A few weeks ago, my dad—a person who’s much more likely to launch into a discussion of the merits of waterproof, unisex leather sandals than to broach a conversation about my personal life—settled into an armchair and took a sip of his cocktail.
“So,” he said. “What’s the deal? You and Nate don’t want to get married?”
I cough-spit wine onto the counter. I get this question a lot; I’ve been dating my partner for eight years, living with him for the past three. But I didn’t expect this question from the man who, moments earlier, had been touting the breathability of his new all-weather Mephistos as he flexed his toes. Now even this person had to know.
The short answer to his question—the question—is: I’m not sure. I’m really not. Nate and I love each other very much. Most nights we fall asleep laughing, snarled in a pile of laptop cords and my egregiously ratty stuffed animals, Trit, and Frank. If I develop a weird, throbbing rash, Nate takes me to urgent care. When I’m away and Nate’s lonely, I send him unsolicited photos of Frank about to play a diabolical prank on Trit. But I have so much to figure out. Do I really want to participate in the institution of marriage, a holdover of the patriarchy? If I did, would Nate and I be able to adequately reconcile our ideological differences—some political, some societal—such that we could exist in an arrangement that requires agreement a certain percentage of the time? And, chiefly, would one of us finally learn to love taking down the trash?
In pursuit of good advice, I spoke with seven individuals who’ve seen matrimony from all angles: women who got married and then divorced. I asked about life as a legally bound couple, and what they think one should consider before becoming part of one themselves. A few things quickly became clear: honesty and trust are paramount, inorganic personal growth from a partner is about as likely as Trit learning to speak Russian, and nothing can beat knowing yourself.
Here’s what they had to say.
On the Decision to Get Married—and What They Wish They’d Thought About
“I wish I’d thought about my life 20 years down the road. We both were in a deeply religious lifestyle at the time, and the community we lived in celebrated marriage, so we stepped into it quickly. I had spoken about my hopes and dreams to my future spouse multiple times; I wish I hadn’t assumed he carried those dreams, too. Maybe I interpreted love as an automatic sharing of dreams for one another? My assumption that my dreams would be equally prioritized is something I regret.”
—Beth*, 31, tech operations, New York (married at 20, divorced at 29)
“The relationship was six years long at [the time we decided to get married], it seemed like the logical next step. Graduate school and kids were on the radar next. I wish I would’ve dated more in my 20s, lived life solo longer, and been pickier. I wish I would’ve listened to my gut and not said ‘yes’ (but I didn’t know how to then, and women are often programmed in our society to ignore their gut).”
—Rebecca, 41, full-time mother, Oregon (married at 29, divorced at 40)
“I was 20 when I got engaged to a then 34-year-old, which gave me some kind of dangerously inflated ego. I thought I was so special for being one of the first of my peers to embark on this life event, and mature for my age because I was engaged to a much-older man. I wish I knew then that there are more important and validating things to aspire to than marriage, and the bragging rights I thought I earned as a young bride were overrated.”
—Carrie, 27, illustrator, painter & tattoo apprentice, Amsterdam (married at 23, divorced at 24)
“We had been dating for more than a year, he was 32, and it seemed at the time to be the next logical step in the relationship. Both of us being children of immigrants, World War II survivors, our goal was to please our parents—have successful marriages, careers, and children who would, of course, then repeat this pattern. I wish I’d thought about myself and not about what my parents wanted. I wish I’d felt less obligated to others and I wish I’d cared less about what my larger community thought.”
—Pia, 57, writer & executive director of a non-profit, California (married at 27, divorced at 50)
“I was three months pregnant, and I’d been raised in a strict Catholic family. The idea of anything besides marriage wasn’t fathomable. And I wasn’t thinking past the fairytale of the wedding day—there was a blindness of how hard it would be in real life. I was focused on the fairytale: we can be anyone, do anything, raise a baby.”
