Many Wed Knowing Their Marriage is Doomed
Tracie Donahue had some doubts before the wedding, but she got married anyway.
So did Crystal Neumann and Cherrie Rasmussen, who say they also ignored the red flags and tied the knot, only to sever it later.
"I think it happens a lot," says Donahue, 39, a documentary filmmaker who works in public relations in Sacramento. "Once they start down that process of being engaged - even if they are feeling an inkling 'this isn't right' - we all have this fantasy of what marriage is all about. It helps drive people to think love will overcome all this."
But it didn't - for her and many others who marry despite lingering doubts. Counselors and those who study dating, marriage and divorce say plenty of couples get married when they shouldn't. And their numbers may be increasing, because more couples are casually living together, which can complicate decisions about whether to marry, says Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
Stanley says his research on couples who cohabit before marriage has found that "some of those wouldn't have married if they hadn't been living together."
"People have committed themselves before talking about the commitment to the future, and that can get you walking down the aisle not being sure that's the right thing, or what you want to do," he says.
Stories of people entering marriages they felt were doomed from the start intrigued Carl Weisman of Torrance, Calif., whose book, So Why Have You Never Been Married? 10 Insights Into Why He Hasn't Wed, arrived last year. He says a divorced woman he knows said something he thought was quite profound: "I didn't listen to my inner voice. I knew I was going to divorce him before I even married him." That led Weisman to thinking about others who went into a marriage knowing it wouldn't last. But he couldn't find any academic research on the subject.
So Weisman, 50, who recently married for the first time, surveyed 1,036 people across the country and conducted in-depth interviews with dozens more for his new book, Serious Doubts: Why People Marry When They Know It Won't Last.
Those surveyed had one thing in common: "They all ignored their inner voice," he says. "They knew it wasn't going to last."
About half said they started thinking about getting divorced less than six months after the wedding, he adds.
But that's not to confuse the kind of serious doubts Weisman analyzed with the common premarital jitters that many people feel before taking the leap.
Andrea Candell says her experiences as a relationship coach led her to talk more about this in her book, His Cold Feet: A Guide for the Woman Who Wants to Tie the Knot With the Guy Who Wants to Talk About It Later.
Although the book was largely for women, Candell found a difference between cold feet and more serious reservations.
"Cold feet are focused on jitters around marriage and fears of the unknown - the fear that getting married has no guarantee," says Candell, of Marin County, Calif. "When it's something more than cold feet, the issues focus on the partner."
Reasons can be manifold
Donahue, who cohabited before her 11-year marriage (which ended five years ago), says she didn't heed some early signals, including religious differences. Her parents also didn't approve of their living together without being married, which Donahue says encouraged her to wed. "I was thinking that we were in love and we're going to make it work. I believed in this whole fairy-tale thing on marriage."
Other reasons for proceeding in the face of doubts may also sound familiar - like pregnancy.
That's why Neumann, 26, a non-profit market researcher from Chicago, says she went ahead with it. "I had some concerns in the relationship, but I thought if I got married, we would grow together," she says. "I was 18 at the time and thought it would all work out in the end."
Others may think a partner is too good a catch to pass up - even though there's no spark.
Rasmussen, 51, an office manager in Boise, says she tried to convince herself that she and her second husband were a good match. They enjoyed many of the same activities, including travel. She had financial resources, yet he offered to help her with her kids' college expenses.
She wasn't head over heels, but he was attractive and generous, so Rasmussen told herself "You can learn to love this guy."
"I didn't want to hurt him," she adds.
The marriage lasted about 18 months. "I cared about him, but my heart was not there."
Weisman included in his survey only those who answered yes to the question: "Did you know your marriage would end in divorce before you married?" He sorted for geographic representation, for age and racial and ethnic representation.
Of the 1,036 respondents, 76% of men and 83% of women said that before the marriage they felt "somewhat" or "extremely certain" the marriage would end in divorce. The rest were "slightly certain."
Anecdotes may be telling, but they aren't enough for academic researchers whose studies appear in peer-reviewed journals. @
"Part of the problem is that after the marriage or relationship is in distress, people recast the history of their relationship," says marriage researcher John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle and an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
Stanley agrees. "He has people trying to explain to themselves why it didn't work out."
He says Weisman's data "would be much more compelling if you actually had people's thoughts about how anxious they were on their wedding day" to make sure time hadn't colored their memory of how they felt.
Stanley says a study he's doing now aims to address this.
"We'll have data on how confident they were in the relationship before they took that step," he says. "We don't have it yet."
Like Candell, Weisman says those who had serious doubts before marrying "were worried about what they knew about their partner" rather than having the more vague cold feet.
Weisman cites four categories of reasons people in his survey set aside serious doubts and got married anyway:
External pressures from parents, partner or others.
Misguided motivations (infatuation, to escape parents).
Personal beliefs (such as that the partner will "change").
Thinking they won't find anyone else because of personality traits or low self-esteem.
Social stigma can play a part
Many engaged couples complete some form of premarital counseling or education; some churches require it. And that's where differences in expectations may first appear.
"I have had people who came to a pre-marriage workshop, and it became evident they shouldn't be married," says Presbyterian minister and pastoral counselor Bill Hedrick, executive director of Tidewater Pastoral Counseling in Norfolk, Va.
He says many are the children of divorced parents, which heightens expectations to find the right partner. And other factors would cause someone to proceed with a wedding despite some doubts, he says, including social stigma to be married by a certain age or a belief that options are dwindling.
"Quite frankly, many of us make an unconscious choice: 'I'm ready to be married, and this person has many of the qualities I'm looking for.' 'Of all the people I've ever dated, this person is better than anybody else.' 'If don't take advantage of this, I may have wasted an opportunity.' "
Also, Hedrick believes many people don't even know what a good marriage looks like.
"More than any generation in the past, we have the most unrealistic expectations," he says.
Among those who had a premarital education awakening is Daniel Stoica, 26, an electrical engineer from Fullerton, Calif. He got engaged early last year, then decided to call things off after taking a relationship class.
He says he concluded that "our values were very different."
"I had probably gotten some inklings earlier, but I had chosen to ignore them to keep the peace - a 'don't look for problems' kind of thing," he says.
But he asked himself a question he believes eventually spared him a divorce: " 'Am I happier and in a better place with or without her in my life?' " he says. "I concluded the 'without' would be better than the 'with.' "
Pennsylvania State University sociologist Paul Amato has done studies after divorce, asking people about their reasons; he says the most common were that the two people drifted apart or one of the partners "changed." But Amato says very few say they were a bad match from the start.
"Most people don't get married thinking it's not going to work out."