Why You Might Be Ruining Your Marriage Before You Even Tie the Knot

A new study suggests the mistakes people make before getting married may hurt marital satisfaction down the line.

  • Brigitt Hauck

It’s no secret that dating can be tricky to navigate. The many questions—Is it too soon to be intimate? Should we move in together?—are plentiful and often uncomfortable to talk about. And now findings from a new report by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia don’t help to ease the pressure: Your likelihood for a happy marriage may be tied to the decisions you make before tying the knot.

The study, which tracked more than 1,000 Americans ages 18 to 34 who were not married but in a relationship for five years, suggest many couples now “slide” into relationship decisions. For example, rather than having a serious discussion about moving in together, one partner may slowly start spending the night at the other person’s place until they eventually spend so much time together that the decision to cohabitate happens on a more subconscious level.

“We believe that one important obstacle to marital happiness is that many people now slide through major relationship transition—like having sex, moving in together, getting engaged or having a child—that have potentially life-altering consequences,” Scott M. Stanley, co-author of the study and senior fellow for both the National Marriage Project and the Institute for Family Studies, said in a release.

The data suggests couples who have thorough conversations and make deliberate decisions together may be better poised to forge stronger commitments and follow through on them. The researchers also add that the findings may imply that couples who make deliberate decisions are better at communicating, a vital skill for relationship satisfaction.

If you make one of the biggest relationship decisions—the choice to marry—the report found that the size of the wedding might also have an impact on marital bliss. Among those surveyed who had weddings, couples who invited 150 guests or more reported feeling happier with their marriage. The fewer the number of guests, the less happy the couple appeared to be: just 31 percent of those who had weddings of 50 or fewer attendees reported high marital quality.

“One possibility here is that couples with larger networks of friends and family may have more help, and encouragement, in navigating the challenges of married life. Note, however, this finding is not about spending lots of money on a wedding party, it's about having a good number of friends and family in your corner,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, said in the release.

Stanley and fellow researchers hope the findings will remind Americans considering marriage to make decisions wisely: “Our bottom-line advice to Americans hoping to marry is this: Remember that what you do before you say ‘I do’ may shape your odds of forging a successful marital future.”