Until recently, I thought marriage was something that just happened to people, rather than being a conscious, intentional choice. This changed when I completed my undergraduate program four years ago and read The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now. I soon fell in love with the sentiment of the book — that is, you can pick your family, and partnering in marriage can be a deliberate choice based on compatibility and fit.
This does not sound very sexy, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Millennials are marrying later in life than previous generations, and despite the common misconception that delaying marriage allows for the development of better decision-making skills and more life experience before choosing a partner, this delay is not actually a predictor of marital satisfaction.
Irrespective of when it happens, nearly 27 per cent of the population will be married by the age of 25–29. University graduates are also significantly more likely to marry than their counterparts who do not have postsecondary education, perhaps due to financial stability or investment in family.
It is important to acknowledge that many people do not ever get married for a wide variety of reasons — some simply do not want to marry, some prefer other types of romantic partnerships, some are celibate by choice, and some are bound by cultural considerations. However, the fact is that many current students will go on to get married, either right after graduation or later in life. Thus, knowing how to pick wisely is worth knowing something about.
There are many myths that guide millennials in love and relationships that are not particularly helpful, like ‘opposites attract’ or ‘you can’t choose who you love.’ On the contrary, researchers do know what facilitates a good marriage: oppositeness does not sustain happiness, and you can choose who you love. Interestingly, it is similarity in personality that contributes to compatibility and marital satisfaction. If this information were more accessible to university students, it may encourage better-suited partnerships, higher quality of life, and lower rates of divorce.
People who have happier relationships with their partners are happier in their lives overall. Couples partnered in happy marriages can buffer against and alleviate physical pain, contribute to successful recovery from illness, and mitigate the physical and cognitive declines associated with getting older.
For those who do settle into unhappy marriages or those that get progressively worse over time, however, the consequences can be severe. Unhappy marriages have a significant impact on psychological and physical health — so much so that marriage can serve as either a protective or risk factor for illness: happy marriages can facilitate a speedy recovery, while unhappy marriages can exacerbate illness.
The number of marriages in Canada that end in divorce has significantly increased since the 1980s. In addition to the negative physical and psychological impacts of divorce, there are also economic consequences. In national interest, it is advantageous for couples to marry once and stay married, given that separation and divorce have financial impacts and cost taxpayers money due to clerical and legal fees.
Considering the severe consequences to unhappy marriages, marriage may be the most important decision university graduates make. However, there are no university courses or resources available at U of T that advise students on how to choose a partner — and this is something that should be addressed.
Universities are not solely responsible for educating young people on how to pick a good spouse, but parents, communities, pop culture, and the media also play a role. However, universities can make an impact by offering courses and resources on what contributes to and sustains good relationships and marriages during this formative stage of life. Guidance on how to choose a spouse could be offered at the Career Centre or through Student Life. A course through the department of psychology on the science of love could be an option as well.
In addition to what sustains marital satisfaction, if university students were aware of the neuroscience behind their intense feelings of attraction, they might be more cautious and intentional with their choices before investing time in a partner. It is worth noting that we are not only drawn to people by what we think but also by how we feel. There are deal-breakers that deter us from certain people, but attraction is also associated with the limbic, or more reactive, part of the brain. Once the honeymoon phase dulls, and the dopamine levels decline, we may unfortunately find that our partner is not well suited to us at all. Resources that guide students toward making pragmatic choices when picking their partners might help alleviate the negative feelings that come with this outcome, if not prevent it altogether.
Marriage is about much more than love; it is about quality of life and overall happiness. When married, you will spend the majority of your free time with that person, and your spouse becomes your partner in every aspect of life, including finances, leisure, household management, and often child-rearing. More guidance on how to pick your partner is therefore always welcome, and the university is in a good place to provide it.
Kelsey Block is a graduate student in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.