“You can’t marry someone you just met!” Kristoff exclaims in Disney’s 2013 smash hit movie Frozen. For those of us who grew up in a sea of Ariels (pun intended), Auroras, and Snow Whites, it's a jesting reminder of the much more common Disney narrative in which two characters meet, fall in love, and marry in a very short time frame. Of course Kristoff's objection proves to be well-founded when Prince Hans, whom Princess Anna had met and become engaged to within a matter of minutes, turns out to be a villain. And audiences today applaud the rather common-sense advice that you shouldn’t agree to marry someone you met earlier that morning—although that wasn't always the case.
Indeed, statistics show that many people are waiting much longer to marry than their counterparts just fifty years ago. The median age for first marriages has risen steadily since 1950. In 2010, the median age for men tying the knot for the first time was near 29, and for women it was 27;in 1950, the median ages were 23 for men and 20 for women. Much of this rise is due to changing perceptions about marriage, particularly about the value of pursuing careers and graduate degrees before consideringmarriage. Today,couples in serious relationships who have plans to marry wait much longer before becoming engaged, and the engagement period is increasing rapidly, too.Now, the average engagement time is well over a year. Certainly not the stuff of Disney princesses in the nineties.
So what are we hoping to gain from waiting so long? Is there really a minimum amount of time necessary to safely go frommeeting to dating to engagement to marriage, without all but guaranteeing divorce?
My wife and I actually knew each other for five years before we became engaged. We met in high school and got married in our early twenties, so we had plenty of time to get to know each other. While I can't speak authoritatively for all couples, I will say that time can be a good thing. Not that you should keep dating to hit some arbitrary number of months or years, but because it is over time that you get to know a person's character.
Obviously, in five years we didn’t go through every possible situation together, and we’re still learning plenty about each other even after nine years of marriage. But getting to know one another in a variety of situations gave us good indicators about important issues. For instance, my wife couldn’t know for certain how I would react when we had children. But she did know I liked children and interacted well with them from seeing me around kids over the years. Even more than me saying, “Sure, I like kids,” she was able to see this for herself.
While I think there are many benefits to extended periods of friendship before marriage, I also know this isn’t always the way things work. Some couples meet, date, and marry in an incredibly short time and have wonderful marriages. On the other hand, some couples date for years only to end up in not-so-wonderful marriages. So, in my opinion, there isn’t really a right amount of time for couples to date before getting married. But it is crucial to know a potential spouse well and have a full picture of him or her from a variety of perspectives and experiences. To this end, it’s possible to foster this kind of deeper understanding in a dating relationship, even if only dating for a short amount of time. Here are a few thoughts on how to do that.
01. LEARN AND DEFINE EACH OTHER’S CORE VALUES.
When we begin dating, we often focus on things that are a bit superficial. I don’t mean appearances but things like shared hobbies, interests, and favorite media. Of course, similarities in these areas can be a great beginning, but they are not necessarily a good foundation. It may be great to enjoy eating the same foods or exercising together. But, when dating, it’s dangerous to get stuck on these things. It’s important to find out deeper values, such as your significant other's financial personality, charities, lifestyle, faith, family, and life goals.
02. GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER’S FRIENDS.
I don’t think many people intentionally hide who they truly are while dating. But, it’s easy to do this unintentionally when we’re focused on another person. Without meaning to, we can even change the way we normally talk. Hanging out with someone’s core group of friends is a great way to see someone as he or she usually is. Not that anyone is completely defined by his or her friends, but who we choose to spend time with and the things we do together certainly say something about the person we are and want to be.
03. GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER’S FAMILY.
Plenty of people are significantly different enough from their families to know that no one is defined only by their relatives. Still, you can learn a lot about someone by meeting his or her family—and not just the quirks we pick up from our parents but things like how a man treats his mother, too. If a guy is kind and loving toward his mother and sisters, there’s a good chance he’ll be kind to his wife as well. On the other hand, if he’s rude and impatient with his parents, it’s likely he will treat you similarly once married. Is a bad family life a deal-breaker? Not necessarily. But family is something to pay attention to, even if that just means a frank discussion about expectations and desires for future family life.
04. EXPERIENCE STRESSFUL SITUATIONS TOGETHER.
This one may sound a little funny, but you can learn a lot of important things about someone by seeing how he or she reacts in less-than-ideal events. When my wife and I were dating, we took what should have been a relatively short trip. Then a colossal interstate traffic jam turned a four-hour trip into an eight-hour nightmare. Yet it really wasn’t all that bad. We decided to make the best of it and just enjoyed the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time together. My wife said that trip was a confirmation of our compatibility. She knew that I could remain calm and reasonably pleasant even when things didn’t go my way at all. I’m not saying you should intentionally get stuck in traffic or seek out stressful events, but being aware of how someone acts in these moments is wise.
It may take varying amounts of time for different couples to learn about and understand each other. Still, it’s possible and beneficial to know someone well before you marry, and acquiring that knowledge doesn’t have to take forever. Choosing a marriage partner is a monumental decision, but being intentional in learning about each other is more important than any indefinite waiting period.