In a harrowing scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry is drowning under the ice in a frozen lake when his friend, Ron, appears out of nowhere to save him. Ron enters the freezing cold, dangerous water to rescue his best friend from near certain death. Would we do the same for someone we love? Probably, but there’s more to consider in both Harry’s story and in our own relationships.
Let’s suppose it’s a comfortable, sunny Saturday in early September. You’re feeling warm, but not overheated. You’ve got your swimsuit on, no place to go the rest of the day, and, for the sake of argument, you enjoy swimming. Unfortunately, you’re not sure whether your pool heater has been running the past few days. Would you jump in the pool without first testing the water temperature with your toe or checking the thermometer? Probably not. Now let’s imagine it’s the same sunny day, and your two year old daughter, who can’t swim, has just fallen in the pool. Still want to test the water temperature first? Or are you jumping in regardless?
Why Do I Have To Be Uncomfortable??
Though we may not always want to be in the water, especially if the water is uncomfortable, some situations dictate that we leap without looking. Marriage is a lot like the second scenario. It shouldn’t matter how warm or cold the pool is. It shouldn’t matter how stressed or sad or angry a situation might make you. Your commitment to your future spouse needs to be such that you are ready to jump in the pool no matter the temperature.
One of the truly difficult things about this metaphor is that although many of us would be willing to jump in the pool to save our child or spouse, we become less willing when there is not an imminent crisis. If we’re honest, many of us would waver in our agreement to STAY in the pool for an extended period if no one were drowning. Are we willing to not only GET uncomfortable, but STAY uncomfortable for as long as it takes? (This is the constant struggle of non-profits- most of us are happy to post our support on social media or make a donation in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but then we return to our normal, comfortable lives and forget about the needs around us).
It’s Not About You Anymore
Knowing you may never be as happy as you’d like and still choosing to stay in the pool is true commitment. If you’re thinking about getting married, think about whether you are committed to your partner enough to not only dive in the pool to save them, but stay in the pool to sustain them, whatever the cost to you personally. Marriage is not about your own comfort and happiness. It’s about your spouse’s comfort and happiness. The day you say “I do,” your life is no longer your own. If you’re not ready for that level of commitment, marriage may not yet be for you.
Risks of Living Together Before Engagement
This is why research has shown that pre-engagement cohabitation (living together), but not simply pre-marital cohabitation is linked to poorer marital outcomes: commitment matters in marriage! Living together (in a mostly married state/situation) without truly committing to each other in either a marital contract or a promise to soon enter one (engagement), gives the behavioral appearance of commitment without thoughtful, intentional commitment. Those whose relationships gradually evolve toward marriage in this “one thing leads to another” pattern report “lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication and greater potential for divorce than those who cohabited only after engagement” (Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009, even after controlling for things like age, income, education, and religiousness). Some researchers call this approach to the enormous decision to get married, “sliding, rather than deciding” (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). (It should be noted here as well that some researchers have found that those who only cohabitate with their future (first/only) spouse are less likely to report the above negative marital outcomes than those who live with other romantic partners before their eventual spouse).
Marriage Changes Everything
Or at least it should. This is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Entering a marriage covenant changes everything about your relationship. Yes, many things will look largely the same, but the underlying motivation in a successful marriage relationship is different than it ever could have been before marriage, or at least engagement. Before the marriage, either party can simply walk away with no real lasting consequences. This necessarily has implications for many aspects of the relationship (e.g. sexual interactions, sharing your truest hopes and fears, providing constructive criticism, etc.).
In a marriage, each member of the couple has now agreed to put the other first, “forsaking all others,” “in sickness and in health,” and in so many other ways. Before you “take the plunge,” take some time to consider your level of commitment. The pool can be a great place to relax on a warm summer day, but your spouse WILL need you to take an extended swim in a frozen lake on some frigid January morning. Probably more than once. If you and your spouse are committed to each other and the relationship, the sacrifice of completing these chilly swims may be very unpleasant, but will be well worth the effort in the long run.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.
Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107–111.
Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Family Studies, 55, 499 –509.