When actress Kaley Cuoco announced that she was engaged to tennis star Ryan Sweeting after three months of dating, she joined a list of other celebs who were quick to get engaged. Some that spring to mind are Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom (one month), Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger (six months), and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (two months). We asked psychiatrist Gail Saltz to weigh in on the idea of planning to get married after a whirlwind romance.
When you look at the celebrity world, you get the feeling that everyone leaps into marriage, only to be followed by a quick fizzle and divorce. It’s important to remember that celebrities are leading a very skewed lifestyle. Its fast-paced, glitzy and often financially fueled, so that doing whatever you want is possible, and also scary, because the higher up you go the harder you may fall. This combination increases the likelihood that a couple will charge into romance, heat up quickly, feel like they’ve found the one and get engaged.
Unfortunately, it also means neither may know each other all that well, nor have any idea how they will weather storms as a couple — resulting in a vulnerable marriage. Celebrity couples split up at a very high rate. Adding to the rapid fire “we just met” to “we are getting married” is the stress of celebrity life, lots of travel and time apart, often surrounded by much temptation in the form of other flirtations as well as alcohol and drugs (a bad combination in terms of fidelity). That makes it difficult to tell what percentage of the reason for a divorce may be too short an engagement, but it sure doesn’t help.
Does any of this apply to the non-celebrity? It does. Marriages that last are those between people who have found a lot of common ground, and where there is not common ground, it’s between people that have found out they are capable of negotiating and compromising with each other.
During the honeymoon phase of any relationship, often the entire first year, couples tend to find it pretty easy to agree with their partner on many things, even everything. The hazy glow of infatuation has a way of making everything they say and do seem more wonderful than it actually is. This is lovely, but does nothing to test how reality will feel when the glow has worn off and the day-to-day business of working things out as a couple sets in.
Can you talk about tough stuff? Can you disagree and find a route to working it out and still like each other? Are the things that you have come to see about your partner which annoy you tolerable enough and are they heavily outweighed by the things you like in them? In other words, you lessen the likelihood of divorce if you spend enough time being in the relationship that you’ve had time to test what real day-to-day life is like. For most couples, this is likely a minimum of one year.
Whether the dating was one year followed by a short engagement — or the dating was shorter but the engagement lasted a year — seems less important than having this significant period of time testing the relationship. As hard as it is to end an engagement, it is much easier and less painful than ending a marriage. Of course there are exceptions, couples who rushed from first sight straight down the aisle, that are happy. But they are few, and most likely, a little older with a history of enough serious relationships to have more personal insight into what they are looking for in their partner.
Is there such a thing as too long an engagement? There is. Often enough, an engagement that goes on for years is really an expression from one or both people that they feel highly ambivalent about marriage to their partner. It may be a fear of commitment, a desire to have the ability to be open to someone “better,” or a wish to stay in the relationship as long as it’s working but be able to leave when they want to. If this is how both people feel, then that’s fine too, you can stay engaged indefinitely. It’s called cohabitation and it’s on the rise with plenty of satisfied customers. But more often, one half of the couple longs to be married and the other doesn’t. This kind of long engagement is a problem. Resentments build, and an endless push-me-pull-you ensues where either you break up, having wasted many years in emotional misery, or you manage to force your partner to marry. After that divorce isn’t too far behind.
Again, there are some circumstances that call for a long engagement for good reasons. Couples who met when they were young and want to stay together but also want to develop careers, be financially stable and have a better sense of self before they marry can benefit from having “engagement” as the label that tells the world and each other they plan to stay together and marry when they are ready.
Taking the time up front to practice getting through life’s stresses together can save a lot of suffering on the back end of your relationship. Tempting as it is, we can’t look to celebrities as our model for many things, including relationships. They are as human as the rest of us, but they are tasked with coping with human frailty in a souped-up overly permissive world.
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