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. I think really sitting down and talking about your future and expectations is a wonderful idea for all couples. I found a list of things to discuss, before you get married, on the internet. Many of the topics I hadnt thought of before but I can now see are very relevant.
    My fiance and I are going to order in this weekend, crack open a bottle of wine and make a night out of talking about all the topics on this list.

  2. Half of all marriages end in divorce, anyway. It’s a crapshoot no matter how you slice it.

    • I understand people who found this comment overly flip, or the use of the statistic careless. But at the same time, as a child of parents who divorced after 23 years (so many of which seemed the model of joyful love), the “crapshoot” theory seems like a fair approximation of the idea that there are a lot of things in life in the world that we just cannot anticipate. Ultimately there’s no way to know yourself, someone else, how you will grow and change over time, or the circumstances you will face together well enough to be sure that forever is something that can really happen for you.

      Sure, we can go through all manner of checklists and conversations and counseling, and all the better on us if it makes our relationships better! But for me I can’t help thinking that we should be doing it not as a hedge against divorce but to invest in the relationship we’re in now — albeit, surely, the one we dearly want to be in for life. As with anything, we can do our very best and hope.

  3. Well sure, Jezebel/Dodai — but that’s not really the point. Common sense suggests that if you’re partnered for years and years before getting married, you’ve maybe got a few things figured out with your relationship … and perhaps your marriage won’t end in divorce within, oh, the first year.

    • Thats what Im banking on. Been together for 8.5 years and getting married in a month. I sure hope we make it.

  4. Jezebel – that’s a misuse of statistics. Just because “half of all marriages end in divorce” (which, strictly speaking, isn’t true – but that’s a whole other ball of wax) doesn’t mean that each individual marriage is a “crapshoot”.

    People who take time to thoroughly discuss things before getting married and while married do NOT have a 50% chance of getting divorced. People who don’t discuss anything have a much higher than 50% chance of getting divorced. It won’t solve everything and there are other reasons people get divorced (see Rosalie’s comment above), but it goes a long way toward reducing the likelihood.

  5. My fiance and I got engaged and are getting married *because* we talk about things all the time. We both have goals that align (but aren’t exactly the same – that would be kind of creepy), want the same things for ourselves and see our futures as a wonderful adventure that we’re lucky enough to be able to explore with the person that we love.

    I agree, communication has got to be at the forefront of a relationship. If you can’t communicate, getting married won’t make it any easier. I’m watching a girl I know get married this year and (from the outside – I could be wrong) it appears to be a “band-aid” wedding. Any time that she talks about them fighting over stuff, something that always gets said is “After the wedding, it’ll be different”. Well – um – unless either she or he wakes up as a completely different person one day, no, it won’t. I really hope that they manage to figure out how to talk about their stuff and *communicate* with each other as to how they see their relationship.

    And yes, marriage *is* work. Relationships are work – friends, family, lovers – they all require an investment of time and effort that most people are willing to make because they care enough about the other party to keep plugging away. Even when someone makes you shake your head and think, “WTF??” if you love them, you make the effort to understand instead of just throwing up your hands and walking away. It *is* a two-way street, though … and respect and compassion have to be given as well as received.

    *whew* That got kind of preachy, didn’t it? Sorry – in a nutshell, communication is key!!

    • I think it’s really easy, and that many couples are used to hearing these days, about marriage/relationships being work. But in practice it’s harder to absorb that. I know that my relationship with my boyfriend has been a lot of work, and we’ve had some awful fights, but that it’s never not been worth it. It’s so easy to let doubt creep in and start thinking “gosh, why am I having to work so hard? if this was right, it would be easy.” I think younger generations today are so used to rampant individualism that we are almost afraid to sacrifice for another person, or have been taught that to do so compromises what is “more important,” i.e. our Selves. No wonder we have such a problem with divorce!

