Is there an optimal relationship timeline?

Some couples meet, court, and marry within half a year; some take a decade to tie the knot. But is there an optimal timeline for romantic relationships? When should you be looking to move your situationship to something "official," and when's normal to think about making it officially official? We've explored the research.

Dating before marriage

It might not surprise you to learn that long-term relationships are predictive of happy marriages. In fact, dating your partner for three or more years is associated with a 26.5% lower risk of divorce than dating them for only 1-2 years. Similarly, feeling like you know your prospective spouse very well is associated with a much lower risk of separation.

At least for wives, dating for longer pre-marriage is also associated with greater marital satisfaction, which obviously makes women (the main initiators of divorce, at least on paper) less likely to serve their spouse with papers. Researchers hypothesise that longer courtships provide greater opportunities to screen out unsuitable partners, meaning that any marriages that do result are likely to be more stable. It's also possible that whirlwind romances are a hallmark of people prone to impulsivity, which can lead to relationships' demise as easily as their formation.

One problem in the academic literature, however – aside from an overall lack of studies – is that publications tend to survey only married couples. They miss couples who have cohabited for long periods but then failed to marry, either because they choose other ways to commit to each other or because they separate.

This means that we can confidently say that dating for three years and then marrying is likely to lead to a happier marriage than dating for one year and then marrying, but not that dating for longer in general is more likely to lead to a happier marriage.

Results also vary considerably depending on couples' ages. A couple who marry at 21 after dating for four years is very different to a couple who marry at 35 after dating for one year. Those who marry young are overrepresented in divorce statistics, although the relationship between marrying young and getting divorced doesn't always appear to be causal. It's possible that marrying later is simply correlated with a lower divorce risk because there is less time in which a late-married couple can get divorced.

But although these objections mean we have to be careful about inferring causation, they don't undermine the correlation between dating for a long time and staying married.


Contrary to what we learn about dating, a long engagement doesn't seem to lead to marital bliss. In fact, the opposite is true: the longer couples are engaged, the harder they find it to adjust to married life, suggesting that significant differences between dating, engagement, and marriage exist within couples' relationships. In pop culture, long engagements are often construed as signifying reluctance to marry, usually on the groom's part.

There are a few other things to note about this phase of romantic relationships. The first is that whilst it's normal for dating couples to live together pre-engagement, cohabitation beforehand is consistently related to lower marital satisfaction. Cohabitation after engagement doesn't seem to share this association.

Researchers haven't yet settled the reasons for this, but one hypothesis is that living together is administratively complex enough that couples fall into an inertia, staying together partly because it's a more straightforward choice than separating and having to reassemble independent lives. If marriage is the natural end-point for relationships, then that inertia eventually nudges less-than-perfect couples into saying vows.

If, on the other hand, individuals have relatively separate lives before marriage, they're more likely to be able to extricate themselves from unsuitable relationships. Those that stay together will do so for good.

Finally, a word on engagement rings: less really is more. Higher spending on the ring and the wedding is associated with higher divorce rates. The reverse is true, however, for a well-attended ceremony. Cheap and cheerful seems to be the recipe for marital bliss.

So there you have it: date slow, marry fast, and don't splurge on the jewellery.

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