When is the right time to get married? My boyfriend and I are currently in college and have been dating for 3 years. He talks about getting married and starting a life, but when is it too soon? Don’t get me wrong, I love him and it’s not that I don’t want to be with him, but our career paths couldn’t be more different, and in order for us to be together we would have to move, meaning one of us would have to give up everything (most likely me). He wants to become a physicist and has to attend many more years of schooling, while I’m going to graduate with a B.A in AD/PR. Either we get married and he’ll be in school studying, or we wait until he gets his Ph.D. and is settled down.
Making a big life decision like this is not easy, and I am happy to see that you are looking at this practically rather than just romantically. When trying to decide when the “right” time is to get married, it might be useful to first consider what risk factors there are for divorce. Researchers have identified a number of socio-demographic factors associated with divorce that have remained stable over time, such as marrying too young, co-habitation before marriage, not having a religious affiliation, living in an urban area, and growing up in a household where there were not two continuously married parents.1 Other marital stressors also play an important role in predicting divorce, such as financial strains and career demands.1
It does sound like you love and are committed to each other; however, there are many sacrifices that would need to happen for your relationship to survive in the long run. From what you describe, some (if not all) of those sacrifices would need to come from you. Those sacrifices sound like they would be substantial and would feel like you are “giving up everything.” Though giving up a lot for your partner may not sound appealing to you, willingness to sacrifice for the relationship has been associated with strong commitment and relationship satisfaction when done for the right reasons, such as to maintain your relationship rather than to avoid losing it.2 Willingness to sacrifice has also been associated with having fewer alternatives to your relationship, such as not having other potential romantic partners.3 Given that you have an education and have built a life where you are now, you likely have alternatives to the relationship (e.g., good career, other potential mates) that make this kind of sacrifice hard to swallow. If you marry now, you may also face a lot of financial stressors due to your partner being in graduate school.
It is understandable that you feel pressured to get married after being in your relationship as long as you have, and these types of pressures are not easy to withstand. Bella DePaulo wrote a great book on this a few years ago titled Singled Out, where she reviewed the research literature on the proposed benefits of marriage and negative stereotypes of people who remain unmarried or single.4 Her thesis is that much of what we believe about marriage is essentially wrong. Marriage itself is not the predictor of happiness or health, for example, but rather having a healthy, socially supportive relationship with someone, whether it is a long-term boyfriend or a close family member or friend, is. My point here is that regardless of your personal feelings, there are likely strong social pressures to get married, and it sounds like your boyfriend wants that as the next step in your relationship as well.2 You need to decide whether you feel pressured due to these norms and beliefs, or whether it is truly because you want to build a life with him.
I suggest talking with others who are in graduate school, ideally in his field of study, to see how they manage. How do they cope and handle the stresses and demands of marriage and family life with professional goals? Would it be easier to just stay together and wait to marry until after he finishes his degree? Getting this kind of input from people who are already living the kind of life you are considering can help you make a realistic and informed decision that you both can feel comfortable with. When approaching a big life change, it is best to a deliberative approach like you are now, meaning that you are weighing the pros and cons of your decision. Sometimes people take an implemental approach, meaning that they decide on a course of action and do not think through all the issues, which often lead to poorer life decisions.5 The romance and ideals associated with marriage often make people rush into the decision prematurely. By taking this decision seriously as you are, you are more likely to make the best decision for you and your partner.
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1Amato P.R., & James, S. (2010) Divorce in Europe and the United States: Commonalities and differences across nations. Family Science, 1, 2–13.
2Impett, E. A., Gable, S. L., & Peplau, L. A. (2005). Giving up and giving in: the costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 327-344.
3Van Lange, P. A. M. Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S., & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1373-1395.
5Gollwitzer, P. M., Heckhausen, H., & Steller, B. (1990). Deliberative and implemental mind-sets: Cognitive tuning toward congruous thoughts and information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1119-1127.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.