Discussing the future of one’s romantic relationship—including the possibility of marriage—can be an exciting, novel experience for couple members.1 But it can also be incredibly stressful.2 As a couple grows closer and their relationship becomes more serious, it’s entirely natural to discuss future plans. But are some discussions more helpful than others on the path to a (hopefully) happy and long-lasting relationship? And is there such a thing as planning too far ahead?
As part of a larger study on engagement and weddings (find more details here), we asked currently engaged and married individuals to reflect on how much they discussed a range of topics before they became engaged. Specifically, participants were asked how often they talked about:
- the possibility of getting married,
- the possibility of when or how a marriage proposal might take place,
- the type of ring (or token) that might be exchanged when a proposal did take place, and
- the details regarding the wedding they wanted,
Each question was responded to on a scale from “never” to “very often,” with options of “rarely,” “sometimes,” and “often” in between.
We wanted to determine whether discussing these future events prior to becoming engaged was associated with couples then being happier with each event when/after it occurred. Further, we wanted to explore whether discussing certain aspects of getting engaged and married before experiencing the commitment of actually becoming engaged might also be associated with the overall quality of their relationship. So, we also asked how satisfied individuals were with the proposals, their engagement ring(s), and their actual weddings (which had already occurred for married individuals and which were currently being planned for engaged individuals), as well as how satisfied they were in their relationships overall and how committed they were to their partners.
What did we find?
First, how often are couples having these discussions before becoming engaged? On average, both engaged and married individuals reported that they discussed the possibility of getting married “sometimes.”3 Additionally, engaged and married individuals reported discussing the specifics of getting engaged (i.e., the possibility of when or how a marriage proposal might take place with what type of engagement ring/token) “rarely” and the wedding they might want “rarely” to “sometimes.” Thus, these topics certainly come up (or are brought up) for couples who are dating, but not very often for most. However, there was a lot of variability in how much individuals reported discussing these topics with their partners—some had never discussed the possibility of marriage before becoming engaged, and some had discussed what type of engagement ring(s) they wanted to exchange very frequently prior to an engagement.
Second, were more frequent discussions about any of these topics associated with how happy individuals were with their engagement and wedding experiences and with how happy they currently were with their relationships? For engaged individuals, discussing the possibility of getting married more frequently before becoming engaged was associated with higher levels of current relationship satisfaction and commitment. However, the frequency with which couples discussed the proposal, ring, and wedding prior to getting engaged was not related to current relationship or commitment or to individuals’ satisfaction with the proposal, ring, or planned wedding.
For married individuals, discussing the possibility of getting married more frequently prior to becoming engaged was not related to current relationship satisfaction or commitment. But interestingly, more frequent discussions of the specifics of the engagement (i.e., proposal and engagement ring(s)) were associated with lower levels of current relationship satisfaction and commitment. And discussing the wedding before becoming engaged was also associated with lower levels of relationship commitment. Further, and similar to engaged individuals, discussing the ring(s) and wedding before becoming engaged was not associated with satisfaction with the ring(s) or wedding.
What does it all mean?
So, should you start talking the marriage with your partner or not? According to our results, discussing plans to marry may be an important step in moving a relationship forward and likely reflects something happy couples are naturally inclined to do. However, planning far ahead with frequent discussions about the specifics of getting engaged and having a wedding may not help the relationship or your chances of experiencing a more satisfying proposal, ring, or wedding.
Now, before you rush off to your partner for an exciting discussion about your future marriage, there is an important caveat to these results—individuals were reporting retrospectively about discussions that had in the past but also providing current levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment within the same survey. In other words, we cannot say that discussing these topics causes different relationship outcomes. It may be the case that individuals who are happier with their current relationship simply remember discussing marriage more prior to becoming engaged but do not recall discussing the details of a proposal, ring, or wedding as clearly. On the flip side, individuals who are less happy in their current relationships may remember discussing those details frequently (perhaps because those discussions were less welcomed or did not go smoothly at the time).
Although the current study’s results do not provide insight into why discussions of marriage may be more beneficial than discussions of the proposal, ring, and wedding, we suspect that the former may be more positive for relationships for a number of reasons. For example, it could be that focusing on the future of the relationship rather than future events (the proposal, the wedding) and possessions (the engagement ring(s)) builds a foundation of putting the health of the relationship first (i.e., is it about getting married or about having a wedding?) It may also be that talking more about future details of an engagement and wedding before the commitment of an engagement has occurred might accelerate a relationship too quickly, before one or both couple members are ready to move forward toward marriage.
More research is needed to fully understand the implications of pre-engagement marital discussions. But for now, you might want to carefully consider sharing your Pinterest ‘Wedding Board’ with your partner.
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1Loving, T. J., Gleason, M. E. J., & Pope, M. T. (2009). Transition novelty moderates daters’ cortisol responses when talking about marriage. Personal Relationships, 16, 187-203.
2Schoenfeld, E. A., & Loving, T. J. (2013). I do…do you? Dependence and biological sex moderate daters’ cortisol responses when accommodating a partner’s thoughts about marriage. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 88, 325-333.
Liz Keneski – Ph.D. Candidate – The University of Texas at Austin
Liz’s research centers around the intersection of romantic relationships, social networks, and health. Specifically, her research interests include social network support and romantic partner support processes, romantic relationship development and transition norms, and psychological and physiological resilience to relationship stress.
Taylor Anne Morgan – Ph.D. Candidate – The University of Texas at Austin
Taylor Anne’s research focuses on different stages of romantic relationships, with an emphasis on the associated cognitions at each transition point. Specifically, she is interested in how fluctuations in relationship evaluations over time affect relationship and individual outcomes.