—Lauren*, 50, entrepreneur, California (married at 24, divorced at 25)
“It was a semi-arranged marriage. We’d met over the phone and had been introduced by a family contact, and we talked over the phone for a couple of months, but we lived in different countries. And then we basically met and decided. It happened pretty quickly. At the time, I felt like it was the right thing to do. I was thinking about someone who was kind and generous, and who was easy to talk to, and who was interested in me, and someone I thought would be a good parent. Someone who had the same religion or was interested in the same cultural activities as me. But sometimes those similarities you may have—food, culture, religion—may not translate to the way people view the world or more defined roles in a marriage or communication styles, which turned out to be very important.”
—Neesha*, 53, mental health professional, Washington (married in early 20s, divorced in late 20s)
On How Their Relationships Changed After Marriage
“We turned inward. Less reliance on friends and more (too much) time with each other. Our world got smaller and our activities mostly with each other.”
“Complacency. He thought our married fate was sealed and subsequently stopped putting in work and I stopped asking him to. I thought silence was easier than fighting, but I was wrong.“
“The level of responsibility we faced and discovering how unprepared we were for it. How we needed to be responsible to each other, then to a business and then to our children. It was stunning. What changed was we didn’t have fun anymore, we didn’t know how—we hadn’t had the example—to step away from work and enjoy life and each other alongside our responsibilities.”
“Respect. That changed the quickest and the most. Our marriage kind of fell apart close to the beginning. In that situation, it was related to the fact that we really didn’t know each other, and both of us went in with different expectations. We didn’t spend appreciable time together before getting married.”
“Me, [I changed]. I grew into myself, developed feminist values, and began to feel trapped in a life I chose as a 20 year old. All of a sudden, my status as being half of a ‘power couple’ dynamic felt suffocating and I began to get more and more frustrated with not being truly heard.”
——Tiffany, 33, Innovation Management, Sweden (married at 22, divorced at 33)
On What They Wish They’d Known About Their Partners—and Themselves—Before Getting Married
“That you can change no one except yourself. That the problems before marriage only amplify after marriage, especially kids. I wish I paid attention to my ex not being proactive or interested in self-growth or growth in the relationship. I wish I knew that most relationship problems stem from wounded inner-child problems, and both partners have to be committed to acknowledging and working on them.”
“Can I say I wish I knew how capable [my partner] was at living a secret life while presenting the personality of the ‘dream man to be married to’? I was married so young, partly for love and partly because of the fear of going through life alone. I wish I could sit with 19-year-old Beth now and let her know that the strength and bravery she is often ‘teased’ for (because in that religious community, women were not meant to be brave and strong) was actually something to celebrate—and it would carry her toward all her dreams if she stepped forward into them. That I don’t need a partner to make sure I am okay along the way.”
“It wasn’t a matter of wishing what I knew—I did know, so it was a matter of knowing and ignoring. Today we call that ‘red flags.’ I know that each time I saw one of these flags, I remember exactly what I told myself in order to convince myself the behavior wasn’t a big deal, or it was related to a specific event that wouldn’t occur again. I wish I knew that I was enough as I was: curious, entrepreneurial, beautiful, funny, intelligent, and insightful. I wish I knew that I could trust myself, and that I was more than my appearance, more than what others thought of me—I was my depth of experience, even just in my mid-to-late twenties.”
“I wish I knew I was strong enough at the time. I would have kept that child and done it on my own—I wish I knew I didn’t have to get married. I was strong enough a year and a half later to say this isn’t working and I’m going to stand up and walk away—which was a lot harder, to break up a family.”
On the Most Unexpected Parts of Marriage
“How hard it is to be with that one person day after day, tackling all the obstacles, managing time, money, energy levels, kids’ needs, our own needs. I never knew it would be so hard to work with someone and I never knew that there would be days that I would hate my partner. It is messy to be human and it is messy to do it with another and with kids.”
“The ability to lose one’s identity—I became a shell of a human always been known as ‘Beth plus…’ instead of ‘Beth.’ I haven’t ever thought of my career in connection to my relationship status, but in fact, at the beginning of my career life, I was drawn to a career that complimented the marriage I was in. I was heavily accommodating to allow my partner to chase his career dreams and then I would adjust my timeline/career accordingly. Later on in the marriage as I grew older and took steps away from a belief system that taught me ‘to love my spouse was to serve my spouse,’ I was able to dream of a career in business and step outside of my comfort zone.”
