Hey, you wanna buy a car? Here’s my offer: If you give me $50,000 I’ll deliver a vehicle to you next year. Until then, you don’t get to drive it or see it. Maybe it’s a new Lamborghini, or maybe it’s a ’77 Pinto with a tendency to explode.
Any takers? I didn’t think so. No one with a lick of common sense would take that deal, yet I routinely meet men, and more than a few women, who use that method to make a much more important decision: they marry people they haven’t truly gotten to know. Occasionally they get lucky, but more often they deeply regret it.
These men discover too late that their values clash, or that their new wives have emotional problems they refuse to get treated. Sometimes they learn they are miles apart in their approach to money or sex; or their new in-laws are a hot mess; or they’ve married into a mountain of hidden debt; or she’s simply violent or unreasonable when she’s angry.
The list of regrets I’ve heard from men who married too soon is as long as a Jane Austen novel. You’d have to use large type, but you get my point. Marrying a woman you barely know—a misstery, if you will—is a disturbingly common tactical blunder.
A man named Jason recently asked me how to avoid marrying a misstery. Jason is divorced and would like to marry again since family is important to him. He understands the danger of marrying blindly because he was burned when his first wife turned out to be mean as a snake whenever she didn’t get her way.
Jason’s challenge is that he is part of a conservative religious community, the rules of which make it difficult for couples to learn about each other before marriage. He’s facing a more extreme version of the question all men face: How can I uncover her true character before we tie the knot.
For most men, the answer is relatively straightforward: only partner with a woman after a long, purposeful courtship. To really learn about a person, you have to get beyond the honeymoon phase which is a chemically altered state of mind that makes it difficult for a couple to see each other clearly. It’s only after the honeymoon fades and neurochemistry returns to baseline that we can collect reliable data on her personality and coping skills. According to one line of research, the honeymoon phase can last between 12 and 18 months (Fisher 2016).
How can you tell when your brain is recovering from the honeymoon phase? One indication is that you start to become a bit annoyed with each other. Hopefully the annoyances are minor, but you’re no longer idealizing each other.
For example, maybe you once found it charming that she spent so much time primping before a date, but now you’re becoming annoyed that she keeps you waiting. Your mind begins to calculate how many days, weeks, or years will be lost over your lifetime waiting for her as she wrestles with her curling iron.
If so, congratulations. The honeymoon is fading. Now you can spend some time getting to know her as she truly is, possibly avoiding a disaster.
Take your time. One study revealed that couples who date for three years have a much lower divorce rate than those who date less than one year (Francis-Tan and Mailon 2015). You could make a good argument that the value of courtship is in breaking up with the wrong people as much as sticking with the right one.
As an aside, the same study revealed that expensive weddings are inversely associated with the duration of marriages. Maybe that’s because a showy, “look at me!” wedding is an attempt by some couples to avoid the knowledge that they’re committing the blunder of a lifetime.
Let’s get back to Jason. He understands all this, but his religious community—which gives him many advantages in life—is a bit of an encumbrance in the dating department.
For example, they would disapprove of him spending too much time alone with a girlfriend. Jason’s community is far less intrusive than Apollonia Vitelli’s in The Godfather. However, things like spending the night together or taking a private vacation would be deeply frowned upon. That means there will be limited opportunity for genuine disagreements to develop during courtship. If there are no real disagreements, then it’s impossible to know how she handles herself during conflict.
The women in his community also expect courtship to occur relatively quickly, meaning romantic decisions might take place during that dangerous period of altered brain chemistry. This might strike you as an unreasonable demand, but it is the same constraint many men place upon themselves voluntarily when they let their hormones make decisions.
A short courtship prevents men from assessing things like how well she handles herself during a bad day, or how cognitively and emotionally stable she is. It’s especially difficult to detect covert problems like depression, addiction, or even personality disorders.
Ultimately, no woman is a marriage prospect without sufficient opportunity to observe her in real life, away from supervision. How could she be? A prospect, by definition, includes some awareness of what you’re getting into. Without that awareness, it’s just a guess. Given all that’s at stake for men in marriage, not the least of which is the possibility of ending up in family court, blind guesses are recklessly foolish.
However, there’s hope for Jason. He can hedge his bets by using a basic technique every man should use: getting to know her indirectly through her friends and family.
Though risk can never be entirely eliminated, Jason (and you) can reduce risk by working his way into her inner circle. He may need to defy convention and flatly reject the pressure to marry quickly—as all men should—so he can spend a couple of years cultivating relationships with her friends and family. This means closing his mouth and listening intently and dispassionately to their natural, unsolicited assessment of his girlfriend. Do they regard her as a blessing, or as a chore? He can catch a glimpse of his future in their experiences with her.
He also needs to watch for signs that she has freely and willingly chosen values that align with his, as we all do. I respect Jason’s commitment to his religion. I also realize that the more stringent a person’s value system is, the harder it is to maintain and defend. They will face challenges to their values as a couple, and he will want to know that she has explored the alternatives and has chosen her values willingly above all others.
This strategy also applies to all men. We men have a tendency to overlook differences in values when we’re dating someone who looks great on paper. Some of the most frequently and dangerously overlooked imbalances concern money and sex. These are two of the most common factors in divorce.
One of the great disadvantages of Jason’s religious community is that premarital sex is forbidden. Good risk management means reducing uncertainty. That makes premarital sex a wise vetting strategy for both partners, but it needs to be used judiciously since good sexual chemistry blinds couples—especially men—to unpleasant realities we’d rather not acknowledge if it means saying goodbye to the sex.
Good sex can even motivate men to actively overlook glaring problems. I’ve lost track of the number of men who have told me, “I know I should break up with her, but the sex is too good.” Many of these men fear they have no other options. They always do, though they sometimes need to put themselves in better order to realize those options.
Back to Jason. Everything has an upside, even his mandate against premarital sex. Since it’s off the table for Jason, his decision will be less encumbered by that distraction, hopefully enabling him to better assess compatibility in other areas.
Marriage may be a religious undertaking for Jason, but divorce is an entirely secular matter in which the deck will be stacked against him should he ever find himself in family court. Ultimately, if religion or any other factor prevents a man from discovering the true character of a woman, then he simply shouldn’t marry her unless he’s ready to take a dangerous gamble with his future.
Fisher, H. 2016. Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Francis-Tan, A., and H.M. Mailon. 2015. “‘A Diamond Is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration.” Economic Inquiry 53:1919-1930.