How to Decide Whether to Marry

Six tips with application to other humongous decisions.

Posted Nov 24, 2018

Nd3000/Shutterstock
Source: Nd3000/Shutterstock

Marriage is often wonderful. Many people swear by it.

It’s also bizarre. You’re electing to commit to lifelong devotion, to feeling like wanting to accommodate another person forever, no matter who they turn out to be over time.

Having children is elective too, though more like electing to enter an arranged marriage. You get the child that your genetics arrange for you.

In marriage, you’re volunteering to throw all in with someone of your choosing, which, when you stop to think about it, is rash. If instead you were committing to lifelong devotion to a spiritual leader, you’d be joining a cult.

Looks play a big part in many marriage decisions. Looks are a convincing, often life-altering optical illusion. Nothing appears more eternal than youthful hotness. Yet nothing is quite so perishable.

No wonder marriage is so heavily subsidized by hormones and culture, our bodies insisting on it, our culture extolling it. If it weren’t, we’d never make such a radical commitment. People don’t just marry drunk in Las Vegas. Many marriages are made under the intoxicating influence of hormonal conviction and subtle, yet wall-to-wall social pressure. Still, marriage can be a wonderful thing.

Dating in search of a lifelong partner is bound to make us ambivalent. We’re deciding to stop deciding about someone, in effect, to trust them forever. We’re pouring over details of another person to decide whether we can stop pouring over details and just love them.

Intoxicating hormones have to convince us to overlook lots, because we’d otherwise be too cautious. And by now, with less social pressure to marry, our cautiousness gets expressed. We size each other up warily, more in line with what you’d expect from such a humongous decision.

So how best to decide whether to marry in times like these? Here are some tips, with some application to any big decision.

1. It’s the matrimony, stupid.

Courtship wariness can breed meta-wariness, wariness about each other’s wariness. Either of you might begin to suspect the other of “fear of intimacy,” or of being ungenerous, paranoid, controlling, narcissistic, needy, greedy, expecting too much, moving too quickly, or moving too slowly, any of which may be true, but isn’t necessarily. All of those characteristics are perfectly natural for two people doing this dance on the courtship tightrope before deciding whether to fall toward or away from each other, committing to each other for life or breaking up.

If you both enter into the courtship knowing that you’re on the tightrope, you’re less likely to take the jitters and jerks of the dance as personally, mistaking each other’s caution or zeal for a character flaw. It’s not you or your partner, but the humongous commitment you're considering making that’s giving you the jitters.

2. Fighting is a red flag; not fighting is even more dangerous.

Kids bicker. It drives their parents crazy, but serves a purpose. They’re learning what works and doesn’t work in the give and take of life. Chalk it up to practice.

Courting couples have to learn how to fight too, learning how to minimize fighting in your give and take. You’re learning where to tuck in or jut out your elbows for the most efficient give and take. You’re also assessing whether you can tolerate the bickering that you probably won’t be able to eliminate. You’re stress-testing the relationship, which is much smarter done before than after taking your vows.

Again, if you both recognize that this is part of the courtship dance, you’re less likely to escalate into meta-fights — fights about the fact that you fight. As a result, you’re more likely to get a clear reading on what kinds of compromises you’ll have to make if you commit to marriage.

3. Throwing all in to see whether you want to throw all in.

Courtship in general, not just the bickering, is practice marriage, a tentative commitment which is a necessary, but complicating oxymoron. You’re both mustering your most enthusiastic effort to determine whether you want to muster you most enthusiastic effort ‘til death do you part. You don’t want to buy marriage until you’ve tried it, and you can’t try it ‘til you’ve acted as though you’ve already bought it. So you act like you’ve bought it and see how it goes. You pledge love to see whether you want to pledge love.

You have to. You’ve got to find out whether throwing all in compels your partner to reciprocate or get complacent. You give an inch, hoping to discover that your partner will give an inch rather than taking a mile. If your partner takes a mile, run a mile. Get out before it’s too late. But in the testing, test earnestly. Really show up to see whether you really want to show up forever.

4. In stress-testing the relationship, take pride in your strategic cleverness instead of taking self-protective umbrage.

Showing up is easier said than done, what with your understandable wariness about what you might be getting yourself into. It’s easy to feel compromised by partnership. Romance is the dream that you can just be yourself and loved unconditionally. Courtship starts with romance, but moves on to something less dreamy, more realistic. You can’t just be yourself. You have to tuck in your elbows to make room for each other. If you pretend that courtship is like any other no-big-deal decision, you’ll feel surprised, insulted, or threatened by the compromises — injured pride. That will throw off your assessment.

The alternative is to take quiet pride in your strategic cleverness. Pat yourself on the back for bending over backward for your partner. Pretty cunning. It’s you skillfully testing how your partner responds. If you decide that bending over that much is not worth it, at least you’ll have the consolation of thoroughness, which you wouldn’t get if hurt pride makes you stingy.

5. Leave morality out of it.

Though your culture might imply that marriage is an easy, obvious, natural virtue, it isn’t. These days, it’s an optional preference, a lifestyle choice, not a moral imperative. You don’t have to marry. If you choose that lifestyle, you’re under moral obligations within it. But you’re not under obligation to choose the lifestyle.

You are, however, under moral obligation to decide whether you want it. These days, the residues of our culture’s marriage imperative still have people feeling obligated to marry when their hearts aren’t really in it. Don’t be like that. Know your heart as best you can. To go through the motions of wanting to marry because you’re still under the influence of yesteryear’s moral mandate is like the closeted gay entering hetero relationships. It’s unkind to the person you’re courting.

Also, in the practice bickering, moral mandates get tossed around. If you’re unwilling to do something for your partner, he or she might imply that you’re ungenerous, selfish, greedy, or even narcissistic.

You might be, but courtship is a lousy test for whether you are. You’re testing your willingness to give everything to someone forever. If you’re unwilling, it doesn’t prove that you’ve got some fatal character flaw. Despite what you hear from exes, not every person who pulls out of partnership is a narcissist. Deciding you don’t want to give everything to someone forever might merely mean that you want to give elsewhere.

6. Rehearse a story that would rationalize each outcome.

As with any big decision, you’re going to feel a lot of subconscious tugs: “I can’t choose that. How would I ever justify that decision?” For example, “I can’t pull out of this courtship. It would prove that I’m ungenerous.” Or, “I can’t marry. How would I ever explain dropping my pledge to protect my independence?”

To neutralize those subconscious tugs, treat those questions as real, not rhetorical. For each possible choice, rehearse something you could say to justify it to you, some answer to some friend’s “What happened there?”

It doesn’t have to convince your friend, who is likely to support and humor you whatever you decide, but something that would be convincing enough to you. Armed with an armful of self-justifications, one for each choice you might make, you can make the decision without subconscious tugs biasing your decision.