"So When Will I Be Ready for Marriage?"

Peter’s question was in reaction to his Dad’s statement, “I just don’t think you’re prepared for marriage.”  His father sounded sincere and concerned, but he was not grasping how much Peter wanted to get married. True, Peter was only twenty-one and not yet finished with college. True, he owed about $35,000 in student loans and was working only part-time at a nearby Starbucks coffee shop. True, he had never really been on his own in terms of independent living. Still, he simply did not understand why he shouldn’t get married.  He was of legal age and did not even need his parents’ consent. His girlfriend, Paula, was one year younger in age and two years behind him in college. For several weeks she had been urging Peter to make a decision about getting married. They loved each other and wanted to be together full-time. Besides, she was tired of living at home with her parents and younger siblings. In spite of her parents’ doubts about her readiness for marriage she was eager to leave and be on her own with Peter. Her parting words from an earlier phone conversation echoed in his mind: “We love each other so everything has to work out okay. There’s no need to wait any longer. Let’s get married.”

Given their situation, what do you think Peter and Paula decided? Like the majority of contemporary young adults in love they ignored parental advice and chose to get married and begin their travels on the Marriage Highway. And, like the majority of contemporary young adults who are not ready for marriage, they divorced after only two years of marital turmoil. Disappointed and disillusioned, they now face many years of stress in regard to their deep indebtedness and the overwhelming responsibility of child-care for their three-month-old son. Their personal and family losses are huge, and the negative fallout will follow them throughout life. The practical realities of life won out over their pressing romanticism of love that “love is enough.”

The example of Peter and Paula* is not uncommon in today’s culture, for their story represents a pattern that seems pervasive among young adults today. The pattern can have many variations, but the basic theme remains constant:  men and women enter the Marriage Highway without the necessary readiness. These couples pay a heavy personal price for their decisions, and they leave a trail of messes for their families (or someone) to clean up. On a larger scale the whole of society is affected adversely by the plethora of premature and immature marriages. The current divorce rate (over 50% for first marriages) should be telling us that something is wrong with our society’s approach to marriage. Various factors play a role in this alarming rate of divorce, and all of them merit our consideration. This current article focuses upon one of these factors, namely, readiness for marriage. 

Marital readiness is not a guarantee of marital success, but it does provide a strong reassurance that a healthy, satisfying marriage is attainable. Conversely, the lack of readiness sounds a death knoll even before the wedding bells are heard. With these ideas in mind let’s get back to Peter’s original question:  “So when will I be ready for marriage?” Without doubt the issue of readiness means different things to different people. When I speak of readiness I’m not referring to perfect preparation for marriage. While that level of preparedness might be ideal it’s certainly not workable, especially in light of our human shortcomings. Therefore, let’s change the word “perfect” to “reasonable.”  Reasonable readiness is achievable, and it is vitally necessary for a successful marriage. Furthermore, the question is not about the level of love Peter and Paula felt for each other; we’re not questioning that they were in love. Instead, the issue relates to how ready they are to take that love and make it work in day-to-day practical living. Their belief that “love is enough” is a hormone-driven delusion that delivers a future that differs dramatically from their predicted “they-lived-happily-ever-after” fantasy world. With few exceptions divorced people with whom I’ve talked have affirmed that “being in love” was present when the decision was made to get married. If “being in love is enough” then the 50% divorce rate should be only about 5%! Love is clearly a necessity to a good marriage, but love itself will not offset or make up for the lack of practical readiness.

In October, 2010 I wrote and published an article entitled “Preparing for Your Marriage Journey.” That article, available on my website, encouraged individuals contemplating marriage to prepare well for a life-long journey on the Marriage Highway. I recommended strongly that every couple participate in professional premarital counseling. As stated in that article, the goal of the premarital counseling (at least the type that I provide) is simply this:  “to prevent a major mistake and prepare for a meaningful marriage.” I also recommended that couples utilize the PREPARE inventory that is a component of the PREPARE/ENRICH program.  (A link to that earlier article is provided at the end of this current article.)

