Almost everyone is looking for the keys to a great, lasting relationship. Humans search for companionship, and ultimately long for something that can withstand the test of time.
Of course, many of the things that couples should work on in the present to ensure relationship success are important: Communication, fidelity, and respect are all essential to making relationships healthy. But new research out of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia pinpoints some interesting factors that many couples might overlook before tying the knot. The report examines many of the stepping stones and milestones leading up to marriage — and their role in determining whether your relationship will work.
In the study, the researchers came to the conclusion on three subjects. Firstly, they discovered that “What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.” Past relationship experiences — whether they involve dating, sex, love, or children — do have an impact on future marital quality. Secondly, the researchers found that couples who somehow “fall” or “slide” into major transitions like moving in together or getting engaged — rather than talking things through and making a solid decision together — are less likely to stick together later on down the road. Finally, the authors concluded that the type of wedding couples threw also had an impact on their marriages.
Getting married might be the norm in America; up to 90 percent of people are married by age 50. At the same time, many of these marriages end in divorce. Nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, according to statistics. So what can you do to ensure that your marriage will be one of the 50 percent that survive?
Believe it or not, the authors of the study found that your past relationship experiences do have an impact on your future marriage. People who’ve had multiple sexual or romantic partners were less likely to report a happy marriage later on. In addition, people who had formerly lived together with boyfriends or girlfriends — as well as people who had been married previously and gone through divorces — reported lower-quality marriages.
Having more experiences dating a wide array of people could be detrimental to the future of a marriage, the authors argue. “One reason that more experiences could lead to lower marital quality is that more experience may increase one’s awareness of alternative partners,” the authors wrote. “A strong sense of alternatives is believed to make it harder to maintain commitment to, and satisfaction with, what one already has.” Essentially, in the age of options and opportunities, many married young people are constantly looking for something else rather than remaining content with their current partners. The authors also argue that people who’ve had more experiences with breakups are more likely to harbor resentment, bitterness, and cynicism toward the idea of love. So if you’re well into your 20s and you haven’t had much experience dating, don’t sweat it — ignorance may eventually lead you to marital bliss.
'Sliding,' Not Deciding
Many of the people surveyed in the study explained that oftentimes major transitions in their relationships — like moving in together or even getting married — “just happened.” They were “sliding” moments, not thought-out decisions that were thoroughly discussed beforehand.
“We believe that one important obstacle to marital happiness is that many people now slide through major relationship transitions — like having sex, moving in together, getting engaged or having a child — that have potentially life-altering consequences,” Scott M. Stanley, an author of the study, said. Stanely and his team reviewed data from the Relationship Development Study at the University of Denver, and examined over 1,000 Americans who were in a relationship and unmarried. “Another way to think about ‘sliding versus deciding’ is in terms of rituals,” he continued. “We tend to ritualize experiences that are important. At times of important transitions, the process of making a decision sets up couples to make stronger commitments with better follow-through as they live them out.”
The researchers found that people who moved in together before getting married actually were more likely to get divorced or have lower-quality marriages. “One problem is that it may make it harder for a couple to break up,” the authors wrote. “Cohabiting couples buy furniture together, adopt pets, sign leases, and get used to a routine of living in a certain place together, all constraints that may keep people in a relationship even when they are not sure they want to stay. Some may therefore slide into a marriage that they would have otherwise avoided. In short, living together creates a kind of inertia that makes it difficult to change course.” Making conscious decisions is linked to a greater likelihood of following through on them and sticking to commitment.
Your 'Big Fat Greek Wedding' — Or Lack Thereof
Interestingly enough, the researchers found that couples who had big, formal weddings were more likely to have healthy, lasting marriages. “[C]ouples who are struggling or less happy in their relationship may be less likely to want to celebrate getting married,” the authors wrote.
Humans have been ritualistic for thousands of years — and ritual still plays a large role in our lives, though we may not realize it. One of the biggest rituals of a relationship is a wedding, and having a public ceremony to honor the bond has been linked to greater marriage success. “Making a clear, deliberate decision to commit to one option and reject alternative options strengthens a person’s tendency to follow through on the commitment,” the authors wrote. “Wedding ceremonies ritualize the foundation of commitment.” Couples who had over 150 people attend their wedding day had the greatest chance for a high quality marriage. This is possibly due to the fact that stronger family and friendship relationships — a solid social network — paves the way for couples to overcome difficulties over time.
So how do you improve your chances for high marital quality if you’ve made mistakes in the past? The authors list these steps to help you move forward:
1). Adopt a deciding mindset going forward. Understand that future transitions may impact later outcomes, and make decisions that are right for you.
2). Talk with your partner about your background and your future relationship. For example, if you have lived with other partners outside of marriage or if you are entering your second or third marriage, talk about how your experiences have impacted you and what positive lessons you have learned.
3). Consider seeking wise advice from others, perhaps through books, programs, workshops, or counseling. These can help you increase your odds of success in marriage.
4). If you and your partner have some characteristics as a couple that we described as being associated with lower marital quality (e.g., having had a child together before marriage) and you want to increase your chances of building and sustaining a strong relationship, consider talking through these issues together and attending a workshop or counseling. There is good evidence that couple therapy and relationship education programs work.