On one hand, parenthood is tremendously rewarding for people who make the decision to become parents the right way. On the other hand, even in the best case scenario, child-rearing is also one of the most difficult and stressful of life's experiences that a couple can share.
In many cases, young couples assume they will necessarily become parents simply because that is what is expected of them and because they are socialized to believe that everyone should become a parent. Consider how infrequently anyone ever asks couples (or single individuals, for that matter) if they're planning on becoming parents. Usually, it is more or less assumed that parenthood less a specific decision and more just an inevitable stage of life that everyone goes through (Bradshaw, 2002).
In fact, not everyone is necessarily cut out for parenthood but that is comparatively less often presented as a realistic option for healthy married couples. As difficult as the many strains of raising children can be on parents who make a healthy and fully conscious choice to have children, they are monumentally more difficult on couples who just drift into becoming parents by the momentum of societal expectation or who choose to do so for specific (wrong) reasons other than their truest desires. Naturally because of the magnitude and importance of this decision, the individual attitudes, beliefs, and expectations of marital partners should be known to each other and thoroughly discussed and be compatible within their respective worldview of the other long before the couple decides to become parents, or for that matter, to become a married couple in the first place (Bradshaw, 2002; Branden, 2004; DeAngelis, 2001).
Issues of Attraction in Marriage:
Certainly, physical attraction is a superficial component of human relations; on the other hand, we are naturally evolved to respond differently to others based on sexual (and various other superficial) traits. In fact, but for the sexual impulse, comparatively few adults would have any expectation or desire to find a live-in life partner. Exceptions exist at both ends of the spectrum, but generally, couples who remain sexually attractive to one another throughout their marriage are likely to be happier together than couples who do not.
Naturally, nobody expects to look the same at 50 as at 25 or for sex to be as exciting in long-term monogamous marriage as in dating. However, there is a big differenced between aging as gracefully as possible and completely giving up every effort to remain sexually attractive after marriage the way many couples do. More specifically, it is not so much that couples necessarily fall apart after marriage; rather, they reverse their priorities with respect to physical attraction, their spouses, and the world outside the home. Before marriage (and especially while single) most people devote considerable effort to their appearance. Generally, the greatest effort in that regard is reserved for prospective dates and during courtship leading to marriage (Branden, 2004).
Therefore, to the extent continued sexual fulfillment is an element of success in marriage, there are certain patterns that are destructive in that regard. When either spouse responds to being married as though there is no longer any point to watching one's weight (for just one typical example) that may not impact the love of one's spouse, but it very well may have a negative effect on sexual attraction, and therefore, sexual relations in marriage.
Ironically, as singles, we make the greatest effort to look our most attractive for the person in whom we have a potential romantic interest. Once married, however, many people take their appearance for granted when it comes to one's spouse, and make more effort to look one's best for relative strangers. By itself, that may not necessarily threaten a marriage or make it unsuccessful; but it hardly helps the matter and it is easily avoidable. If he or she was worth the effort to look good for to attract, he or she is worth the effort to look good for after the commitment to lifelong monogamy.
Maintaining Realistic Expectations for Married Life:
Family counselor John Bradshaw (2004) explains extensively how much the common problems in marriage have to do with power struggles that erupt at relatively predictable periods after marriage. Too often, couples never discuss their respective expectations about what married life will actually be once the excitement of engagement, wedding planning, and honeymoons are over and married life actually begins.
Ironically, it is often relatively small issues that can generate conflict during this stage: such things as whether or not the family ordinarily eats dinner at the kitchen table or in the dining room, or with the television on or off may never come up until a married couple is already sharing a home. Very often, when these types of conflicts first come up, both partners bring to the marriage a relatively inflexible expectation of what happens in the family and what is "right" in those matters (Bradshaw, 2002).
Therefore, another important feature of successful marriages are those in which the partners make a conscious effort to anticipate these issues, to discuss them, and to resolve them in a conscious and open-minded, conciliatory fashion when they arise instead of reacting unconsciously and defensively (Hendricks & Hendricks, 1999). That may be one intuitive reason to consider living together before marriage, except that most statistics show that unmarried cohabitating couples have a lower success rate than married couples (DeAngelis, 2001).
On the other hand, one plausible way of interpreting those data is that unmarried cohabitating couples are simply more free to split up at the first sign of trouble whereas married couples have too much invested not to work through initial problems. Likewise, it may also be that unmarried cohabitating couples who break up without ever getting married are some of the same couples who would either have divorced had they been married or simply stayed together unhappily as many couples do. It is probably much less likely that anything more specific about unmarried cohabitation (other than the increased difficulty and drama of terminating a marriage) necessarily contributes to higher failure rates among unmarried cohabitating couples (Branden, 2004; DeAngelis, 2001).
Either way, probably what is more important than whether or not a couple is formally married when they move in together for the first time is whether or not they realize that permanently combining two lives in a single residence requires adjustments and compromises on the part of both parties. To a large degree, that perspective depends on the understanding that certain expectations may be inconsistent with those of one's partner. A conscious and compassionate approach to resolving differences is essential to the success of marriage, but discussing respective expectations inn advance and resolving differences before they manifest themselves as marital problems is even more important (Branden, 2004; Hendricks & Hendricks, 1999).
Undoubtedly, maintaining a successful marriage is a substantial challenge, at least in relation to the general statistics of marital success. Selecting appropriate prospects for marital partners is the earliest opportunity to make good decisions conducive to marital success. Generally, that requires a conscious approach to mate selection instead of unconscious adherence to the repetition compulsion. It also requires a realistic appreciation of what aspects of a relationship are of crucial long-term importance and which are not. In that regard, the most important element of successful marriages is the shared core values and a compatible worldview.
Once partners are well matched, there are good and bad reasons to get married as well as good and bad reasons to become parents. Neither decision should be a function of automatic assumptions, comparisons to friends and acquaintances, or the expectations of family and friends. Even well-matched individuals are at much greater risk of marital failure when they make their most important joint decisions poorly. Marriage should not be the end of either partner's desire to remain attractive to the other because sexual intimacy is also an important feature of successful marriages.
Generally, the most important tools for ensuring (or at least increasing) the chances of marital success are an open and conscious mind and a realization that even people who love each other have differences. Ultimately, it is the way couples approach, respond to, and resolve their differences that determines the success of their marriage more than whether or not any differences arise because they always do.
Bradshaw, J. (2002) Creating Love: The Next Great Stage of Growth. New York:
Branden, N. (2004) The Psychology of Romantic Love. New York: Bantam.