Why do longtime partners split after getting married?

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The adventure begins
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.

Comments on Why do longtime partners split after getting married?

  1. umm… you’re a genius.. and i think you’ve helped me with my expectations with FH… thanks! i think we need to talk… i think we’re in the same chapter..just not the same page LOL

  2. Sigh… if there was a lot more sensible advice like this and a lot less Oprah I think we’d all be much better off.

    You should totally write a book 😉

  3. Wow…

    Speaking from a divorced perspective, if I had really talked to my partner before hand, I would have NEVER married him. But, if I hadn’t married him I wouldn’t have my son.

    But, your advice is major and majorly simple. Thank you. It has given me some clarity and some closure. And if I ever (I hope!) walk down the aisle again, I’ll be doing alot more talking!

  4. Wow, great post! Personally, the year immediately following my wedding has been pretty smooth-sailing, but I can recall how difficult the time between proposal and wedding was. Even though we had been dating for 4 years and living together for 2, you’re right that a lot of the important couple conversations often get put off.

  5. I think you also have to look at why partners decide to change their status after a long time in equilibrium. I suspect that there may already be trouble in paradise a lot of times, and people hope that getting married will “fix” that. Changing long-established patterns is difficult and disruptive, even if it just seems like a big party with a trip afterwards.

    • This is probably true. I have a friend who was with her ex for 4 years and was getting pressured by her parents to finally get married. The marriage lasted just around 2 years and part of that was because he joined the military and I guess they had to stay married while he was in A school (part of it was that she wanted GI money to go to school too).

    • Yes, totally this. My ex and I were together for almost four years before we got married. I’d gotten pregnant when we were talking about getting engaged, because I was emotionally pushy (and also 21) and unwilling to admit that maybe we weren’t compatible. When we’d been engaged for a year with no planning, I suddenly came home one day and said, “Nothing in our life is changing. We’re getting married in 8 weeks.”

      Jesus, what a bad idea, in retrospect.

      By the time we divorced, after three years of marriage, it was apparent that we just didn’t want to same life at all and didn’t have compatible emotional vibes. (Like, at all.) It basically took us an explosion in our marriage to wake up and realize it was time to call it.

      Teal deer: As friends and co-parents, we’re solid. But by the time we got married, our relationship was already on the outs, and we can both tell in hindsight that my pregnancy kept us together.

  6. I think there are a lot of great points raised here but I just wanted to add that I think a lot of the time, the relationship was troubled to begin with. If things aren’t going great, some people think being married will make things better. A band-aid wedding like a band-aid baby. Then after a few months they realise that the relationship is fundamentally the same and they spllit up.

  7. I’ve seen it happen once or twice among friends and friends-of-friends, and what tends to happen in those cases is that one partner (generally, though not always, the female half of a straight couple) has been having the whole relationship *to* the wedding. She’s had “getting married” in her head for five or eight years (in the case of my friends, often since she was 18 or 19) and then suddenly, having followed through, realizes that nothing is “fixed,” nothing is “different,” and suddenly she has nothing to plan to.

    • I almost did this. I dated my first boyfriend from age 18 on for five years. We always planned to get married, were practically engaged, etc. We never got as far as a ring or wedding planning, but eventually I caught myself and realized I was living to the wedding and that I needed to jump ship way befor the follow through or I’d be stuck unhappy and stifled forever. and by forever, I mean until I had the sense to get divorced.

  8. I am one of those geeky brides who reads lots of things. Books about marriage, books about getting married, books about being married, books about the problems with being married, etc. One of the most important books I read was The First Year of Marriage By Miriam Arond, Samuel L. Pauker. I swear to god this has helped me more than anything. I have recommended it to friends and family who have just gotten or are getting married.

    It addresses this problem. It says much of what you do. But it also points out one good thing (for those of you who don’t want to read a book to figure this out) Marriage is hard! And it takes work and communication and mutal respect and love. And it’s still hard. It’s always going to be hard. Unless you marry a robot you can program to always say the right things.

    • Amy, I’m so happy that our book was helpful to you. We interviewed and surveyed hundreds of couples to break through the code of secrecy about the first year of marriage to help people assess their own experience with greater clarity and perspective. It’s always rewarding to hear when our book makes a difference in people’s lives!

  9. So this was me in my first marriage, in that we’d been together 8 years prior and we split up before even a year had passed. I don’t think our case was to do with expectations, but rather myself changing my own viewpoints about things after the wedding. If we’d actively sat down before the wedding I think we’d have been on the same page, but then I changed page after!

    But I definitely agree that this might be the case for a lot of people and talking a lot prior to the wedding is important and something I’ve done a lot this time. I also think you need to stay on the ball in terms of tending to/looking after your relationship during the engagement period. It’s easy to keep yourself occupied with all the planning that goes on, I was wrapped up in it last time and I’m not sure but maybe if I’d stopped and examined our relationship in that period, maybe the changes in me had already started to happen. Keep focussed on your relationship with each other before, so there is no crash back down to earth once all the celebrations/planning is over.

  10. My FH and I did a prewedding skills based class one on one for six sessions with a therapist. It was called the Prepare Enrich program I think. We took a little test first, separately, to see where we agree and disagree about various things and the therapist then compares it and finds the areas of your relationship where possible issues could occur if you are not aware of your differences (such as how you deal with mony or raising children etc). It was useful for us to learn about expectations and gave us exercises for practicing better communication before a problem arises. I think there are other program like this and many churches also offer premairrage counseling to help you prepare for marriage even if you have already been cohabitating for 5 years as my FH and I have. I highly recommend some form of preparation even if it is just buying a premairrage workbook and going through it together.

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