For many young girls, being a bride is the closest thing possible to living out childhood fantasies of being a princess. The wedding industry and bridal magazines collaborate in spinning the myth. Find the perfect prince, put on the perfect wedding pageant and live happily ever after. It’s an alluring story for almost everyone. How could it not be? For the unhappy, the alone, and the lonely it can be an intoxicating idea. Getting married can seem like the end of all a girl’s problems. Getting married can seem like a way to get a new start.
It doesn’t work that way. Marrying as a solution to painful circumstances almost never leads to a good and lasting marriage. Marriages that are a conscious or unconscious way out of a difficult situation don’t have the staying power that comes with mature love, shared values and a commitment to the future by two mature adults.
Here are my top five mistaken reasons that people marry:
1. To escape the family of origin.
Jackey’s parents are brutal. She hasn’t felt loved just about ever. Her mother is constantly critical. Her father scares her, especially when he drinks. Her younger sister seems bent on setting her up to be the target so she can fly under the radar of parental chaos. For Jackey, marrying her boyfriend as soon as they graduate from high school this June seems like a way out.
Yes, some families are abusive. Some parents don’t know how to love and protect. Some are so toxic that the only way to survive is to flee. But flight into an early marriage with a teenage sweetheart or just anybody who is willing isn’t a good enough foundation for a marriage. The fear that spurs flight can cloud a person’s judgment about who would really make a good partner. It’s easy to romanticize someone who offers an alternative to daily ridicule and pain.
2. Because it’s the next logical thing.
Tony and Melody have been dating since they were 14. Neither of them has ever dated anyone else or even considered it. They’ve been best friends and lovers through their teen years, went to the same college, and have been talking for years about what kind of house they’d like to have someday and what their kids’ names will be. Tony’s parents adore Melody. Melody’s parents think Tony is a fine match for their daughter. It only makes sense for them to get married. Or does it?
Neither Tony nor Melody has a clue about who they are without the other. They have never tested themselves as individuals; never been anywhere or done anything significant that didn’t involve the other. Sometimes couples like them can last. But often enough, the growing up that happens in the 20s means growing apart. As they enter careers that introduce them to new people and new experiences, one or the other of them may well begin to wonder if they would make the same choice now as they did when they were 14.
3. To fix the other person.
Joey and Maryanne agree on one important thing: He needs fixing. He needs her. He feels empty and desperate without her. He says he will die if she leaves him. He has even threatened suicide if she tries. She has an idea that she can rescue him and that she gives meaning to his life. That idea gives meaning to hers.
Neither of these people has a strong sense of self or life goals they are passionate about. The intensity of their relationship consumes them and distracts them from finding and maintaining good friends or good work. They are each other’s everything. What they fail to understand is that by being so wrapped up in the drama of “saving” him, neither one of them is developing personally into the adult they could be. It’s unlikely that Maryanne can “save” Joey when Joey doesn’t really want to stand on his own feet. A marriage created on these terms is likely to be disastrous for them both.
4. To legitimize sex.
Angie and Nick both come from deeply religious families. Angie pledged she would stay pure until marriage. Nick agreed that it was very important to wait until their wedding to have sex. But a combination of hormones and alcohol overtook those good intentions. They had sex. They liked it. They rationalized continuing to be intimate but the guilt that came with it made them both miserable. To them, getting married makes going against their own values at least a little okay. Never mind that they each had some doubts about the relationship before they fell into bed with each other. Never mind that they each still kind of blame the other for what happened. Those seeds of doubt and blame are likely to fester and grow. Marriage may make them feel less guilty about having sex but it won’t resolve other issues that undermine their relationship.
5. To avoid being alone.
Robyn is terrified. She’s always had a boyfriend since she was 13. She has dated a number of guys but always had someone new lined up before she ended a relationship. Now 22, she’s just been dumped by the most recent boyfriend for being too needy. A demanding project at work has meant long hours at the office and no time to look for someone new. She hates being alone in her apartment at night. She doesn’t know what to do with herself on weekends. She feels empty and scared. She’s tried calling her ex but he’s put off by her tears. She’s running through her files for someone, anyone, who can fill up the hole in her life. She’s likely to fall into marriage with the first guy who shows interest just so she’ll never have to feel this way again.
Marriage does provide a partner in life but it doesn’t guarantee that the partner will be good at partnering. Sometimes people like Robyn luck out and find someone who is truly willing and able to be their best friend and companion. More often, they are terribly disappointed. In their rush to marry to fend off their fear of abandonment, they didn’t take the time to find someone who shared their interests and values.
Men can be as vulnerable to making these mistakes as women. Older people aren’t exempt either. Regardless of age or gender, the desire to marry, to have a constant partner, and to share a life is a healthy one. However, a wedding that’s a mistaken solution to personal or couple problems won’t guarantee a happily-ever-after marriage. That requires a union of two complete and whole adults who love each other deeply, unselfishly, and respectfully and who share a commitment to keep their wedding vows. Only then can a bond be created that withstands life’s challenges and deepens over time.