The classic fairy tale ending goes something like: prince rescues princess; they get married; they live happily ever after.
Through fairy tales and Disney films, marriage is a romanticised goal which leads to ‘happily ever after’. Yet cohabitation is increasing along with non-religion, and as a result significantly more young adults today are delaying marriage altogether. Contrary to the fairy tale ending, it seems that marriage isn’t the necessary step to live happily ever after. So why do couples still get married, and what are the downsides?
Most of us have experienced the change when we switch from saying ‘someone I’m seeing‘, to ‘my girlfriend/ boyfriend‘. This relabelling upgrades our partner’s social affiliation to us and provides social proof and verbal acknowledgement of the relationship. After some time, couples may no longer feel satisfied with these labels and are ready to upgrade again. The next step is the status of ‘husband’ or ‘wife’; terms which place more longevity through implying a deeper commitment, which in turn improves well-being and success in working through relationship issues. These benefits are all through publicly committing to the seriousness of the relationship.
Commitment is also evident in the ritual of marriage itself through the wedding vows. They normally involve a variation of:
I, ____, take you, ____, to be my (husband/wife). I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.
Whilst vows are another example of a verbal commitment, they are also focused on long-term outcomes; unconditional love, fidelity, loyalty and tenacity. This public declaration, a ring and certificate is meant to define a relationship through promising future love. However with the future being so unpredictable, these are impossible-to-keep commitments, resulting in unmet expectations for the marriage and partner which can ruin the relationship. Therefore commitment through vows may not be as binding as we think. One
way to overcome this could be to focus on committing to the processes to achieve the goals of the
vows, instead of the outcomes themselves.
There’s a multitude of financial benefits which come with marriage. From social security to reduced income tax, sharing assets through matrimony can reap great financial rewards. In addition, marriage provides a partner who is legally responsible for you and can therefore make legal decisions on your behalf, including medical decisions. This is one of the default protections of marriage, which is absent from cohabiting couples who have no legal rights when it comes to making decisions, be it legal, financial or medical ones.
These are clear post-wedding benefits, but what about before? Weddings are usually hugely costly, with the average wedding costing north of £27k in the UK and over $33k in America! To make matters worse, research has recently shown an inverse relationship between wedding cost and length of marriage; the more money injected into a wedding equals a higher chance of divorce. Along with financial cost, wedding planning takes time and is recognised as one of the top 10 most stressful life events. Are these costs worth it to make you legally connected to someone you’re already emotionally connected with?
Effects on well-being
General consensus is that we underestimate the happiness of married couples. Shaunti Feldhahn asked people:
“What percentage of couples do you think are happy in their marriage today?”
Respondents never gave an answer above 50%. The actual answer is in fact around 80%. Adding to this, Feldhahn reports that happiness and well-being levels are so strong in marriages that 92-95% of currently married couples would marry the same person again.
Beyond happiness, marriage has been found to
have a significant impact on our physiological
health and well-being. Marriage is linked to a decreased chance of
lowered stress levels than non-married or previously married couples,
and increased life expectancy.
The main question here is how strong is the correlation between marriage and well-being? Unfortunately for marriage, not very. It’s reported that unmarried couples have higher self-esteem and happiness levels, which are largely predicted by the partner being considered a ‘best friend’. Perceiving your partner as your best friend was found to be the strongest indicator on levels of happiness, regardless if you were married or not.
Unsuccessful marriage ends in divorce, which is the second most stressful live event, and can significantly worsen your well-being. What’s worrying is that divorce is on the increase, and probability suggests this shouldn’t be ruled out as an outcome. Esther Perel makes a great analogy for this, saying you wouldn’t buy an iPhone knowing it will fail in a few years so why would you marry? Along with the stress and emotional costs, divorce is financially draining. This financial burden often refuels feelings of stress, and this cycle can stretch a considerably long amount of time.
To marry or knot?
Marrying for the right reasons is vital. We shouldn’t marry to appease society’s expectations of relationship progression, or just to satisfy our partner’s wants. Pressure from people in our network marrying is not a reason, nor is marrying for specific positive rewards like the financial benefits. Marriage is an intimate decision, unique to each couple and is something which both people should independently want to dependently share. It is when marriage happens for the right reasons that it has a higher chance of survival, and a chance for the couple to have a 21st century ‘happily ever after’.
– and if you’re still unsure then try asking yourself these 18 premarital questions…