Marriage: Ready or Not

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Very few of us want to get married just to have the marriage end, but that seems to be a common result.  It’s no secret that about 50% of marriages end in divorce, and many of those occur in the first five years of marriage.

The high divorce rates have led many of us to believe that marriage is fragile and should not be entered into lightly.  Yet as a society, we still tend to favor marriage as an important life goal.  The result of these two conflicting views is a delay of marriage into the late 20’s and 30’s.  Instead of getting married young like so many generations before us, we want more time to prepare.

But this leaves an important question:

How do we know when we are ready?

In a recent study, Jason Carroll from Brigham Young University and a team of scholars from universities across the nation wanted to know how we answer that question.  They surveyed young adults across the nation to determine how young people today are preparing for marriage.  What they found revealed some important information for the future of marriage.

In order from most important to least, here are the 6 different areas young adults today believe are important to preparing for marriage, and just how important they actually are.   

  1. Interpersonal Competencies

    Interpersonal competencies refers to the general ability to relate well to others.  This includes being able to show empathy, communicate effectively, and being able to commit to relationships.  This was the most important factor found in the study, meaning that most people felt someone is ready for marriage when they can relate well to others, especially a spouse.

    How it holds up

    In reality, research supports interpersonal competencies as an important part of success in marriage.  Being able to communicate well and taking another’s perspective are certainly helpful traits.  However, these skills take a lifetime to develop and long-term relationships are a great field for practicing.  So don’t expect to be perfect before you marry.  If you have learned to put the needs of others ahead of your own, the rest will come.

  2. Family Capacities

    Family capacities refers to how well we are prepared to take care of a family, such as being able to support a family financially, take care of a home, and care for children.  In other words, we are ready to take on the responsibilities of family.

    How it holds up

    While being able to take care of a family is generally important before having children, keep in mind that being married does not mean we need to have a nice nursery.  Research actually suggests that learning how to handle the responsibilities of family are best developed in a marriage rather than before as it allows for a couple to be on the same page and develop a family plan together. In other words, you will likely need to readjust your definition of “taking care of a family” after you marry.  If you focus too much on meeting your definition of being ready for family, it may actually make adjusting to marriage more difficult.

  3. Intrapersonal Competencies

    While interpersonal competencies refers to our ability to relate to others, intrapersonal competencies refers to our individual maturity.  Being able to control our emotions, staying positive about life, and overcoming personal challenges are some examples.  When we are in control of ourselves, we are ready to let someone else into our life through marriage.

    How it holds up

    Intrapersonal competencies are fairly important for preparing for marriage.  Research has found that working through negative experiences from our past while single, for example, can reduce our risk for unhappy marriage.  Emotional maturity is helpful when facing the inevitable conflicts of letting someone else into your life.  Just like interpersonal competencies, however, don’t forget that these skills often take a lifetime to fully develop.  Relapses into personal challenges are going to happen.  What matters most here is that you have put in the effort to start working through any personal challenges and knowing how they can affect a marriage.  

  4. Role Transitions

    Role transitions are the milestones we expect to accomplish in life, such as finishing an education, starting a full-time job, and gaining financial independence from our parents.  This represents a belief that certain milestones are important to reach before we marry.

    How it holds up

    As far as importance goes, most role transitions have little to do with actual preparation for marriage.  In fact, married individuals are actually more likely to be hired than singles, do better in their education, and combining two incomes gets us to financial independence sooner than a single income.  Ask yourself the question “can I do _______ if I am married?”  If you are honest with yourself, you will often find that being married does not harm your chances of making other transitions smoothly.  If you cannot do something if you are married, is it really a great loss? (Note: I am only talking about marriage here, not parenthood).

  5. Norm Compliance

    Norm compliance refers to how much we behave in socially responsible ways.  We avoid activities such as binge drinking, drunk driving, and excessive profanity.  In other words, we are ready to marry when we are able to show responsibility in our behavior.

    How it holds up 

    Acting in responsible ways is a great way to prepare for marriage.  After all, if we cannot act safe for ourselves we will be more likely to place those we love in danger of being hurt.  The real question with this criteria is not if it is good or bad, but are young people actually trying to prepare for marriage in this area?  For many, this time of life becomes the time to experiment with many of these noncompliant behaviors, as a way to “get it out of your system.”  While the idea seems reasonable, the opposite is actually true.  Research has found that engaging in risky behaviors has long term negative effects on marriage well after we stop that behavior.

  6. Sexual Experience

    Sexual experience refers to the idea that having sexual experience before marriage, either with many partners, or a potential spouse, is important to being ready for marriage.  For many, this experience may be gained through living with a potential partner, or cohabiting.

    How it holds up

    In general, sexual experience as a method of marriage preparation does the exact opposite.  Casual sex, cohabitation, and early initiation of sex in a relationship have been found to consistently be linked to poor relationship functioning.  Couples who have sex early in a relationship are more likely to experience high levels of conflict and instability.  Those with multiple sexual partners have more difficulty adjusting to new relationships and often face decreased chances of happy marriages.  Perhaps it is fortunate then that few young adults actually believe sexual experience is important for marriage preparation.


If you still aren’t sure if you are ready for marriage, try taking our READY assessment to see what you can work on.

Written by Dallin, Master’s Student in Marriage, Family, and Human Development reviewed by Brian Willoughby, Ph.D.


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