unfortunately, I was much better at falling in love with the children than the woman, and the marriage eventually ended.
Was that marriage worth it?
Yes. We learned, we grew and we brought a new soul into the world. And we are still bonded because of that, regardless of the current form of our relationship.
So, it’s from this history that I come to the client’s question: “Is marriage worth it?” and “Should we live together or get married?”
As a psychologist and couples therapist, I have been trained to explore questions first, prior to giving an answer. And the truth is, while I have my answer, my work is to help you determine your answer.
My response is not focused upon morality, value judgments, or religious beliefs. It is focused on the issue of commitment. So, the really critical question I would ask couples is, what is your commitment in this relationship? The commitment in the decision to live together is much different than the commitment of marriage.
The commitment to live together is, generally speaking, really not that much about commitment. It’s about, let’s see if we can get along together before we make a commitment.
Some refer to it as a trial marriage. It really is a much different commitment than marriage for the majority of people. Of course, there are exceptions to this, yet I’m speaking in general.
Marriage, on the other hand, is about making the commitment to building a life with this person, whether you like them every day or not, whether they are in a good mood every day or not, whether they meet your needs every day or not.
It is about seeing the big picture, about remembering why you are together for the long haul, even when the day-to-day ride is bumpy. It is about working through the problems that come up, because you remember that you made a commitment.
It is about what you choose to give to the relationship, much more than about what you expect to receive.
And honestly, nothing can prepare you for the commitment of marriage, for the commitment to the long haul, to forever, whatever forever means in this world. The concept of the trial marriage is statistically proven to be a poor indicator of marriage success.
The statistics are daunting; the majority of cohabitators either breakup or marry within two years. The risk of divorce after living together is 40 to 85 percent higher than the risk of divorce after not living together. Those who live together before marriage are almost twice as likely to divorce than those who do not live together.
Why is this? There are many theories about it. Personally, I feel there are a few pieces to it.
First of all, most of us are not perfect, we have some flaws, we have fears, we have parts of ourselves we hide from the world, parts we are not proud of, that cause us some amount of shame. We have varying degrees of doubt as to our self-worth, our desirability, our “love-ability.” This may be conscious or unconscious.
And often, these deeper issues don’t come up in a living together situation, or if they do, not as strongly as when the commitment to marriage is made. Only then will our psyches feel safe enough to let down our guard, lower our defenses and let our dark side come out fully. And often, only then is our partner prepared to face and accept this side of us, without turning and running in the other direction. This is where a strong commitment is needed.
The second piece, I think, is the fact that we humans are truly creatures of habit. And when we live together with someone, we develop certain habits of relating and certain mindsets. Certain habits of communicating, certain habits of being. Often, we develop habits of me versus you and mine versus yours.
And we develop habits of my way. And we develop mindsets of I’m right and you’re wrong and It’s your fault. And those are really difficult to change, once we marry and commit to forever.
Conversely (and ideally), when we make the commitment to marriage without the habits of living together, we build up habits of us, of the partnership, of together forever and we might work a little harder to sustain these habits. We might look more to ourselves and what we are doing to make our situation better or worse and take more responsibility for it. Each day is spent building this foundation, so that when challenging times come, as they will, we are prepared to meet them from strength, from partnership.
The final piece, which may speak more to the statistics, is that perhaps a percentage of the people who choose to live together, do so, because they are not prepared or capable of making a stronger commitment, like that of marriage.
So, like all couples, the ball is in your court. It’s not good or bad to decide to live together or to decide to get married. It is an important decision though. If it becomes too difficult to reach a choice that is consistent with what you want, you might want to consider seeking support from a counselor or therapist.
Back to me! Now that my daughter Alana is out of the house and I’m an empty nester, my latest lesson is to explore connection and relationship from the perspective of keeping my heart open and not deciding ahead of time what the form has to look like.
It’s easy to say “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” Well, I know now what I know now and am willing to keep learning as I go.
Is marriage worth it? Absolutely! All relationships are worth it and I’ve got a sh*tload of lessons left to learn.
And, just maybe, three times will be the charm.
Looking forward to your comments.
Editor: Lori Lothian
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