If you were asked “how long should a couple date before getting married?” what would you say? 10 months? 2 years? A week? The truth is there is no magic number of months or years that make a couple ready for marriage. Six months may be more than enough time for one couple, but another couple may need six years.
Research shows that couples who are always moving forward in their relationship do experience greater stability and satisfaction than those who hold back from taking important steps. What really matters is the development of certain skills and characteristics that mature a couple enough to take the next step down the aisle. So what are these characteristics and how do you know if you are ready?
There is no one study that answers these questions, but a large collection of research highlights some of the most important characteristics of couples who will have the best chance for successfully making the transition into marriage.
Coordinating Life Plans
According to Shmuel Shulman at the Bar Ilan University in Israel1, one of the main events that moves a short-term relationship to the long-term is what he calls “the Coordination of Dyadic Commitment With Individual Life Plans.” This sounds like a mouthful, but simply means that two people are able to make space for the life goals of both partners. If this does not occur, the relationship will typically end. However, if such coordination is possible, then the relationship can be successful in the long-term.
Here are some things to think and talk about with your current partner to see how well you can coordinate your life plans:
- What are your life goals and your partner’s life goals?
- Which of your goals are the most important to you and which are you willing to give up if necessary?
- Will accomplishing your own life goals require your partner to give up their most important goals?
- Are there ways to compromise your plan for reaching your goals that will not mean giving them up? (i.e. Attending a different university so your spouse can still have their dream job).
After knowing that your life plans can work together, the next step is the actual commitment to do just that. Scott Stanley, one of the nation’s top commitment researchers defines commitment as the decision to make the relationship you have more important than all relationships you might have had2. It is the commitment to bring our partner along with us to experience our lives together.
Here are some ways to measure the level of commitment in your relationship:
- How often do you think about previous relationships or other love interests? How do you feel about those other options?
- When your partner talks about past relationships do they seem to regret the loss or compare you to them in a negative way?
- If you were to put a price on your relationship, is it a higher price than the options you may have to give up to be with your current partner?
Many believe that having sex with a potential marriage partner is important in deciding if the relationship will work or not. While research does not support this belief, according to Kelli-An Lawrance of the University of New Brunswick happy couples are generally able to balance their sexual needs well3. In order to find that balance, couples should have a certain level of sexual maturity (other than just biologically). So what does sexual maturity look like if it isn’t a long list of former sex partners?
Sexual maturity consists of the following:
- Basic understanding of how sex works (for both men and women).
- Sexual attraction to a potential spouse.
- Recognition of ourselves as sexual beings with natural sexual desires.
- Ability to control our sexual desires and channel them into appropriate actions.
- The ability to both know and express our sexual preferences to our partner.
- The ability to respect the sexual desires and needs of our partner.
Simply put: this is the ability to be honest and open with a potential spouse. The happiest and most successful marriages involve a deep level of intimacy. This includes sharing our deepest secrets, our fears, the details of our day, and giving our partners access to our past. While no couple does this perfectly, research generally shows that individuals who have trouble opening up and trusting their partner are more likely to experience instability and poor communication in their relationships4.
Before marriage, however, there are some things that every couple should do to open the door to full disclosure:
- Share anything from your past which will affect your relationship and level of trust. Previous marriages, children, a history of abuse, are examples of things that should be shared with a partner before marriage (though you also don’t want to disclose these things on a first date).
- Establishing a system of trust, including showing a willingness to listen, forgive our partner’s mistakes, and apologize for our own.
- Establishing boundaries that are acceptable to both of you to protect the very personal nature of intimate relationships.
- Becoming aware of any major flaws in ourselves and our partner that could lead to dangerous relationship patterns (such as abuse or violent conflict).
Some may argue that outside support does not make a marriage successful, but research consistently shows that those couples who have strong support systems are better off5. The key to social support is having a group of people who want the best for your marriage.
Here are some ways that couples should learn to utilize their support system before marriage:
- Knowing the best source of guidance for making important life decisions as a couple.
- Seeking support from those who can stay positive about your relationship and marriage.
- Establishing primary support systems which are accessible to both partners.
- Learning when and how to withhold information from your support system that could hurt your partner or relationship.
Couple Autonomy and Interdependence
This doesn’t mean absolute independence from parents and others. Instead, what really matters is that you and your partner learn to make the most important decisions together based on your own needs and abilities. Everyone can and should seek guidance or help from others at times (indeed that is one of the purposes of social support I just talked about), but when one or both partners depend on parents or other adults to be the decision makers for their life, establishing effective teamwork as a couple is almost impossible6.
Here are some specific things you should be able to handle within your own relationship before marriage:
- Basic money management skills and making important financial decisions as a couple.
- Deciding as a couple when and how to take important life steps.
- Working together as a couple to seek guidance when needed.
- Being able to share responsibilities in a way that feels equal to the two of you.
- Creating your own rules and routines that work best for your marriage.
- Talking through important issues and problems and reaching decisions together.
So how long should a couple date before getting married? Long enough to establish these key characteristics in their relationship.
If you want to see how you and your partner are doing in these areas, try taking our RELATE assessment to see what you may still need to work on.
Check out some specific research highlighting each characteristic by clicking on the numbers throughout the post.
Written by: Dallin