Photo Credit: Guian Bolisay

Is it a Marriage or a Relationship?

By Judith Beebe, M.A.

Topics: Coupling in the New Millenium

Finding a partner to love and trust in a long-term relationship has become harder than ever. Discerning whether you and the person you are dating would have a happy marriage can be an even more daunting task. When dating goes beyond casual and seems to perhaps be going in a more serious direction, there are some helpful signs to look for, indicating that two people could be great partners in a great marriage together. But even if a relationship doesn’t have all of these elements initially, they can be developed and practiced, helping the relationship to grow into one that has the potential to become a great marriage.

  1. Both partners feel equal. Because true intimacy, intimacy of the heart, requires equality, there should never be a power imbalance in a relationship that is moving toward marriage. Both partners have to feel that they still have ownership over their own decisions, while at the same time willingly accepting the responsibility to check in with the other partner about important decisions. Partners feel that they have some say over each other’s use of time, space, and energy, while still retaining their own autonomy. This can be a tricky understanding to reach, or it can be effortless. For example, a male partner might plan an annual five-day hiking trip with friends. He has never thought to check in with previous girlfriends about whether she would be O.K. with him taking the hiking trip this year, given the time, expense and physical toll. But with this girlfriend, it “just feels right” to ask her before he makes this year’s travel plans. When those two people are right for each other long-term, it usually feels right and natural to her that he would stop and ask her first – not for permission, exactly, but just to be sure they are both on the same page. They might disagree about whether the trip is the right thing for him to participate in this year, and they can negotiate that and reach an agreement that is acceptable for both of them. In any case, checking in feels natural and normal for their relationship.
  2. Both partners feel heard. In a world where people often feel like “just another number”, it’s so important to feel that one’s voice is heard in our most intimate relationships. In order to make a marriage great, both partners need to develop the ability to say, “This is what I need”, “This is what I want”, and “This is how I am feeling”. They also must develop the ability to listen well to how their partner is feeling, what their partner needs, and what their partner wants. The wants are not just superficial, like a new car or a winning lottery ticket. The wants come from both partners’ deeply held values. The ability to ask sincerely what the other person wants, needs and is feeling, at just the right time, shows genuine caring about the other partner, and is another skill that makes a marriage great. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability to open up about one’s needs, wants, and feelings, giving the words a certain weight of value and significance. Looking into each other’s eyes and sharing honestly from the heart, creates the secure sense that “We are a team”. It can be as simple as asking, “How did you sleep?” or as deep as the retelling of an adoption story.
  3. Both partners feel like adults together, not like a parent and child, or like two children. In other words, great partners bring out the best in each other. If there are frequent and repetitive arguments that disintegrate into childish name-calling, or if one person always has to hold the power in the relationship, then this couple might not be able to make each other happy long-term. If two people use their time together purely to enjoy escapist pleasures such as going to movies or hanging out at the local pub, then they might not have the experience to know if they would bring out the best in each other in real-life situations. Couples need to experience each other in a variety of contexts, such as escapist pleasures, at work, with family and close friends, and active recreation, in order to discern whether they bring out the best in each other. All is not lost if there is a childish argument or power-grabbing; spending time together in a variety of contexts is an opportunity to develop the skill of consistently being adults together. While two people observe how they interact in a variety of contexts, they also have the opportunity to show that they are mature and worthy of respect. They have the opportunity to bring up disagreements kindly but firmly. They also have the opportunity to learn about their partner’s habits and tastes, and deeply held personal values. If you can say that you are both better people since you started dating each other, then you might have the makings of a long and happy marriage.
  4. Both partners desire to become more emotionally and physically intimate, at a pace that is comfortable for both. They have felt genuine empathy, the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes, and they have demonstrated their empathy with supportive words and actions. They have both been on the giving end of empathy, and the receiving end, and they are comfortable with both. They feel sexually attracted to each other, and they are reaching out to each other physically in ways that they both enjoy, and that feel natural for both. They have both talked about their deeply held values. There is respect, without pressure to be identical. They are able to make “Heart Statements”. A Heart Statement includes a feeling word plus “I” or “me”. Examples are, “I am sorry I hurt you by abusing porn” or “Your spending habits make me fearful for our financial future.” Of all of the points to look for in a relationship that might be leading towards marriage, the skill of Heart Statements is crucial. The ability to apologize is a prime example. The giver of the apology has to be strong and vulnerable at the same time, talking about the way(s) they have messed up, but being grown-up enough to admit it. The listener is called upon to be strong and vulnerable too. Forgiving the other person feels like an open invitation to hurt you again, but showing the emotional generosity to let an offense go, without exacting punishment, takes a lot of strength and maturity. Heart Statements help two intimates to know each other better. Some dating couples haven’t had significant conflicts that required an apology, and that’s O.K. too. In fact, that’s great! Other Heart Statements such as “I am so stressed, I really need a hug”, and a simple “I love you” also help your partner to know your heart better.
  5. The couple begin to share their long-term goals, desires, plans, and dreams; they begin to share joys and successes together; and they begin to process losses and disappointments together. They begin to tell “The Story of Us”. In other words, it is no longer enough to admire each other’s accomplishments and success. Both want to contribute to each other’s success. Both allow the other to contribute to theirs. It is no longer enough to feel empathy for each other’s setbacks and griefs. Partners feel it personally, and want to be the first to comfort and assist. They begin to think and feel in terms of “our accomplishments and successes” and “our setbacks and griefs”. They start to feel “married” before the formalities of a ceremony. They can’t imagine life without the other. They experience themselves as a “unit” or a “team”, something more than just a dating couple. They feel like they are married, more than in a relationship.

These are the skills I look for in couples who ask me about their suitability for marriage. It’s not a terrible sign if one or more of the skills aren’t there currently. They can be learned with practice. But no one wants to have a mediocre marriage, or to be a mediocre partner. It’s most important to notice within oneself if it’s enjoyable, important, and meaningful to work on these skills with this person. It’s also good to consider whether you would find joy and deep meaning in practicing these five points with this person over the course of many years. Then when the time comes to make those big promises, you will have the confidence in your ability to be a great partner in a great marriage.

© 2016 Judith Beebe. All rights reserved.
Did you know? Judith Beebe offers empathetic and effective psychotherapy in Princeton, NJ and by Skype. Read More →