What Is Taking So Long?


Why the rush (or delay) to marriage can doom your relationship.

If the question is how long you should wait before moving toward marriage in your relationship, my answer is that I don’t really care how long you wait. There is no magic time limit that guarantees success or failure. In fact, the amount of time has very little to do with whether you should move forward. It is possible to wait too long to move your relationship toward marriage. It is also possible not to wait long enough. And yes, there are always exceptions to the rule, but this discussion is about why the probabilities usually prevail.

The best answer is probably somewhere in the middle—between too long and not long enough. I am more concerned about partners who are not on the same page. I am concerned that one partner may be more invested than the other. I am concerned about external forces that couples allow to override the organic trajectory and growth of the relationship.

I’m far less concerned with a wedding date.

I admit I cringe a bit when couples marry too quickly. I am always curious as to what is going on that they’re in such a hurry. I get it… we get excited about the opportunity to nest—to plan weddings and shop for dresses and take on mortgages and have babies. We get excited about building something together… something we can count on. But if the relationship is going to live up to the dream, it needs to be resilient and stable, loving and reverent. Marriage needs to be a very sacred space. For that, it needs a strong foundation. And that doesn’t happen in haste.

So it is a mistake to go too fast. Couples need to experience each other as life unfolds. In the beginning when everything is shiny and new, it’s easy to count on each other, to be in love, to feel all those wonderful, hopeful things. But passion and love fluctuate. They aren’t meant to be sustained. Eventually, we need to get down to the business of life, and that takes a toll.

In a strong relationship, passion and love are consciously revisited and nurtured. That’s the hard part.

Commitment is a decision, not a feeling. Commitment has the ability to ride the waves of passion and love to sustain the relationship through real challenges. Commitment makes the decision to revisit passion and love over and over again, despite the obstacles of life. Commitment creates the deeper love that makes a relationship truly resilient because it is built on a strong, healthy foundation. By slowing it down from the very beginning, each partner has the opportunity to peel their protective layers and reveal their true vulnerabilities. This is when couples begin to learn whether the relationship is a journey they intend to take together or whether it’s easier to bail out at the first sign of trouble.

It takes time.

Then there are the long-term relationships. These might be very stable couples, together for years, but who have never ventured forward into deeper commitment or marriage. These couples may be relatively satisfied with the state of the relationship. However, often one partner is anxious to move forward, while the other is resistant. We often hear from these couples that they are busy building careers or that they don’t feel financially stable. Financial and career stability are certainly positive things and I particularly encourage these pursuits prior to a relationship in young relationships. It is important for young adults to spend plenty of time discovering who they are to be in the world on their own, before bringing another person into the equation. But for the long-term relationships, I suspect something else is going on.

Marriage is a joint venture. In marriage, we commit to doing life together, hand in hand. We’re a team. Think of marriage (or commitment) as the center of life—the core. It is the place from which everything else pivots. Romance, family life, social life, spiritual life, personal growth, health and well-being, work and career, finances, home life. Though they are usually in various states of satisfaction and balance, these are the compartments that make up life. None of them exists to the exclusion of the others. Working through the compartments together is a valuable part of relationship growth.

So if a relationship is just plodding along after a prolonged period of time, waiting for a change in one or two compartments to the neglect of the rest, I suspect that for one or both partners, the relationship has not been a priority. Career and financial goals may just be a really great justification that masks some other reason not to move deeper into the relationship. And we can speculate all day and night about those reasons. But the bottom line is that the relationship has probably run its course. Somebody isn’t invested. Somebody isn’t completely committed. And after investing all that time, the decision to marry is often made with a sense of obligation, instead of mutual adoration.

In either case, it’s a little like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Whether it’s too little time or too much time, we are determined to make the relationship work. Never mind that the square isn’t meant for the round hole. Never mind that it’s frustrating and painful.

So before you decide if your relationship is ready to move on to marriage, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Are you the only one talking about future and commitment? I said it earlier: Marriage is a joint venture. You can’t do it alone. And if you’re thinking that “he will come around” or that something will change, you could be right. But if you don’t have mutual goals from the beginning, you need to keep that in mind. Square peg, round hole.

Are there red flags that you have been ignoring or rationalizing? Get honest here. When I see women who are in the process of, or have been divorced, they can easily identify a whole list of clues that the relationship was not working from early on in the relationship. Then we talk about what they told themselves that kept them from facing that truth. You don’t need to end the relationship, but don’t put your head in the sand either. Identify the red flags. Write them down. Then write down all of your excuses for ignoring them. Because these will be the things you will be discussing with your friends (or therapist) when the relationship ends.

Why do you want to marry him? Really look at this because this is where a lot of marriages go wrong. Don’t get stuck at “I love him.” That’s too easy and often, it’s not enough. Ask yourself:

  • What do I admire about this man?
  • What am I most proud of about him?
  • Is this someone who I can respect and cherish?
  • Whether or not I want children, what would this man teach my kids?
  • When I talk to my friends about him, do I tell them how wonderful he is, or am I complaining about his faults or what he needs to change?
  • Do I love him as is? If you’ve identified some flaw, some imperfection—anything from “he smokes cigarettes” to “he’s completely unreliable”—then this is not the relationship for you. If you’re waiting, hoping, nagging, pleading with him to change, this is not the relationship for you.

Why do you want to get married now? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read this question? The question speaks to depth of your ideas about marriage. Is it because you want the big wedding? Is it because you thought you would be married by now? Is it because everyone is asking when you’re getting married? Because you want a baby? Because it will make you feel special? Because it will make you feel secure? If marriage is to be a sacred space where you both live, you should feel secure and special already. And so should he. And if you both feel that marriage is just the obvious extension of a connection you already have, you’re ready. Any other answer isn’t good enough to last.

Do you feel cherished in this relationship? This doesn’t require that your guy brings you flowers every day or fawns all over you telling you how perfect you are. You’re not perfect. But everyone has their own way of being cherished. Does he get you? Does he think about you when he’s away? Does he make you feel completely secure? Does he call you on your stuff, but love you anyway?

Criticism. Contempt. Defensiveness. Stonewalling. Do any of these negative interactions exist in your relationship? This is the point when people usually tell me that all relationships have some of that going on. Don’t they? Yes, they probably do. But to what degree? Renowned couples researcher, John Gottman, found that healthy relationships tend to have a ratio of 5 to 1 positive to negative interactions. And that couples with less than this have a lesser chance of long-term success. That means, for every 1 time criticism or contempt or defensiveness or stonewalling shows up in your relationship, there needs to be 5 positive interactions to create a stable relationship. And according to Gottman, in very happy couples, the ratio is much higher. This is worth keeping in mind next time you pick a fight over the cap on the toothpaste.

Strong, healthy relationships are not about avoiding negative interaction. On the contrary, they are built on a couple’s ability to recover from those negative interactions. And that ability is developed when there is deep respect for one another and a positive culture of appreciation in the relationship.

If you find yourself asking how long you should wait before expecting a move toward marriage, I might suggest that you’re asking the wrong question.