“The extended family dynamic, and how much it impacts your life. To say he had an unhealthy relationship with [his parents] would be an understatement. I knew this going into our marriage, but I didn’t know how much of this burden I would take on.”
“I think the strangest thing is it’s pretty boring. It’s the mundanity of everyday life. When you make a house together and throw in a baby, you think it’s going to be all picket fences and Christmas trees, but it can become monotonous.”
On the Best Parts of Marriage
“A partnership is beautiful when it’s done well. The joy of being fully ‘known’ by someone doesn’t require marriage, but often sits deep within a marriage.”
“The family moments. Those moments when our kids would do something amazingly quirky and we would look at each other with that, ‘OMG, how did we create this perfect creature?” look. Or when he would play the banjo and the kids would dance while I knitted or wrote, or did something that looked like I was occupied with anything other than sheer joy, pride, and love. I still miss those moments. We both have new partners now, who, I am confident love our kids, but it’s not the same feeling—I can’t explain it and I think I’ll miss our little family in some way, all my life.”
“Our youthful enthusiasm and delight about this little human we’d created.”
On Sex and Marriage
“I wish I knew how important sexual compatibility is, and that it won’t change after marriage. If partners aren’t on the same page with regard to frequency, what they like, if they enjoy it, that’s not going to change with marriage, kids. So find someone who is aligned with those important needs.”
“The best drug in the world is new exciting people, new exciting sex, and the beginnings of something new. You can’t match it. Even in the best relationships, it’s going to go away. Once you’re married, and if you choose to have children especially, of course sex is going to change. You’re exhausted, there are kids in the house. You could be married to Brad Pitt. After some years, he’s just your guy. Over time, the companionship aspect, someone you want to snuggle up on the couch with and just eat takeout with, is completely normal and what we’re all craving.”
Advice for Anyone Currently Married
“If you’re fighting for your marriage to survive, don’t be ashamed to go to a professional, and early. Even if your therapy visits are sporadic, it can be so helpful and validating to have a new set of eyes and ears in the room with you and your spouse. Open-mindedness is key, however, and you might hear some things about yourself that you don’t want to. Just trust that your partner and your therapist are well-intentioned.”
“I think that what’s really important is to be true to yourself, and to not feel like your happiness is because of the other person, or that the other person has to make you happy. Everyone has to take their own personal responsibility. Not blaming your partner is also really important—not using that concept of blame, but figuring out ways to work together to achieve your goals. Aligning your goals is the other thing: how to achieve them together. And doing fun things together. Laughing together, being kind to each other.”
Advice for Anyone Considering Marriage
“Pause and ask yourself why are you doing this. Many of us don’t take that moment to ask the why and allow yourself permission to not do it if you don’t want.”
“Date a lot. Make your list and don’t settle. Your relationship to yourself is most important—you have to make you happy; do your emotional work and take care of you.”
“First, talk a lot about money, what it means to you. Talk about your parents’ marriages and what you learned from them. Talk about family trauma, secrets, your own trauma—be honest with each other and slowly build a good foundation on which to place your marriage and build from there.”
“I have no qualms about the institution of marriage, or the notion of committing oneself to a partner, but always remember that nothing is static. You’re allowed to change your mind, and so are they. The underlying sentiment of marriage, or any other relationship for that matter, should never be rooted in ownership.”
“People should listen to their loved ones more. Oftentimes, in most cases of divorce I see, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘my mom told me…’ or ‘my best friend told me…’ or ‘this person warned me…’ [and regret at not having listened]. It’s helpful to listen to the people who really know us. Judgement can be rather cloudy when you’re dealing with sex and love and desire.”
“Know yourself as much as possible, and be open to discussing the hard conversations. Was it on Man Repeller that I read the idea of renegotiating your relationship every year? I love that. Someone once told me that marriage should feel like a free choice every day, that you’re not bound to the person, but you choose each day to be with him or her.”
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.