Happy Friday! Here is another guest blog post for our February Relationship Series. This week features Caitlin Kline, LCSW, exploring the decision of whether or not to get married.
To Have and to Hold or to Hold Out
A therapist’s take on moving a long-term relationship into marriage
By Caitlin Kline, MSW, LCSW
I'll start off by saying that the people who asked me to participate in this blog probably do not know that I am one of the most single people in the Greater Raleigh area! Thus, writing a piece on long-term relationships is ironic. In my personal experiences with friend and family relationships, as well as my therapeutic relationships, I have picked up a thing or two, so I'm not entirely shooting in the dark.
The first thing to figure out is what is marriage, and what separates it from a long-term committed relationship? I believe that answer would depend on the time period that you ask, location, culture, and other variables.
I recently read a book by Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance (which I highly recommend, by the way) which touched on this subject. According to this great scholar/comedian, Aziz (and his research companions) found that in the Great Depression era, people’s focus in looking for a spouse was more based on logistics and less on a soulmate kind of love. It was more a question of “Would this person be a good provider?”, “Would this person be a decent companion?”, and “Do they come from a good family?” Today, not only do we ask the same questions as they did before the time of Social Security, but also, “Do we click or have chemistry?”, “Do they make me want to be the best version of myself?”, and “Do I feel those butterflies in my stomach?”
In some cultures, arranged marriage is still considered the social norm. Long-term relationships prior to marriage do not exist! The arrangement is made between the families and people may or may not meet prior to their wedding day.
Another way to determine what differentiates a long-term relationship from marriage is to figure out, what would change? I’ve often heard people who have lived together with their partner say that they have decided not to get married, because they say, “I don’t want to rock the boat, because things are going well” or “What’s the point? Nothing would change.” According to sitcoms, a lot changes! Women turn into a ball and chain, sex becomes mundane and infrequent, and people get fat. Fortunately, sitcoms aren’t reality.
To many, the commitment made before friends and family, one’s version of God, and signed, sealed, delivered to the presiding government is the difference. This legal and religious tie to another person makes the commitment more legitimate to some, but not all. To some, the ritual of the white dress, teary-eyed father-of-the-bride, and Aunt Susie dancing the Cha Cha Slide after too much white wine is a matter of importance.
But people at the average age of marriage may not consider later-life issues. If your loved one has medical issues, marriage allows you to have more decision-making power. Marriage also allows a spouse to manage financial needs when their partner is not capable, for one reason or another. Also, spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other in a court of law.
So, essentially, to the original question of what separates marriage from a long-term committed relationship, for the reasons mentioned above, I’ll answer like a true therapist--it depends!
Onto the next inquiry, how to decide whether your relationship is ready to taste twelve varieties of coconut cake and learn the beauty of Mail Merge (it’s a real thing, and it’s fabulous)! To a person who has not had the “he’s the one” or “when you know, you just know” experience that I keep hearing wonderful things about, this may be more difficult to determine. It would seem that there are several ways to navigate this.
After having numerous patients with suffering marriages, it’s scary to think that you never know what challenges your relationship may face several years down the road. For example, Romeo and Juliet have a passionate love affair and are crazy about each other, meet each other’s families, hit it off, move in together, get engaged, and have the big wedding. Three years later they could be faced with infertility, a child with special needs, or a parent with Alzheimer’s. When we are deciding on a life partner, we never know what challenges will be around the corner. So, how do we know that our potential life partner will be supportive and a dependable teammate through these future obstacles? We don’t know for sure and I’m personally not in possession of psychic powers. We must therefore base this decision on our shared values and faith in our love for one another.
Having shared values, it would seem, has great impact on determining long-term compatibility potential. History shows that having different favorite music styles, preferring chocolate or vanilla ice cream, and varying ideas on how to properly load a dishwasher can be overcome and still result in a healthy marriage. If partners disagree on appropriate ways to budget, discipline children, and interact with their in-laws, that has potential for some larger challenges.
Before making the decision about whether this relationship could last the test of time, it would seem important to evaluate each person’s expectations and values to determine if you are compatible. So, the big issues to avoid on a first date would seem necessary to de-construct before walking down the aisle: child-rearing, each partner’s role, religion, money, and so on.
Many religious communities require that this discussion happen before they will perform the ceremony in their place of worship. This is probably a good place to plug pre-martial counseling with a licensed mental health professional! A person in the clergy or a trusted couple with a healthy and happy marriage may also be a source of help. In talking with patients, it amazes me how many discussions were not had about these big issues prior to marriage.
In conclusion, deciding who you will marry is arguably the biggest decision of a person’s life. It is a decision that requires you to have both an internal process and discussion with your potential partner regarding three big umbrella questions: What would change between us? Do we have faith that this person will remain our supporter and teammate when faced with obstacles? Do we share in the same core values and expectations?
Caitlin Kline, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical therapist at Ellison & Associates of Raleigh. Caitlin has experience working with children, adolescents, adults, and couples in managing their mental health and overcoming life’s obstacles. Caitlin works alongside Dr. Maxlyn L. Ellison, psychiatrist, to provide a comprehensive mental healthcare team. You can find Ellison & Associates of Raleigh at www.eapsych.com.