Our basic question remains: When are we ready for marriage? That question deserves as much consideration as we can provide, much more than is possible in this short article. Over the past thirty-five years I’ve worked with thousands of couples who were either struggling in their marriages or were dealing with divorce adjustments. I recall that many participants in therapy sessions or in divorce recovery workshops had reached the conclusion that “I wasn’t ready for marriage.” That painful admission was inherent in their assessment of their premarital readiness. “I didn’t know what I really wanted.”  “I didn’t understand my expectations of marriage.” “I wasn’t ready emotionally.”  “I was not ready to support a family financially.” “I was too immature.” “I was blinded by the feelings of being in love.” “I was unrealistic about the whole thing.” “I just wanted an escape from my unhappy life with my parents.” “I guess I was just blinded by my desire for sex.” The variations might seem endless, but the common theme is obvious: these individuals were simply not ready for marriage. Do you think that you would hear different conclusions if you were to talk with divorced individuals? Let’s suppose that, intrigued by the issue of readiness, you decide to survey 5,000 individuals who ended their marriage last year through divorce.  You ask each one of them a simple question:  “Do you think now that you were reasonably ready for marriage when you decided to get married?” My prediction is that the majority of them would quickly respond, “Ready? No, I was not ready.”  They might add the admission “But naïvely I thought I was ready” or “But blindly I believed that our love would magically make everything work out okay.”  

In my work as a professional therapist and family life educator I’ve gained some insight into the specific areas in which more preparation for marriage is needed. In the remainder of this article I’d like to explore several of these areas. Since we’re considering the issue of mate selection, let’s examine these areas in relation to the word M.A.T.E. Using the word as an acrostic we’ll look at four components of reasonable readiness.

M=  Mature:  Ready for Independent Living.

The letter “M” in the word MATE suggests the word “mature.” Readiness for marriage begins with the presence of maturity in both the man and the woman. Each one of them has matured enough so that they are ready for independent living. More specifically, each one is currently living an independent lifestyle that reflects and demonstrates maturity.

In regard to maturity let’s recall our young man Peter. Is he mature enough to succeed in an independent-living experience? Clearly, Peter would need to be of sufficient chronological age to be allowed to leave the family home. In our culture that age usually occurs with the attainment of legal-age status, for example, nineteen years of age. However, age alone is not enough; the majority of nineteen-year-old young men are not fully ready for independent living. The mature individual has already been launched into adulthood and is demonstrating effective coping skills. He is financially independent and is supporting himself without the aid of his parents or other people. He is no longer emotionally or psychologically dependent upon his parents. Instead, he feels confident in his abilities to deal with life, demonstrated by his ability to make good decisions through effective prioritizing and problem-solving. He is self-controlled and self-disciplined enough to complete tasks that have been started and to endure hardships that occur in the process. The mature person has already completed the education or training needed for a chosen career. He has achieved financial stability and is financially able to provide for a wife and children. Has Peter reached this level of maturity, and, if not, why would he believe that he is fully ready for marriage? These same traits of maturity are relevant for Paula as well. Any woman considering marriage needs to be mature enough to have reached a state of reasonable readiness. Please note that these various aspects of maturity have been completed prior to getting married. In other words, we don’t “get married to grow up”; rather, we get married after we’ve already grown up! The statement “let’s get married and grow up together” might sound romantic, but the resulting journey is certainly not realistic. In terms of reasonable readiness both Peter and Paula still have a great deal of work to do before embarking on the Marriage Highway.

Let’s consider the issue of maturity through another question. What is “too young” to get married? We’re too young when we’re still dependent upon our parents in terms of physical, financial, and emotional needs. We’re too young when we’re unable to practice self-control in regard to our emotions, wants, pleasures, and behavior in general.  We’re too young when the attraction to marriage is the availability of sex rather than the opportunity for a healthy home. We’re too young when we’re not willing to commit to a responsible lifestyle with a spouse.  We’re too young when we’re not equipped to provide financially for a family.  So, what’s “too young”? The answer could be age 20 or 30 or 50—or never for some people who refuse to grow up.  Maturity is more than a chronological age; it’s a demonstrated lifestyle!

