Is marriage optional? Does it matter if I get married? Does it matter if fewer people choose to get married in general? Those who are coupling up and those who follow cultural trends are asking these crucial questions today.
And these questions span the globe. A few months before the pandemic shut everything down, I was in London presenting some of my research to a global family-development congress. And as representatives of many dozens of countries gathered, the questions above were urgently on their minds. Because this trend has been clear for decades: as countries “modernize” and develop, marriage becomes more and more optional. (Customize these charts to see trends around the world.)
And yet those broad academic studies don’t help the average couple who is wondering if marriage really matters for them. So here’s one truth that will help: It turns out, you will likely have a much better and happier relationship if you get married than if you cohabit.
This fascinating study from the U.K.’s Marriage Foundation found that married couples have a stronger commitmentto the relationship and to each other, greater happiness within the relationship and with each other, and greater ability to weather the storms and come out thriving on the other side.
Let’s look at how this works—and why.
Marriage gives couples power to make it through the tough times
Today, it is understandable that a couple might wonder if a relationship can withstand the demands of a permanent commitment. But it turns out: the permanent commitment itself helps make it possible for couples to withstand the challenges of life, and create a healthy, happy relationship.
In the new UK study, researchers surveyed married adults. They asked what the couples thought would have happened if they had been together but unmarried instead of married. Fully 30% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t still be together today! In other words, the fact of the marriage commitment itself gave the couple the oomph to get through the tough times.
And, thankfully, as other research has discovered, sticking with that commitment doesn’t usually mean putting up with a miserable marriage for the rest of your life: Instead, it usually leads to an even better marriage in the end! In a landmark 2002 study, among the most unhappily married couples who nevertheless stuck it out, almost eight in ten were happily married five years later.
Now, clearly, there are tragic exceptions, and cases where (for example) a spouse must separate in order to protect themselves or their children from abuse. If you are in one of those situations, I would urge you to get help immediately. But in most difficult marriages, the issue isn’t abuse but a lack of hope. And that is where a permanent commitment makes such a difference. When a couple knows they have no choice other than to figure it out, they usually do!
As one woman told me, “Knowing marriage is forever doesn’t mean you won’t have arguments. But it means you have a much better chance of navigating through those arguments and coming out on top. When you put God at the head of your marriage and know that He says marriage is forever, the only option is ‘Let’s work through it.’”
Being “all-in” in the relationship is the secret sauce for thriving
In a previous article, I shared the importance and value of being “all-in” with your spouse. This new study affirms that. The results show that “a significant proportion of couples attribute their success to the fact they got married rather than remained unmarried.”
Here’s one reason why: Being fully committed—going “all-in”—means not being self-protective, but rather being open and vulnerable with your spouse. It means not having a Plan B in your back pocket “just in case.” It means trusting your spouse . . . and being worthy of their trust. It means not holding back, but giving all of who you are, and accepting your spouse for who they are, foibles and all. All of those things nurture a relationship. Where the opposite—holding back just a bit in order to protect yourself, having that secret bank account “just in case,” and so on—creates an ever-so-slight lack of trust that gradually and increasingly undermines the relationship instead.
By contrast, going “all-in” doesn’t just help a marriage last, it creates an environment where couples can thrive! When I surveyed couples for my book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, I found that this attitude of holding nothing back was a strong contributor to the happiness of their relationship. So the reality is, the commitment that society considers a sacrifice of independence and freedom actually leads to greater relationship satisfaction.
The commitment of marriage provides the ingredients of success
The UK researchers discovered several factors that are crucial for successful relationships: a deliberate decision, a clear plan that removes ambiguity, and social affirmation and accountability that motivates the couple. These ingredients are optional among cohabiting couples but are present by definition in the act of marriage. They are even present in the wedding ceremony! The words “I do” reflect a clearcut decision, the wedding vows provide the plan going forward for each spouse’s attitude toward (and conduct within) the relationship—and what more social affirmation and accountability support can there be than a crowd of witnesses to the day?
Then, when the big day has come and gone, living out that marriage commitment day by day—putting those vows to work through the highs and lows of life—requires all of those key elements. In other words, the amazing thing is that marriage itself provides the very elements it needs to survive . . . and thrive!
In an era when more and more people are asking “does marriage matter?” the data uncovered in this new study is a powerful example of why it matters . . . and matters a lot. Marriage gives a relationship both roots and wings. The roots of a lifetime commitment, and the wings of freedom that come from knowing you are truly loved—not just in the good times or when things are easy, but for life.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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