"Do you still want to get married?" my mother-in-law asked my future wife on the day we were to be married. Her intuition told her to be alert to premarital doubts, and she wanted to make sure my wife wanted to go through with the marriage. According to a new study by Justin Lavner and colleagues, reported in the Journal of Family Psychology, my mother-in-law was right to ask.
Although there is a long history of folk wisdom about uncertainty before marriage, there has been little scientific study of this issue. There are two competing views about the significance of premarital doubts. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for people to have some doubts about making big decisions in their lives, and marriage is a big decision. However, there is also evidence that suggests that premarital difficulties tend to persist in the marriage. To date, there has been insufficient evidence to sort out these competing claims.
To provide more insight into the significance of premarital doubts, Lavner and colleagues interviewed 464 spouses from 232 newlywed couples. The couples were all in their first marriages. The husbands and wives were older than 18, but younger than 35 years of age. They all had at least a 10th grade education. In their initial interview six months after the marriage, the scientists asked, "Were you ever uncertain or hesitant about getting married?" They also asked questions about marital satisfaction and other factors that have been shown to be related to divorce, including cohabitation, parents' marital history and neuroticism. For four years, researchers collected information about marital satisfaction and also whether or not the couples were still together.
The researchers found that at least one partner in two-thirds of the couples reported having premarital doubts; 47 percent of the husbands and 38 percent of the wives reported being uncertain about getting married. This finding alone suggests that premarital doubts are common among couples and that men are more likely than women to have doubts.
So what do these doubts predict about the likelihood of divorce in the early stages of marriage? About 12 percent of couples in this sample divorced in the first four years. For husbands, premarital doubts did not seem to predict divorce, but for wives, doubts did predict divorce. Among wives who did not report doubts, only 8 percent divorce, while for those wives who did report doubts, almost one out of five ended up divorced. Of course, perhaps doubts about marriage simply reflect a fragile relationship or other factors that predispose divorce. The scientists also examined whether growing up with divorced parents, living together, or having a difficult personality explained the findings rather than "doubts about the marriage." They found that premarital doubts still predicted divorce above and beyond these factors.
The findings in this study are interesting and significant, yet as noted by the researchers, there are important limitations of the research. Two major limitations are that "doubts about the marriage" were measured after the couple had been married for six months, so this may not be the best indicator of their premarital views. Also, "doubts" were measured in a very simple way -- by interview -- and it may not be a good measure of this dimension of relationships.
Despite these limitations, these findings suggest important new areas for scientists to study in regards to marriage and divorce. Likewise, if these findings hold up, it will be important for couples considering marriage to address the factors that contribute to their premarital doubts. My mother-in-law already knew this.