Many young adults move into marriage straight out of the parental home. How wise is this common practice? What are the long-term implications of getting married without ever having had the life experience of being a single adult who is living independently from parents? If we have never lived on our own in a self-supporting lifestyle, how can we know that we’re willing to exchange singleness for a marriage lifestyle? No doubt you’ve heard of the so-called “midlife crisis.” The typical forty-to-fifty year old man seemingly goes “wild” in that he leaves his wife, children, and current lifestyle in search for freedom and fun. Numerous reasons have been offered to explain this midlife struggle, and they provide varying levels of understanding. I believe that there is one reason that warrants serious consideration. The young man and woman who get married without having lived a single lifestyle will be tempted twenty years later to experience what they “never had” as young adults. The temptation to find out what it’s like to be “adult and single” seems irresistible, and the individual and family pay an extremely heavy price for the effort to recreate something that is now a fantasy doomed to failure.  Conversely, the young man or woman who leaves the family of origin and lives for several years as a self-supporting, single adult knows first-hand what singleness is all about.  Therefore, two decades later they should be able to resist any urges to pursue singleness through a tragic midlife crisis.

The first step in marital readiness is maturity evidenced by effective independent living. If we have not completed this initial step we need to disqualify ourselves as to reasonable readiness. We still have a lot of individual work to do before we can travel the Marriage Highway safely and successfully. So, let’s postpone any specific plans for marriage and continue with our “personalized road construction.” Then we can say, “I may not be ready yet but at least I’m moving in the right direction.”

 A= Aware:  Ready for Purposeful Living.

The letter “A” in the word MATE suggests the word “aware.” The mature individual possesses a level of inner awareness that will increase his readiness for marriage. This concept of awareness includes much more than the realization that “physical touch feels good” or “being in love is so wonderful.” Specifically, the individual who is ready for marriage is aware of two extremely important issues: first, his purpose in life, and, secondly, his expectations of marriage. Both issues deserve our attention.

Let’s recall Peter and Paula from our earlier discussion. Invite Peter to lunch and engage him in conversation about his determination to marry Paula as soon as possible.  Look him straight in the eye and ask him, “Peter, how does this marriage help you fulfill your purpose or mission in your life?” The chances are very high that you’ll see a blank face and you’ll hear something like, “I don’t know what my mission in life is. I’m only 21. Besides, what in the world does Paula have to do with my mission in life?” If you ask Paula the same question, you’ll probably get a similar response. Now it’s possible that each one might respond the way our culture has trained us to think: “Oh, my purpose in life is to be happy, and getting married right now will make me happy.” That response seems to satisfy most people, and therein lays a major problem. We all desire happiness, but, frankly, life is more than just “being happy.” In fact, the pursuit of personal happiness often leads individuals to abuse and misuse other people in order to satisfy personal wants and pleasures.  This self-centered mindset promotes the belief that “my happiness is top priority; what happens to you is secondary.” Hopefully, our purpose in life is much more than a selfish search for whatever makes us feel good.

The awareness of one’s purpose or mission allows that person to make certain that every decision in life, particularly major choices like marriage, will support and promote the fulfillment of that overall purpose.  A key question to answer is this:  “Will this person as my spouse help me or hinder me in the fulfillment of my personal purpose in life?” In contrast, the lack of awareness suggests that the individual is living day-to-day with no sense of personal purpose or ultimate direction. If neither spouse has an understanding of life’s purpose how can the man and woman move forward together in purposeful living? Without purpose how will they know the best way to travel successfully along the Marriage Highway? It is certainly possible that each person is aware of life’s purpose, but the two purposes are in mutual conflict. For example, a man might include in his life purpose the experience of having and rearing several children. However, he chooses to marry a woman who is determined to have a childless marriage. Or, consider a Christian woman whose life purpose is to know God, love God, and follow God’s teachings in the Bible. She meets and falls in love with a man who rejects God and has no respect for the Bible. In both scenarios the conflict in purpose represents a huge threat to individual happiness and to marital success. Readiness for marriage involves an understanding of life’s purpose, a commitment to the pursuit of that purpose, and the determination to select a spouse whose life purpose is similar or the same.

In addition to having an awareness of life’s purpose the mature individual who is ready for marriage will also be aware of his or her expectations of a marriage relationship in general and of a spouse in particular. Every expectation needs to support and promote the fulfillment of each person’s overall purpose in life. Yet too many couples get married without having a clear understanding about expectations. This lack of awareness is worsened by the fact that the two people usually fail to discuss with each other the basic issue of mutual expectations. However, in spite of their lack of awareness and their failure to discuss expectations, they enter into marriage expecting certain things, and, predictably, they experience hurt feelings and painful conflict when their expectations are not fulfilled. Several questions become vitally important. First, why would we ever choose to get married if we don’t know what we expect from marriage? Secondly, why would we ever get married without a disclosure and discussion of mutual expectations? Thirdly, what can we do to grow in our marriage readiness in regard to expectations?

