I post this essay with much fear and trepidation because I do not necessarily view myself as a relationship expert or counselor, but I do feel that I have something to say on the issue of breaking up before stepping into marriage.
Just to note my background for the uninitiated, I have been a practicing family lawyer for over twelve years now and been in a relationship with the same woman for nearly as long (and married for nearly nine years), so needless to say, I have some experience being in a marriage relationship and seeing many many marriage relationships break up. Of course, like anyone else, I also have had the opportunity to have friends and family in marriage relationships and, unfortunately seen some of those end in divorce as well.
Now there are countless reasons why a couple divorces. Conventional wisdom says that the most common reasons surround children, money, and sex. I would say that is largely true. Of course, one could also add things like abuse, a large age gap, a large education gap, immaturity, and laziness to the list as well, among others for sure.
Although we could all come up with our own lists of reasons why couples divorce, I, in this post, would like to focus on those reasons that are clearly present before the marriage. One of the things I have noticed in my own marriage and in the marriages of others is that, as much as we wish it were not the case, the person we date will probably be the same person we are married to, no matter how much we try to change him/her and, if the person does change, there is a good chance that that change carries with it some resentment along with it.
The person who, before marriage, does not want kids, or is a spendthrift/cheapskate, or is emotionally/physically abusive, or is condescending (intentionally or unintentionally due to things like a large age or education gap), or is immature, or comes from a difficult and/or intrusive family or any number of “negative” things will likely continue to be that way after one marries. To think that putting a ring on someone’s finger will make it all better or different is nothing short of wishful thinking.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be pessimistic or a romance killer; I am just being realistic. Before someone decides to make the life changing decision of marriage, one should be as completely and unabashedly honest with him/herself as possible and, of course, with one’s potential spouse. I think this is where the difficulty comes into play: people are afraid of this unfiltered honesty because it may point to the unpleasant reality that a couple should break up before marriage. Obviously breaking up is potentially hugely traumatic. The couple may truly feel love for one another and breaking up would bring true grief and sadness. Someone may feel that s/he would never (or at least have a very hard time) finding a new potential spouse. Someone may not want to experience being alone again. Some may feel that a particular relationship may be the best/only/last opportunity to have a child. Some may feel that less-than-satisfactory-relationship is better than none. There are all sorts of reasons why someone may want to avoid breaking up. In view of all of these things, though, are any of them worth the very real potentiality of divorce in the future?
Again, this is precisely where honesty comes into play. The person should try to look at his or her relationship as objectively as possible, but doing so may reveal some unpleasant truths. For example, let’s say one person wants a child and the other does not. Can the person who wants a child really and truly accept the possibility of not ever having one and, more importantly, do so without resenting the other? What about money? Can someone truly live with someone who spends money faster than he makes it (or with someone who refuses to spend money to such a degree one lives as if impoverished)? What about an age gap? A 20 year age gap when one is 23 is one thing; when one is 43 it is quite another; is the potential spouse truly ready for that? How about in-laws? That nasty mother-in-law or condescending father-in-law may be tolerable while one is dating, but how about for the next thirty years as a part of one’s “new” family? Anyone could suffer through a few years of any of these, but marriage is supposed to be life-long.
I think the big question is clear: are you ready to live with any of the above (and more) and not getting what you want? If someone thinks “I’ll talk him/her into it,” please understand that disappointment will likely follow: may be not today or tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life (to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart). If you are not prepared to deal with any of these things not going your way, then the best option may be to break up now before you wind up married, as disentangling the lives, finances, children, friends, assets, emotions, resentments, relationships, and families is far more difficult and expensive than breaking up before marriage. It just takes courage to look at reality in the face and acknowledge its truth and implications for your relationship. If this is too difficult, ask a friend, family member, counselor, mentor, or clergyman to give you his/her opinion on your relationship and be prepared to accept that opinion and seriously consider it.
Believe me when I tell you that I have heard “we all saw it coming” said countless times in my divorce practice, and thought and heard it many times in my own life, when a married couple decides to call it quits. If it is so obvious to everyone around you, then it ought to be discoverable to you if you only take a moment, step back, and look at yourself, your boy/girlfriend, and your relationship, honestly and objectively. One way my wife and I tried to achieve this objectivity was by reading a book together called Preparing for Marriage. This book was recommended by my then parish priest Fr. K. Brewster Hastings from my old church St. Anne’s in Abington, PA. Fr. Hastings conducted our premarital counseling. The book asks very insightful and extremely personal questions of the reader who is write the answers in the spaces left in the book; when finished the couple is to compare their answers, preferably together and with their premarital counselor. Sometimes the answers are fantastically harmonized. Sometimes they are rather different. When different, it is important for the couple, preferably with a clergyman or marriage counselor, to delve into those differences and to investigate how important they are to the two people in the couple. Many times the differences are easily overcome, however others – such as a disagreement over whether to have children – will probably never truly be overcome and that is where the hard decisions need to be made. As stated above, the decision will be to determine what is more important: preserving the relationship and sacrificing having children (for example) without resentment, or sacrificing the relationship for the thing more greatly desired (having children). It is a difficult decision and one not made lightly, but it must be made and must be made with eyes wide open, honestly, objectively, and, hopefully, maturely.
Do not be someone embroiled in a divorce over (an) issue(s) clearly in view, or potentially in view, before you got married. Have the courage, maturity, respect, and forethought to discern and truly consider these issues before marriage and, potentially, break off the relationship long before years of marriage are wasted on ultimately the wrong person.