How Long Should You Date Someone Before Getting Married?

Two people holding hands with a lawn and leaves in the background.

It’s a story we all know and love: two people meet, seemingly on accident. They bump into each other on the street, their dogs get tangled up on an afternoon walk, they try to buy the same box of cereal at the store. But from the moment they look into each other’s eyes, it’s clear that this was no accident. No, this is fate— and they are each other’s one true love.

When we see this story in the movies, it seems like our heroes should just hightail it to the chapel right then and there. After all, it’s just so obvious that they are meant to be! But when it comes to our own love stories, it’s much tougher to be certain of our feelings. Is he really “the one”? Is it too soon to ask her to marry you? Are you insane for even thinking about the church and the white dress (much less the future that follows)? When, exactly, is the “right time” to get married!?

Look around and you’ll see couples with wildly different stories and success rates in their marriages, from your neighbors to your favorite celebrities. Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky got engaged after 10 months and have been married 10 years. Brad and Angelina, however, lived as partners and co-parents for nine years, but divorced after two years as husband and wife. Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande are currently filling our Twitter feeds with the fallout of their brief engagement (which happened after only two weeks of dating). Oprah and Stedman have been going strong for over 30 years with no plans to “make it official.”

Even in my own life, the data is pretty inconclusive; my parents had known each other for five whole months when they got married, and they just celebrated 30 years of marriage. My husband and I dated for eight years before getting married (and while it’s only been three months—so far, so good). It seems like there may not be one “right time” for couples to wed. But while the rest of us have struggled to suss out an answer, psychologists and researchers have been studying the issue with the best tool they have: cold, hard, data.

Learning About Love

A young newlywed couple laying on the floor and looking at each other with moving boxes in the background.

Back in 2015, Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M. Mialon, who are both researchers at Emory University, published a study in Economic Inquiry. The study aimed to determine whether a marriage’s success could be predicted based on how much money the couple spent on their big day. They questioned 3,000 couples on the details of their nuptials, from how much the ring cost to how many guests watched them say “I do.” Their conclusion: if you want your marriage to last, spend as little as possible (they even suggested spending no more than $2,000 on the ring), but also invite as many guests as you can.

Of course, spending isn’t the only factor that decides your happily ever after, so Francis-Tan and Mialon also looked at other variables, including how long the couple had been dating. What did they find? Simply put, longer courtships lead to longer marriages. According to data, dating for one to two years before getting engaged can reduce your risk of divorce by 20%. Dating for three years or more can have an even greater effect, dropping the divorce risk to half that of couples who’ve been dating less than a year.

The Right Question

You may be thinking, “The longer you date, the more successful you’ll be?! That should have been pretty obvious.” But it turns out that this isn’t even the whole story. In a 2017 study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers Laura VanderDrift, James McNulty, and Levi Baker performed six studies on various couples to determine their marital success. According to their findings, the length of time you’ve known your sweetheart doesn’t mean much—if you’re not willing to work on your relationship.

In fact, this team’s research revealed that the most successful couples are the ones who work hard for the future of their relationship. This can mean many different things: working together toward a common goal, making sacrifices for your spouse, or adjusting your plans to better serve the relationship. People are always changing and growing, and over the years the person you love may become someone totally new, but those couples who are willing to work at it will always stick together.

Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Deciding to get married shouldn’t be about the “right time”; plenty of whirlwind couples have stuck it out over the years, and plenty of long-time loves have eventually fallen apart. Instead of asking “Is it too soon?” ask yourself “Am I willing to make it work, whatever it takes?” By reframing the question, you can get down to the crux of what makes a marriage last— and your relationship will be all the happier for it.

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