In response to the first two questions, the answer is obvious. We are not ready for marriage if we don’t know what we expect from marriage or if we have not disclosed and discussed our mutual expectations. The answer to the third question can increase our readiness for a healthy, happy marriage. Specifically, we need to take the time and put forth the effort to identify our personal expectations of marriage and to discuss them with our potential spouse. In premarital counseling I encourage couples to complete a thorough examination of mutual expectations, and I’ve developed a worksheet to assist them in their effort. The worksheet is called “Preparing for Marriage:  Exploring Mutual Expectations.”  (If you’re interested in seeing this worksheet, a link is provided at the end of this article.) Sometimes both individuals are willing to accept the other person’s expectations as presented; at other times a particular expectation is negotiated or modified to make it more realistic and more likely to be fulfilled. In completing this work on mutual expectations the couple will either move toward a much healthier marriage or a decision to postpone or cancel their wedding plans. Breaking an engagement is a painful experience, but it is less difficult than going through a tragic divorce years later. The worksheet could be used beneficially by couples who are not participants in premarital counseling, or it could be a key component in their work with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

T= Team-oriented:  Ready for Couple Living.

The third letter “T” in the word MATE suggests the word “team-oriented.” The marriage relationship is clearly a team-oriented activity characterized by working together with partnership and joint-participation. Both spouses know how to talk openly and honestly and how to listen effectively to understand the other person. Both people are skilled in their ability to work and play together; they are effective in problem-solving and decision-making.

Many people are effective in surviving individually in life, but, unfortunately, they are not able to function well in a team-oriented relationship like marriage. Their inability could result from their insistence on making all the decisions or on making no decisions. The first person becomes a “dictator” while the second person is more like an “abdicator.” Each of these individuals is living as if he is still single and may seem oblivious that there is a spouse to include in decision-making and in day-to-day activities. Clearly, a team-oriented spouse would be very frustrated in a marriage with a solo-oriented person. That frustration could be what prompted the comment, “If I wanted to be a married single, I would have stayed single.” If you expect to have partnership in your marriage you’ll need to marry a person who believes in and practices effective teamwork.

The team-oriented spouse is certainly aware of personal preferences, but he is also interested in the other person’s wants and needs. A team-oriented marriage means that both spouses are thinking and acting like a couple, not just like an individual. Selfishness is set aside for the sake of a pursuit of the best results for both people. As an acronym the word “TEAM” presents a key component in wise mate selection:  “Teamwork Enriches All Marriages.”

E= Equipped:  Ready for Practical Living.

The fourth letter “E” in the word MATE suggests “equipped.” The man and the woman are both individually equipped for practical living, that is, for basic survival in life and for accomplishing the realistic goals they set for themselves. Couples who are not properly equipped will probably wind up like Peter and Paula—or like Jesse and Jennifer.* At age twenty-two Jesse and Jennifer were madly in love and viewed marriage as a necessity in spite of the concerns expressed by their respective parents. Neither one had ever lived independently and had no real clue about the practical realities of a self-supported lifestyle. Because they were very image-conscious and comfort-oriented the newlyweds had to have a lifestyle similar to what they had enjoyed in their childhood.  Life felt good—until the credit cards were “maxed out” and the collection agencies were calling on a daily basis. Jesse took a second job to prevent bankruptcy, and his extended work schedule wreaked further havoc in their already-fragile relationship. Within a few months Jesse and Jennifer felt like strangers to each other. Constant frustration generated conflicts that destroyed what was left in their marriage. Now divorced, each one of them is already dating and will soon repeat the same destructive pattern in another relationship. The truth is that Jesse and Jennifer were not individually equipped for survival in life. If they could not survive as individuals how could they expect to succeed as a married couple? Getting married does not simplify life—it complicates life.

