At the beginning of a relationship, it’s easy to think everything will be rainbows and sunshine from here on out. But, however strong they may be, it takes more than those initial feelings of infatuation to build a future together. “When we talk about marriage, we talk about it in a very romantic sense, but marriage is also a lot of very hard work,” says licensed therapist Jennifer Chaiken. Psychologist Dr. Laura Louis agrees: “Marriage is for grown people.”
Meet the Expert
- Licensed marriage and family therapist Jennifer Chaiken is the co-founder of The West Chester Therapy Group, a private therapy practice in the Philadelphia region. She also co-hosts the ShrinkChicks podcast.
- Licensed psychologist Dr. Laura Louis is the founder of Atlanta Couple Therapy. She is also the author of Marital Peace: A Toolbox of Strategies to Reconnect With Your Spouse.
Beyond personal maturity, a robust toolbox of emotional and communication skills is the best indicator that a person will be able to uphold their vows and commitments and continue to invest in a relationship through life’s ebb and flow.
Thinking your partner might be The One? Read on for how to evaluate if they’re truly marriage material.
What Does “Marriage Material” Mean Exactly?
For Chaiken, the single most important factor in determining if a romantic partner can go the distance is the effort they’re willing to put in to ensure the success of the relationship. “A person is ‘marriage material’ when they’re willing to work on the relationship just as much as you are,” she says. “The goal is you’re both committed to that.”
This is important because it relieves the pressure—on both sides—to be perfect all the time. We’re all going to go through rough patches and setbacks, and we’re also inevitably going to disappoint and frustrate our partners at one point or another. But if both members of the couple are dedicated to nurturing their bond through both the good times and the bad, then they’re ready for a long-term commitment.
How to Tell If Your Partner Is Marriage Material
They practice self-care.
“A healthy individual makes for a healthy relationship,” says Chaiken. “We’ve been taught that your partner is supposed to fulfill every part of you, but it’s actually so much better for your relationship to be interdependent than co-dependent. If you take care of yourself first, then you can be there for your partner.”
They can self-reflect and self-regulate.
In conflict, a response and a reaction can be two different things. Reactions are typically more immediate and driven by emotion, whereas responses work to actively address the issue at hand. Per Chaiken, the best partners can distinguish between the two—and then reign in those emotions and proceed towards resolution. “If you’re just blaming your partner, you don’t really get anywhere,” she says. “Your ability to self-regulate is helpful in responding to what’s happening, as opposed to reacting off whatever you’re feeling.”
They communicate clearly.
“Sometimes there’s an expectation of, You should know what I want and give it to me, even if I don’t know exactly what I want. You should know if you love me,” says. Dr. Louis. “That sets you up for disappointment, and it sets your partner up for failure.” Instead, a partner ready for marriage will be upfront, honest, and direct about their needs and desires. Their willingness to do so, even when it’s uncomfortable, demonstrates that they are committed to helping you give them what they need, without any unnecessary holdup.
They fight fairly.
Arguing is an inevitable—and healthy—part of any relationship. “I’m always more concerned when couples say they never fight because that means they’re not talking,” says Chaiken.
Per Dr. Louis, there are three primary styles of handling conflict: Passive fighters give in and go with the flow, even if they don’t truly agree with what’s happening. Aggressive fighters push for their way no matter what and sometimes resort to yelling and belittling. Assertive fighters, however, communicate clearly and state what they need in a positive and gentle yet firm way. (For example: “I feel supported when we’re able to go out on a date once a week. Is it possible for us to make that a priority?”)
For Dr. Louis, this is the most productive way to handle conflict—and Chaiken wholeheartedly agrees. “Fighting fairly means you’re not name-calling, and you’re not being disrespectful,” she says. “You have to be able to disagree while respecting one another and listening to one another. That way, you are validating the other person’s point of view and still communicating your needs.”
They’re willing to compromise.
This doesn’t mean you have to go 50/50 in every scenario: Compromise can also manifest in taking turns, or in trades and exchanges. The most important thing to consider when evaluating if your partner is marriage material on this front is that they don’t think things should always go their way, in all circumstances. A willingness to compromise signals they respect you and will make space for you in the relationship down the line.
“The ability to step out of your shoes and see things from your partner’s vantage point—if I could put that in a bottle and give it to everyone, I would,” says Dr. Louis. It makes sense: the willingness to consider how a situation makes your partner feel will always lead to a more compassionate handling of conflict. Beyond fights, empathy also helps a person be a more supportive partner overall, as they can genuinely share in the highs and lows of their partner’s life.
Speaking of support: knowing you won’t be going it alone is one of the biggest benefits of marriage, so you’ll want a partner who’s made it clear they can be in your corner. “You’re going to go through changes in life, but to know that you’re not dealing with them by yourself, that you have a cheerleader and a ‘ride or die’ by your side through the process, that makes a huge difference,” says Dr. Louis.
Your value systems overlap.
They don’t have to match perfectly, but each partner should know what their deal breakers are, as well as where the other stands on those topics. These conversations can revolve around, but are certainly not limited to, the desire to have children and how you’ll raise them, sexual compatibilities, and how you handle money. (Personality and ethical compatibilities—things that you’ll more likely encounter in everyday interactions—are typically sussed out earlier in a relationship.)
Spending time with your partner’s friends and family provides important insight into their values. Time with their family will provide a window into how they were raised—and, in turn, how they will or will not want to raise their own family. Time with their friends—the people they choose to surround themselves with—will give insight into the life they lead outside of their home.
They’re willing to apologize—and to forgive.
“Couples that are willing to say ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I handled that wrong,’ ‘That came out the wrong way, please forgive me’ tend to be much more resilient and able to get through difficult times,” says Dr. Louis. On the flip side, not withholding forgiveness also allows the relationship to prosper. “Things are going to happen—neither of you is perfect human beings,” says Chaiken. “You have to let things go in order to move forward and come back together.”
They know things will change—and they’re okay with that.
It’s inevitable that you’ll both evolve over the course of your lives—the key is to not drift far enough apart that changes feel sudden or they catch you off guard. This requires regular check-ins as well as a safe, judgment-free space for discussing hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Dr. Louis has the couples she counsels spend 20 minutes checking in with each other at the end of every day. “They put their phones away, they turn technology off, and ask: How was your day? What are you excited about? What are you looking forward to?” she explains. “Those couples are able to evolve with each other because they are in tune with each other’s changes.”
After Deciding Your Partner Is Marriage Material...
Have a conversation that is honest and direct, but not necessarily an ultimatum—and it doesn’t have to happen if you’re not ready for marriage yourself. If, however, marriage is a journey you’d like to embark on sooner rather than later, Dr. Louis has a suggestion for how to open the dialogue—Say: This is what I want. It’s okay if that’s not what you want, but we’re going to have to part ways because this is where I see my next step. I’d like for that to be the next step to be with you, but I understand if it’s not. “I don’t believe in pressure,” she adds. “Sometimes we have to lovingly release people, and that’s okay. Then they get to enjoy their next step in the journey, and you do as well.”
What If Your Partner *Isn’t* Marriage Material?
Whatever you do, don’t ghost them. If you’ve spent enough time with someone to even be considering marriage, they deserve to know why it won’t work out. “Have a conversation with them,” advises Dr. Louis. “That conversation might just look like this: Where I’m headed and where you’re headed is not the same place. I care about you, you matter to me, and the time that we’ve spent together matters to me, but I’m noticing that we’re going in different directions. I appreciate the part that we’ve played in each other’s lives, but I’ve realized our time has come to an end.”