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. Huzzah to Ariel for giving us eye candy AND thoughtful articles!

    Well said. I would add another book recommendation–I actually picked it up because I’m in an interracial relationship and knew that making assumptions about people’s communication styles from different backgrounds would just be disastrous.

    It’s “Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic, and Interfaith Relationships” by Joel Crohn. But I would recommend it to anyone, simply to recognize that what people say, what they mean, and how you hear it are often 3 different things.

  2. SM said: 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.

    Wow, that’s certainly not something I would ever want to imply! Andreas and I were together for 6+ years before we got married, and I’m absolutely glad we waited.

    I don’t think anyone was implying that there’s anything wrong with waiting — just offering theories on why some folks who wait a long time sometimes might then bafflingly break up after the wedding.

  3. Funny how this jives with the advice I give at every wedding/shower/etc:

    Everything Changes, But Everything Remains the Same. Never Take Each Other For Granted.

    I should add, “never make promises for later that you wouldn’t keep now.”

    • “Everything’s different
      Nothing’s changed
      Only maybe slightly rearranged” – Stephen Sondheim, Company, which is all about marriage 🙂

  4. Funny I was just thinking about this last night.

    I knew a couple who were together for 13 years and got divorced after 14 months. Their story pretty much terrified me and I still think about them from time to time.

    I think it comes down to more than just communication. I think a big part of it is that both members of the couple have to place the same value on marriage. I know it sounds like the same thing, but in my mind it’s different.

    Part of the reason I feel comfortable marrying my finance, even though I wouldn’t have married my old boyfriend of 6 years, is because I know that he believes so strongly in the commitment of marriage that he will fight tooth and nail to keep us together. I loved my ex very much, but to him marriage would not have strenghtened his idea of commitment. It would have been just an excuse to throw a party and hope for the best.

  5. Ariel – I totally get what youre trying to convey. One of the reasons I like your website is how diverse and wonderful the couples are.I am sensitive about this topic as both myself and several other friends of mine were put down by people who thought it “odd” that we didnt get married after 5 yrs of being together.

    I thought this was an interesting topic as I really dont know many people who have gone through this. I hear more of the been together for 6 yrs, broke up and immediately found the love of their life.

  6. Ariel you should totally start writing “Offbeat Wife” if you haven’t already! Please! Always a pleasure to read your sane and well-worded advice 🙂

  7. “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.”

    Well, if you ever want to have a family, there IS such a thing as waiting too long before you get a commitment. Unfortunately we get 10 fewer years than the guys do to get our shit together before we have kids.

    • Although evidence is coming out that this is less and less true, although women have a harder end date of fertility. Advanced paternal age is more correlated with birth defects and health problems than advanced maternal age. Advanced paternal/maternal age is clinically defined as 35. That’s not to say that one can’t have health children after that age (heck, my mom was 36 and 38 when she had me and my sister, my dad was in his 40s) but that both men and women’s fertility and gamete quality declines with age.

  8. Sure, Karen. But getting married and family planning are not always the same thing. There are plenty of committed couples who have kids before (or without ever) getting married. Just as there are plenty of married couples who are child-free and don’t want to have children at all. I think it’s risky to start lumping marriage and family planning into the same time-constrained bucket.

  9. On 95 in Philadelphia, there are billboards for Robbin’s Diamonds. It’s a picture of a woman, sticking up her ring finger, with the caption “She’s tired of waiting.” They’re funny, in all honesty, but I think it’s pretty telling of the general view towards marriage and dating. Marriage is seen by some as the ultimate, the goal-not the adventure. And for couples who have been dating a while, there might be a bit of sh*t or get off the pot, if you will. The timing is different for everyone, whether you’ve been dating 8 months or 8 years.

    Communication is so, so, so key. It has saved us countless fights and is probably the reason we’re still together, let alone getting married.

  10. Me and the husband: longtime friends, long time dating, long time engaged, married, children of divorced parents.

    I absolutely have to agree that expectations are a huge part of the way a relationship changes after marriage. And a big part of that, I suspect, is that so many people think once you’re married you’re ‘done.’ Like somehow you no longer need to work at the relationship because you’re married (despite everyone knowing how common divorce is) when the truth is marriage isn’t functionally any different than dating except you fed a lot of people and bought some rings. As part of our weddinged reception (long story) we are promising not to ‘be together’ forever, but to work at loving each other forever. Sort of a different expectation, imo!

    If you go and assume that marriage is an automatic assurance of happiness and togetherness, you’re bound for double whammy; you expect that your needs and wants will continue to be met by your partner and they aren’t, and you resent the idea that you have to do things to work on the relationship now that you’re married. I’ve talked to both of my parents about it and feel quite certain that this is what happened to them.

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