Perhaps by now you’re asking the question “How do I know if I’m sufficiently equipped or not?” This particular question is not an easy one to answer, since life is very challenging at its best. I admire the wisdom of the unknown person who recommended, “Trim your boat well; life’s deeper than you think.”  If you’re looking for a marriage mate please consider carefully the degree to which that person is already equipped for survival in life. Thankfully, helpful tools are available to facilitate this boat-trimming or life-equipping process. Several years ago I developed a checklist designed to help individuals in the assessment of their basic survival skills. I’ve recommended that concerned parents use the checklist with their children to encourage preparation for adulthood. Young adults can use the checklist to determine their readiness for being launched into full adulthood. The checklist deals with ten practical areas of survival and includes a section for assessing strengths and weaknesses as well as a section for developing a plan of action for skill improvement. The ten areas are: Financial Management Skills, Employment Skills, Time Management Skills, Information Services Skills, Transportation Skills, Food Preparation Skills, House Maintenance Skills, Health and Safety Skills, Clothing Skills, and Problem-solving Skills. If you would like to examine this Survival Skills Checklist you’ll find a link to the document at the end of this article.

Mature, Aware, Team-oriented, Equipped—these four words capture a great deal of what is involved in being reasonably ready for marriage. If this type of readiness were to be followed the majority of current weddings among young adults would be postponed if not cancelled. Furthermore, all teenage marriages would not occur. However, if current culture is allowed to dictate our choices most young adults and teenagers will choose to ignore reality and embrace romance. I recall a presentation I gave years ago to a group of college students on the topic, “How to Select Your Mate.” In a light-hearted way I suggested that our national Congress should pass a law forbidding anyone to get married until he is of sufficient legal age, has been fully launched from the parental home, has completed educational training needed for a viable career, and has demonstrated a mature independent, self-supporting lifestyle for a minimum of three years. As you might guess, some of the students thought the idea too extreme, if not downright stupid. I agree that a national law is not the answer, but the practice of readiness makes practical sense. Admittedly, this readiness approach runs counter to current culture, but it would promote healthy marriages and prevent the majority of unnecessary divorces. The delay of marriage until reasonable readiness may not seem very romantic, but the delay is very realistic.

An unfortunate but predicted response to the reasonable readiness concept is cohabitation—living together without a legal marriage. Obviously, many people succumb to the temptation, feeling justified by the examples of trend-setting Hollywood celebrities, sports champions, and social leaders. However, the living-together arrangement cannot substitute for a real marriage, and the same immature patterns that would devastate a marriage will also destroy a cohabitating relationship. The living-together lifestyle demonstrates a dismissal of personal responsibility and a denial of permanent commitment. In addition to violating basic moral integrity the practice of cohabitation reinforces and deepens negative patterns that tend to prevent and harm future healthy relationships.  Cohabitation does not prepare the man and woman for a healthy marriage. A much better choice is a rejection of cohabitation in favor of a lifestyle of personal self-control and persistent growth toward reasonable readiness that could lead to a healthy, happy marriage.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

In terms of mate selection our focus is usually upon the other person, that is, whether or not that person would make a good mate for me. While that assessment is very important a mature mate selection process includes personal assessment, that is, whether or not I would make a good mate for the other person. Am I currently reasonable ready for a marriage relationship? If not, what do I need to do to achieve readiness? A low “RQ” (that is, our “Readiness Quotient”) recommends that we defer marriage as long as is needed for us to raise our RQ to a workable level. A high RQ does not require that we choose marriage, nor does it guarantee a great marriage. However, a high readiness quotient does provide a strong reassurance that our travels on the Marriage Highway will provide a safe and successful journey.

I wish you well as you assess your current readiness for marriage. Hopefully, the material in this short article will assist you in your efforts toward reasonable readiness. Best wishes in all of your relationships journeys.
*NAMES:  These names (Peter/Paula/Jesse/Jennifer) are fictionalized and do not describe specific couples. Instead, they are representative of the many couples who get married without adequate preparation.
VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Marriage:  When Are We Ready?" please click on the image to the right or you can click here.

EXPECTATIONS:  A link is provided below for Dr. Baker’s document about premarital expectations for marriage. To access that material (PDF format) please click on the image to the right or on the title below.

                    “Preparing for Marriage:  Exploring Mutual Expectations”

SURVIVAL SKILLS CHECKLIST:  In this article Dr. Baker described a checklist he developed regarding the development of personal survival skills. To access that checklist (PDF format) please click on the image to the right or on the title below.

                     “Survival Skills Checklist”

RELATED ARTICLES:  Dr. Baker has written several related articles that are available on this website. To read the articles you can click on the titles below.

              “Preparing for Your Marriage Journey”

               The Purpositis Roadblock”

              “Relationship Expectations”

              “Unrealistic Relationship Expectations”


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          (Marriage and Family Blog #303)


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