How Long Should You Date Before Getting Married? Experts Weigh In

What’s the ideal length of time to date, according to research?
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What’s the ideal length of time to date, according to research?

I have been dating my boyfriend Zach for one year and eight months, and I am ready to get married. At least, I think I am.

You see, I've always had this two year rule in my mind for how long I want to date someone before we get married. Two years seems like a natural progression. After twenty-four months together, you usually know whether your partner is someone you could really commit to—forever.

But a lot of my friends have been getting married with fewer than this magical two years under their belts, and it's making me second-guess my rule. Should we actually be engaged by now? Does it really matter at all how long you date before you get married?

The purpose of dating is to get to know someone as fully as possible before tying the knot—ultimately with the goal of having a successful marriage that lasts. But what exactly is transpiring in this time that either confirms or disproves compatibility?

Love is a hot topic. Especially as our notions of dating practices change (thanks, Tinder), and we consistently hear about the supposed 50 percent divorce rate, I think we all wonder if there's some definitive rule book we should be following. I did some digging and reached out to relationship therapists and psychologists to get their thoughts. Here's what the professionals have to say about the ideal length of time to date.

What Does Research Say?

In a Penn State University study called the PAIR Project, Professor Ted L. Huston followed 168 newlywed couples over fourteen years and charted each couple's relationship satisfaction throughout. Results showed that couples that had dated an average of twenty-five months before marriage were most happily married at the conclusion of the study.

The study also looked at couples who were quicker to get married. These couples dated an average of eighteen months and were engaged for half that time. Of those who were quicker to marry, the study found that the marriages survived to the seven-year mark, but many divorced after that.

Another more recent study published by researchers from Emory University following three thousand couples found that those who dated three or more years were 39 percent less likely to get divorced than those who dated less than a year. Couples that dated for two years were 20 percent less likely to split.

If we can draw any conclusions from these studies, it would be that the couples who tended to hold off longer to marry ended up being the most satisfied in their marriages in the long-term and less likely to divorce.

What the Experts Recommend

Even with these studies telling us that staying the course in dating does seem to pay off in marriage, there are always exceptions to the rule. We all know or have heard of that unicorn couple who fell in love instantly and have sustained a happy marriage ever since. So what do counselors think about an "ideal age?"

Almost all of the experts I spoke to recommended a year as a healthy amount of time to date before marriage. "I recommend a minimum of one year provided each partner has a good, clear understanding of what they are looking for in a mate," says Stephen J. Betchen, DSW, author of Magnetic Partners. In that time, they should be exploring things like, "what they can tolerate; if there is a sufficient physical attraction; and if future goals seem aligned." 

John Amodeo, MFT, author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships, agrees that dating one to two years is safest.“There are no hard and fast rules," Amodeo acknowledges. "But I must admit that I feel nervous when I hear about people getting married within a year (or even two) of meeting. It might work out okay if they are exceptionally well-matched and mature. But it takes time to know a person and time to see each other’s darker side and know how each of their 'shadow' sides will interact with each other."

But Maybe the Magic Isn’t All About the Number?

A cautious one to two years may be the recommended amount of time according to most, but experts certainly acknowledged that marriage success has more to do with readiness than a simple function of time.

A lot of that readiness seems to be dependent on your dating past and whether you've learned from your dating history. While Betchen suggests at least a year, he also explains that self knowledge and learning from past dating mistakes can speed up the dating process. "Because people have very little insight about themselves, they keep choosing the same person time and again, with the same results. If you know enough (about yourself) to choose differently, then you can date for a week and it’ll work," Betchen says. Still, "Because there are other variables to consider such as family or origin dynamics, values, etc., I recommend couples wait a minimum of one year to marry," he says.

Amodeo also acknowledges that readiness has a lot to do with each couple's unique situation. "I don’t think there is a perfect amount of time, as each person and situation is a little different. And maturity levels vary,” he says. According to Madeleine A. Fugère, Ph.D., author of The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships, the "two year" rule is pretty sensible, but "different couples have very different circumstances. As Jane Austen writes, 'It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy: it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.'"

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and senior editor at Psychalive.org, also says that it's hard to put a number on it. "There is no ideal time to date before marriage," Firestone says. "Really good relationships aren’t about time. If a couple has been married for fifty years, but they have been miserable and treating each other badly during those years, is it really a good marriage? Even arranged marriages work sometimes, and they haven’t dated at all. The question is: Do you really love this person?"

If you're seriously considering marriage, you should focus on discerning whether or not you are truly ready for marriage, despite the amount of time you have been dating. Have you talked about what you both want from marriage? What you envision married life to be like? Do you want children? How do you want to raise your children? How do you handle conflict? These questions are just a few of the questions you should have an answer to before you get engaged. 

There may be no magic number to guarantee a marriage will last, but I feel more confident giving our relationship the time we need to be intentional and discerning. Maybe it didn't have to be two years, or maybe it will be three. But I'm convinced that it's experiencing life together, through major occurrences (like a job layoff) and mundane activities (like Wal-Mart trips) that will allow us to decide whether we should get married. The more time we've been together, the more we've seen each other handle life, and this is the best way to build the foundation for a long and happy marriage.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Wells Photography