Why do longtime partners split after getting married?

April 23 2009 | arielmstallings
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.

  1. I recently had to delay my wedding for another year due to financial considerations (well, as in we are doing most everything ourselves for financial reasons, and we've realize that we just won't have time to do the things we want to do in a few months, vs a year and a half). The thing I really liked about this article is that it reminded me of the value to having a long engagement. I used to feel like long engagements were silly (I was really judgemental in my youth, alas), because if you know you want to get married, why the hell would you need to wait, blah blah, you're only taking that much time because you're trying to plan some over-the-top pretentious wedding, blah blah…you get the idea. I know, I was a bit of an ass!
    But the thing no one tells you about the upside to a long engagement is that it gives you time to purposefully prepare for MARRIAGE. Obviously, (well, hopefully!) when you get engaged, that means that you both feel ready for and excited about marriage and til death and all that. But in my experience, it becomes very different once you're engaged, because you're no longer thinking theoretically about the kind of marriage you would want, and if you would want to marry this person, etc, because you're already barreling towards making that a reality! So amen to the "talk lots" and making sure your desires and expectations for marriage can coexist in the SAME marriage.

  2. I think the issue for many couples is that before they get engaged, they're just dating so there's no motivation to have these discussions and reflect on their relationship and expectations. The longer that goes on, it just becomes the status quo or a habit, which is then difficult to dig out of.
    However, couples who reflect on their relationship and expectations together early in dating are far more likely to last.

  3. Hi

    Thanks for th excellent read. There's something that I don't understand though. Wouldn't a couple who have been together for two years only, also have differing expectations about what marriage is about? And therefore be equally susceptible to their marriage failing in the same way that a recently married couple that dated for way more than only two years does?

    If that's true then I still don't understand why so many people who dated for ten get so quickly divorced after marriage.

  4. My husband and I got married in April 2015, and the year and a half before the wedding was without question the worst time in our 7 year relationship. We went through a crazy time where I was dealing with health issues that totally consumed me + we had a change in our financial situation + we were dealing with tons of the usual family drama associated with wedding planning. We almost sought counseling but ultimately decided not to. This might sound bad in light of all the talk about the benefits of communication, but we didn't feel like we were in an emotional place where we could get into that really deep stuff together with a professional and grow from it.
    In comparison, the year after the wedding has been a breeze. In some ways I think it is good that we went through a rough time before getting married. It really calmed some of my commitment fears because I feel like we entered marriage better prepared for future challenges.
    My close friend on the other hand had a great year before marriage and a horrible first year of marriage, the total opposite of my experience and also very situational, and I know she considered divorce just a few months after getting married. Luckily things are going a little better for them now. Every relationship is so different and maybe when a crappy year happens to be the first year of marriage, it is harder to fight through it.

  5. As a couples counselor and sex therapist I see mainly two roots to this problem. A) the above mentioned lack of talk about core values and B) the expectations we are told to have by society.
    Expecting our partner to be our lover, best friend, best person, best lay, best kisser and life to be forever perfect is absolutely ridiculous. It can only cause pain and stress. Just because you signed a paper and wear rings, doesn't mean you will be magically transformed!
    I actually propose counselling before the wedding. Let someone help you figure out the rules, the dos and don'ts for you relationship. Lay down your goals as a couple and as individuals. Make a five year plan together.
    This will help you feel safer and better to talk before than to pick up the pieces after.
    P.s. "Forever" is a pretty long time to fake orgasms, if 5 Minutes of explaining can do the trick.

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