Why do longtime partners split after getting married?

By on Apr 23rd
The adventure begins

Photo by Bohemian Noir Visions. Thanks to psych0faerie for submitting this to the Offbeat Bride Flickr pool!

One thing that is freaking me out at the moment is when I hear of friend and friends of friends, who marry after being together for 7-8 years, but end up divorced after the first year or so. This terrifies me, as I really want to get/stay happily married, but I wonder why this happens … when people are together for ages, get married and then split. What causes this? -Jan

It's absolutely not uncommon at all: longtime partners who are together for years decide to get married, and then almost immediately decide to get divorced. What's going on? Could this happen to you? Or me? Or any of us?

Obviously, there's no way for us to ever know exactly what makes individual couples split up. But when it comes to this trend, I've got a theory…

For better or for worse, each of us has expectations about what being married will mean to the relationship. For some people, that expectation might be, "Absolutely nothing will change, other than that we'll be wearing rings and will have had a big party." For other people, the expectation might be, "Everything will change. Our whole relationship will be on a different level, and how we interact with the world will be radically shifted!"

Neither of these assumptions is in any way wrong. The problem, however, is when the two people getting married don't talk about their expectations. One partner goes in thinking, say, "This is going to be awesome: once we're married, the sex is going to get way kinkier because the trust is going to be so much stronger between us!" The other partner goes in thinking, "This is awesome: I'm never going to have to travel alone again. We'll go places together!"

The issues arise when they don't talk these things over, and then go home after the wedding and the one partner is thinking, "Wow, the honeymoon was dull. Where's my kinky sex?" And the other partner is thinking, "Wait, did they just say they don't want to go to San Francisco with me next weekend? I thought we were doing everything together now!"

…See the problem?

Obviously, if it were all this simple, the solution would be easy: talk to your partner about your expectations for marriage! And that's a great first step.

But duh: half the time, a lot of us aren't even conscious of what our expectations are. This is hard stuff to quantify and articulate. "Um, when we're married, I want you to stick up for me when your friends make fun of what a geek I am…not like, all the time, but at least most of the time. And I don't want to be the only one to take out the garbage. And I want you to plan at least one special night for us a week. Well, ok, maybe one a month?" It's hard to put your finger on what marriage means to you.

Chances are decent that your own values about marriage are either a reflection of OR reaction against what you grew up with.

Not to get all Freudian on you, but this is where talking about your parents' marriages/relationships can come in handy. After all, these are the relationships that you grew up around, and chances are decent that your own values about marriage are either a reflection of OR reaction against what you grew up with. Talking about other people's marriages can help you better get your brain around your own values.

Is being married all about spending all your time together? Is it about supporting each other in your separate endeavors without insecurity? Is it about more kinky sex or more gentle couch snuggles after work? Is it about building a home together or is it about traveling the world together? Is it about feeling so confident in your commitment that you feel ok about going to grad school on opposite coasts?

In marriage as in wedding planning, you can't doze off at the wheel, or you wake up and realize you're living someone else's life.

For offbeat het couples, I think the most common troublesome expectations are issues of "normative" roles. These could be assumptions about gender roles ("Now she'll cook, and I'll work overtime!") or home/family planning ("Now we'll get a little house and he'll get me pregnant!"). All too often, these aren't even expectations we're aware of … wildly progressive het couples fall into the long-established husband/wife roles without even realizing what they're doing. In marriage as in wedding planning, you can't doze off at the wheel, or you may wake up and realize you're living someone else's life.

I have no idea what marriage means to you and your partner, but when I see couples who've spent years living happily together as partners suddenly fall apart as spouses, I usually figure they had very different expectations about what marriage would mean to their relationship. And either they didn't talk about it, or they couldn't articulate what the differences were.

Moral of the story? Talk lots. If you discover lots of differences, consider pre-marital counseling. Do your best to understand both your own values and your partner's values.

Ideally, they'll just magically overlap.

Realistically? HA! There are compromises to be made.