If you’ve been dating around for a while, contemplating the idea of marriage, or have spent time around loved-up couples, you’ve probably heard someone say, ‘Don’t marry the one you love; marry the one who loves you.’ On a surface level, this advice sounds golden.
Who doesn’t want to be loved and adored by their partner!? But is this TRULY good advice? Look a little closer, and you might find the answer isn’t as shiny or simple as you first thought. Let’s dive in and dissect the complexities of marriage, love, and everything in between.
Plainly, marriage is defined as ‘the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. It's not so romantic as our floaty proverb. Traditionally, marriage was an economic alliance between two families and a means of securing status and resources. In some countries, especially developing countries, this is still the case, and arranged marriages are more common than love matches.
Interestingly, studies show that arranged marriages are no less likely to succeed than marriages built on an existing love. In fact, in Sri Lanka, where arranged marriages constitute the majority of unions, the divorce rate is only 1.5%. Compare this to the far higher divorce rate of 27% in the USA, and this suggests that perhaps love has less to do with a long-lasting marriage than you might think.
Conversely, in modern Western culture, the concept of marriage is closely intertwined with that of romantic love. We all love stories such as ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ where the ‘love-at-first-sight’ trope and the ‘I’d die for you’ kind of love unfolds with passion and virility. This type of love is typified by attraction, excitement, and plenty of sex. While this may feel serendipitous and intense, romantic love may not be essential in marriage, or even preferable.
Romantic love is associated with increases in personal well-being, relationship security, and happiness. Studies have also shown that many couples experience declines in romantic love, and how long these feelings persist in a relationship is largely determined by basic reward brain circuitry and genetics. This wouldn’t be such an issue if marriage was only a short-term union, but its nature naturally implies a long-term relationship.
If we circle back to our original question, loving someone and receiving love can be complex and a different experience for everyone. It’s essential to understand what love is and what it means in a relationship. Love is more generally defined as a ‘very strong feeling of liking and caring for somebody/something.’
Research has been working to redefine love to account for how it ebbs and flows over time. One study proposes that love is a quadruple framework of attraction, resonance or connection, trust, and respect. Therefore, someone loving you more than you love them may simply mean that they hold you in greater respect or are more attracted to you.
This does not discount your love for them. Research also shows that friendship and sexual attraction are essential for romantic love, and many individuals describe their partner as their best friend. How this love is expressed in the relationship is different for each member, and some may require more attentive partners than others. Love languages vary, and ascertaining how your partner gives and receives love is key to building a healthy relationship.
It may seem inherently selfish to enter a marriage where you receive more love than you are giving, but if communication is open, this may be fine for your partner, too. Similarly, if the opposite is true, it may just be necessary to communicate your feelings, and your partner may express their commitment to the union in other ways. As long as both individuals feel heard, supported, valued, and cared for and are aware of any worries that arise, the relationship should last long into the future.
Speaking of marriage as though it only requires the traditional idea of love to sustain it simplifies the impact of this union and ignores its inherently complex and dynamic nature. The romantic in us all WISHES this was the case – that marriage could be fuelled by love alone.
But the path to a successful marriage involves a great deal more than physical and emotional attraction, that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you’re together, or butterflies in your stomach. Here is a comprehensive guide to the building blocks of a fulfilling relationship and marriage:
Caring deeply about your significant other is essential to making a long-term commitment and working through hardships together. To love and be loved is a beautiful feeling and should be celebrated through marriage if that is what you both wish.
Research shows that respect is fundamental and essential to commitment and contentment in a relationship. Respecting your partner’s independence, finances, way of being in the world and self-expression can help to cultivate trust and reassure them that you admire the way they are in the world.
Make sure that you are willing to be there for your partner in good and bad times and that they will do the same for you. Life is full of ups and downs. Having someone beside you to help you ride these waves is crucial.
If your partner's core beliefs or morals are not aligned with your own, then it is likely the marriage will not last very long. Research has shown that having shared values is positively correlated with marital well-being.
Being emotionally fulfilled is equally as important as having a sexual relationship with your partner. Notably, what best-selling science writer John Lehrer terms ‘meta-emotion’ (how you feel about feelings) is arguably the only tangible signal variable for predicting whether a marriage will last. Couples with a similar meta-emotional style, such as those that value expressing their emotions, are more likely to stay together, as you share a common language and reduce emotional frustration.
Communicating your feelings with your partner alleviates tensions and increases feelings of trust in a relationship. Sternberg’s triangular theory of love hails effective communication as essential to a healthy relationship and argues that it is required for creating and maintaining attachment and closeness.
Marriage is a long-term commitment, and long passages of time predictably involve evolution and change. Being okay with the fact that your partner will be a different person at the end of the marriage to who they were at the start, and loving them in all of their forms whilst working on yourself and welcoming change guarantees feelings of novelty and excitement in a relationship.