Whether you’ve been officially dating “the one” for a few months or the better part of the last decade, you might be wondering how you’ll know when you’ve entered the “sweet spot,” that is the right time to get engaged. When folks on your Facebook feed flaunt a diamond ring after seeing someone for under a year, while high school sweethearts you know stay ringless for decades, it’s no surprise you’re confused. And experts agree that there is no magic number. “There are some couples who know on the first date that they’ve found the one and get engaged quickly, while others take the time to get to know someone well before putting a ring on it,” says Julie Spira, online dating expert and digital matchmaker.
Spira is of the opinion, however, that a couple should go through all seasons together at the very least, so that they surpass the honeymoon stage before determining whether or not to stay together for life. “Everyone puts their best foot forward during the courting stage, which is typically the first three months of the relationship,” she says. “When your relationship is brand new, you haven’t gone through the bumps on the road together, traveled on vacation together or gone through a traumatic event such as the death of a family member or loss of a job.”
Dawn Michael, Ph.D., clinical sexologist, relationship expert and author of My Husband Won't Have Sex With Me, takes things one step further, adding that the more time a couple gets to know each other before marriage is the key to having a lasting union. “Each couple is different depending on age and circumstances, but a reasonable amount of time to be engaged is one to three years,” she says.
Research supports this theory. One study published by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, found that couples who’d been together at least three years before they got engaged were 39 percent less likely to get divorced than couples who got engaged within the first year of dating.
Clearly, time is on a couple’s side when it comes to the longevity of their marriage. But experts agree, there’s more to a happy marriage than just years spent side-by-side. Here, they share the most fundamental aspects of a relationship that matter the most when determining whether a future marriage will last.
How you communicate and resolve conflict
According to Grant H. Brenner, M.D., co-author of Irrelationship: How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy, couples that have the tools to address the inevitable challenges marriage presents will not only be able to stay together, but enjoy themselves more. Dr. Michael agrees, adding that how a couple resolves their disagreements is one of the biggest factors in determining whether or not they will be able to resolve issues in their marriage. “Do they get in nasty fights? Does it ultimately get resolved? Does one person bully the other person? Does one person push problem under the carpet? Is one person passive aggressive?” she asks. “The idea is to know that couples will disagree, but how the disagreement is handled and resolved is what matters.”
Your shared interests and values
While couples don’t have to have all the same interests, Colleen Mullen, Psy.D., L.M.F.T., founder of Coaching Through Chaos, says they should share some, as well as a shared value system. This includes being on the same page in regards to what family means to you, spiritual beliefs, etc. “You don’t have to have the same religious beliefs, but if you are a devout Christian and your beloved is an atheist, that might lead to some complicated situations,” she says. “It comes down to having enough similarities in what you hold dear to your heart on how you live in the world that is important.”
How you handle finances
The manner in which you and your significant other are able to save, spend and handle bills is another important factor. “If one is a shopaholic and the other wants to save for the future, a discussion on a family budget is imperative,” says Spira. “Many marriages dissolve due to financial problems, so having a savings and retirement plan from the onset is critical for a successful marriage.”
Your level of sexual satisfaction
Experts agree that a healthy and active sex life is an integral part of a happy and healthy marriage—at any age. “Married couples who make the effort to keep their sex life good are likely to enjoy greater relationship satisfaction,” says Dr. Brenner. One way he recommends couples ensure better sex is to talk about sex in detail—what couples want from sex, from one another, what they like, what they don't like—including specific instructions during sex for what feels the best.
How you balance work and family life
Ensuring that both of you make your marriage and family life a priority over work is another key to a happy, long marriage. “More often than not, a marriage has two working spouses to keep up with living expenses,” says Spira. “If one of you decides to be the breadwinner, while the other watches the household and children, take the time to discuss how you will spend your time when you’re not working.”
The bottom line: Marriage is hard work. While you might not be able to measure marital success on a scale in terms of time, the same effort (and tons of it) has to be there if two people intend to stay married for life. This won’t always be easy, experts say. “As you go through life, your relationship will need emotional touch-ups, but it should not have emotional struggles or overhauls that last for years,” adds Dr. Mullen. If you’re not able to resolve and make updates in an emotionally efficient way, she suggests seeking out relationship counseling so that a professional can see where the broken beam lies and help you repair it before you decide you need to tear it down and rebuild from scratch.