    • I totally agree with your statement that too many people think that finding *the one* will then mean that their relationship and subsequent marriage will be smooth sailing – then as soon as things get difficult they start doubting their partner/spouse rather than assessing the situation for what it is: a situation. The basis of any good relationship whether it be a marriage or a friendship or a long-term relationship is working as a team. My parents got a divorce after being together for 8 years + 10 years of marriage, and the best way my mother was able to describe it was that they were no longer a team. My boss, who is a wealth of great advise, has said the same – relationships, whether they have “marriage” stamped on them or not, is a lot of work, and it never stops being work.

      • It probably complicates things also that for some people, it isn’t actually a ton of work. My late husband and I fit together VERY well. I think it was just a quirk of luck to find someone so ridiculously compatible, but we didn’t really fight and I can’t think of any times of feeling like “why do I have to work so hard?” We were together 10+ years until he passed away suddenly, and through some pretty major issues. We were just weird.

        So I can see how if you know a couple who are genuinely like that, a normal relationship would potentially seem like something is wrong, especially with all the ‘soulmate’ ‘happily ever after’ stuff we get fed as kids. But it’s the couple that has no real issues that’s the outlier, not the people who have occasional road bumps.

        (I mean, not to say that we didn’t disagree, but we never disagreed on anything major and I can think of exactly one actual thing I would consider a fight that we had. Most of our disagreements were either arguing for fun and had an element of silliness, or we agreed way more than we disagreed on the topic at hand, so things never got that element of emotional tension that gets people wound up and upset.)

        It’s actually been an issue for me in recent years when I’ve started feeling ready to date again, because I have to remind myself that it isn’t fair or reasonable to expect to find someone else I fit with in the same way, and if I have a minor squabble or have to compromise with someone over something like attitude towards finances or ideal frequency of travel, it doesn’t mean we’re horribly suited for each other and should just move on to dating other people. (You know, like “omg, we don’t agree exactly on this precise thing, we’re DOOMED!” ridiculousness. My brain can be very melodramatic sometimes. 😀 )

  6. Being together a long time before you get married is not a bad thing. A bunch of posts here infer that there is something wrong if you wait so long. I have 2 other friends in long term relationships and the truth is that every couple is different and it can go either way, regardless of how long you have been with the person! No one I know waited a long time and it ended up being that there was something wrong that was thought to be fixed with a wedding. Some people just wait simply…..to wait.

    My partner and I were together for 10 years before we got married. For many many reasons we waited a long time to finally tie the knot- one of which being I wanted to finish all my education before we started our life together (which involved moving halfway across the world and wouldnt be fair to him to leave the job he loved). We also started dating when we were young and knew we should be a little more grown up before we made the commitment!

    My husband and I purposely had a very small wedding with only 17 people because when we finally decided to get married, we just couldnt wait!

    Ariel is absolutely right I think, in that communication is usually the thing that makes or breaks the relationship. The relationships I’ve seen fizzle have been those in which the couple were not willing to listen to each other’s ideas/beliefs/concerns. Like someone else mentioned, marriage is hard work, as with any important relationship in your life. The people that ignore this fact will end up in turmoil.

  7. really good advice. we’re doing marriage counseling with our pastor and he gave us this book to work through–and while most of it insults my female intelligence and strokes my gag reflex a little (thank you, focus on the family!), it has a really useful section called “great expectations” that prompted us each to describe what we expected out of our marriage in all sorts of areas (living arrangements, contact with extended families, travel and entertainment, finances, education, kids, everything) and then come together to share our ideas. identifying my hopes/expectations on my own was good because the focus was on what *i* expect and not on trying to reach an agreement right away, and discussing was good to see where we had similar/dissimilar/realistic/unrealistic expectations for our life together.

    so, i do think that understanding what you and your partner expect (as well as, cheesy as this sounds, how they perceive affection, a la “the love languages”) are two of the most important things in maintaining good communication in a relationship. but what do i know…i’m only 21. =)

  8. I just think it’s refreshing to see a site about weddings take a moment to focus on the marriage.

  9. This really corresponds to what family sociologists have noticed: Some couples who have been together a really long time feel social pressure to either get married or split up. They don’t want to split up, so they basically “fall into” marriage (even if they aren’t especially confident about the relationship’s long-term potential). So they basically just slip into marriage by default, which isn’t a recipe for success! I loves me some sociology!

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