Most of us would be nervous if a friend married a person they’d met only six months before the wedding. It would seem unwise: How well can you get to know a person in the span of six months? How much time have you spent together? Have you argued and made up, or overcome any obstacles together? Marrying too quickly is surely risky.
And if it’s possible to marry too quickly, is there such a thing as marrying too slowly? Responding to a recent student survey at Brown University, one young woman said she’d like to date her partner for “at least ten years” before getting married so she can be sure the marriage won’t end in divorce. Dating for a decade must be rare, but the available data suggest dating for a few years is now the norm.
One study of newlyweds that began in 1979 and ran for over a decade might make us cautious about both extremes. The couples who divorced after more than seven years of marriage usually had short, passionate courtships, and after marriage became disillusioned with one another. Yet those who divorced more quickly, after less than seven years of marriage, “tended to have extremely long courtships” (and the hope that “matters will improve once they are wed”). This study was small, and dating norms have changed since the 1970s, but it’s possible that marrying quickly and delaying marriage can both indicate red flags in a relationship.
That kind of advice won’t be very helpful to young people like the aforementioned Brown student, however. Like many in her generation, she’s leery of marriage out of the fear of divorce, and she wants hope that a lasting marriage is possible. Giving her statistics about how to minimize her chance of divorce—go to college! achieve financial success! date for several years! marry in your early thirties!—is of limited use, for the success of a marriage isn’t mechanically determined.
When marriages succeed, it’s not just because of the pre-existing characteristics of the spouses, but because of their ongoing efforts to love and help one another. So no one needs to be lectured on the pain of divorce; they need, as Eve Tushnet has written, “a sense that marriages can last, not because the spouses were smart enough on the front end but because they were gentle and flexible enough during the long years after the wedding.” Marriage is inevitably a risk, but it’s still possible for the risk to pay off.