(reposted from drloving.net)
I’ve been in a relationship for over 5 years. We are both still young and plan to get married eventually in the future. I was wondering if there are any down sides in having long-term relationships. I feel very secure and confident in our relationship, but just as I’ve heard that short relationships (or courtships) can be a bad thing, I’m wondering if it works the same for long lasting relationships? — V.N.
I am presuming that when you ask about downsides of long-term relationships you are referring to whether or not the length of a premarital relationship (what researchers and your grandparents refer to as “courtship”) affects marital outcomes if and when the couple marries. You have heard correctly. Short, or accelerated, courtships are a risk factor for poor marital outcomes, including divorce (i.e., “the quicker they rise, the harder they fall”).1 The reasons for this association are fairly obvious: it is very hard for two individuals to truly get to know each other and gauge long-term compatibility in a short amount of time, and very often individuals base their relationships on feelings of passion that are highly variable (see “Am I in love?”). This isn’t to say that all accelerated courtships are doomed – and there are a lot of other factors that influence marital outcomes – but in many cases getting married after a short courtship is akin to walking on quicksand.
As for extended courtships, most of the research out there suggests that longer courtships enhance marital satisfaction and other outcomes2, although there is some evidence that long courtships characterized by a lot of conflict and ambivalence should raise some red flags.3 I think we can borrow some findings from the cohabitation literature to provide some insight into your question. Couples who cohabit prior to marriage because they want to ‘try things out’ often adopt this approach because they already see some potential problems with long-term compatibility.4 It should come as no surprise then that these types of relationships are less than stable if they transition into a marital relationship (in fact, it’s very likely that this ‘group’ of cohabiters contributes a large degree to the finding that premarital cohabitation is bad for marriage). But, couples who cohabit prior to marriage for practical reasons and plan to someday marry all along fare better (and in some respects may fare better than those that didn’t cohabit), especially because these couples have had practice confronting and working through life and relationship stressors.5 For example, they’ve most likely experienced conflict and had an opportunity to see how they treat each other in such situations.6
In many ways, it sounds like your situation is fairly similar – you and your partner plan to marry, but you both realize this isn’t the best time for that step; you’re not putting it off because you’re worried about whether your relationship will last (at least I think that’s what you’re saying). Rather, you’re waiting because you’re both young and there’s a lot of life ahead of you. Your approach is probably a good one if this does indeed describe your relationship. In fact, one of the biggest risk factors for poor marital outcomes is getting married young. Why? Part of the reason is that these folks tend to have short courtships, but it’s also the case that individuals’ identities or self-concepts tend to shift throughout adolescence and emerging adulthood. It’s very hard to know who is a good fit for you when who ‘you’ are is still shaking out. In other words, if the courtship is long because one or more partners is concerned about the long-term stability of the relationship, then long courtships = not so good. But, if the courtship is long because both partners want to wait to marry for practical and well thought out reasons, then long courtship = probably good.
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1Kurdek, L. A. (1993). Predicting marital dissolution: A 5-year prospective longitudinal study of newlywed couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 221-242.
2Grover, K. J., Russell, C. S., Schumm, W. R., & Paff-Bergen, L. A. (1985). Mate selection processes and marital satisfaction. Family Relations, 34, 383-386.
3Huston, T. L. (1994). Courtship antecedents of marital satisfaction and love Theoretical frameworks for personal relationships. (pp. 43-65). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
4Brown, S. L., & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: A comparison of relationship quality. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 58(3), 668-678.
5Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(4), 906-918.
6Raschke, H. J. (1987). Divorce. In M. B. Sussman & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family. (pp. 597-624). New York: Plenum Press.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.