Earlier this week, a Montana woman pled guilty to an act that goes against society’s strongest expectations about what marriage is supposed to be: long-lasting and blissful. Wed to her husband all of eight days, she confessed to him that she was unhappy while on a hike in Glacier National Park, and in an ensuing quarrel pushed him off a cliff to his death.
Cases of newlywed matriticide are rare, but not feeling unbridled joy after a wedding isn’t that unusual. While the nature of marriage is changing, demographers still expect some 80% of people to become a husband or wife, and those unions aren’t all going to have fairy-tale endings — or beginnings. “You fall in love with someone and then you discover whether you have what it takes to stay in love,” says psychology professor Benjamin Karney, who has studied newlyweds at the University of California, Los Angeles, for 20 years. “And if you’re lucky, you do.”
Researchers like Karney have, however, given lovers a little more than luck to rely on for predicting future marital happiness. In one recent study, he and colleague Tom Bradley asked 464 new spouses about any doubts they experienced about getting married and then compared their answers to divorce rates and levels of marital satisfaction over the next four years. The 47% of men and 38% of women who said they had doubts were more likely to be unhappy at the start of their marriages and even unhappier over time. Female intuition proved especially potent; women who had cold feet divorced at 2.5 times the rate of women who didn’t. “Some people have doubts they have ignored and now they are confronting the reality of those doubts,” Karney says.
Another growing body of research highlights the dangers of what psychologists call the inertia theory—an academic term for young people’s tendency to slide into marriage simply because it’s the path of least resistance. These are couples who might have moved in together to save money, or because one person wanted to and the other person was simply willing. Their lives become entwined, they share an address, they buy things together, and even if their devotion to the each other doesn’t increase, breaking up becomes harder to do than simply staying together. “It’s like a giant game of musical chairs at that stage of life,” says Scott Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Denver who specializes in cohabitation research. “Some people sit down too quickly on a seat that somebody spilled pop on, and it’s sticky and hard to get back up.”
The couples most at risk of wedded un-bliss, Stanley says, are those who move in together before being married or engaged and without ever having a conversation about whether the decision was a step on the way to an altar. “There’s a substantial number of people in that group who marry somebody they wouldn’t have married if they hadn’t moved in with them,” he says. Not all of these couples are doomed, of course, but they’re at a higher risk for unhappiness, and there are a lot of them. In one study, Stanley and his colleagues found that about twice as many people who move in together say they “slid into it” rather than “really talked about it and made a decision.”
This wasn’t such an issue 30 or 40 years ago when marriage was more of a starting point. “You graduate from high school, get married, and that’s the beginning of your life,” Karney says. “Now marriage is a capstone for many people. Marriage is a status symbol.” Couples want to wait until she’s finished graduate school and he’s gotten the dream job before they top it off with a wedding cake. This shift—described in a New York Times op-ed by Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin—means people are marrying later, and that increases the likelihood of people deciding to get married so they can keep up with their married peers.
New spouses also aren’t going to be off to a great start if they got married for purely financial reasons, Karney says, or because they wanted to be on their spouse’s healthcare plan. A couple in their first six months of marriage might also be in for heartbreak if they say that they never disagree, says Linda Acitelli, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston. In her 1993 study of 373 couples all married less than a year, 40% said they couldn’t think of a single spat they had in the last month. “People who say they never disagree are creating an illusion,” she says. “There’s going to be some tension you’re holding and it will come out in some other way.” The study also analyzed how conflict resolution related to their happiness. Unsurprisingly, those who said they resolved conflicts in similar and constructive ways, like having calm discussions or listening to each other, were more likely to be satisfied in their relationship.
Even if they can avoid these decisions, there are people who simply are more likely to struggle in a marriage, the victims of what social scientists call selection effects. There are characteristics associated with rocky marriages such as being impoverished, having parents who divorced, or having a parent who continually initiated and ended relationship after relationship. And these experiences can make the inevitable tensions that any newlywed will have to negotiate, like juggling in-laws and money management, more acute. “Joining two households and two lives, that can be full of all sorts of challenges,” Karney says, “some of which are unexpected.”
Still, aspiring spouses can take comfort in the fact that, despite all the risks, most newlywed couples are indeed blissful—and certainly not murderous. They can also take the advice of the experts who have engrossed themselves in the subject: Have a clear discussion about what it means and why you’re doing it before moving in with someone else. Don’t get married just to be married. And think about whether your partner has the less sexy qualities that help you stay in love, like being effective at conflict resolution, as well as the sexy ones that made you fall in love in the first place. “It really matters who you choose,” Karney says. “If you have doubts, especially if you’re a woman, listen to those doubts, because relationships just don’t change that much.”