The Pain of “Marriage Remorse”

Dr. Keith Ablow, a media psychiatrist, recently wrote some interesting comments about married people’s attitudes towards marriage:

Marriage is so suffocating for so many people that it makes millions of people wish they could hit ‘rewind’ on their lives and step away from the altar.

While ‘buyer’s remorse’ visits people who bring home watches and sweaters and cars, but want to return them, it also visits people who return home as newlyweds and wish they could return their new spouses. Let’s call it ‘marriage misgiving.’

The more mundane reasons for marriage misgiving include fully realizing (only after vows are exchanged) that one’s freedom, socially and romantically, is now much more limited. They include intuiting that new responsibilities—perhaps for home ownership and for children—are now closer than ever. They include dwelling on a past romantic partner and wondering whether closing the door—forever—on that relationship really was wise.

Much of this squares with my experience of counseling people. Psychiatrists like Dr. Ablow generally spend only a few minutes at a time with a patient, treating the patient for symptom reduction with medication. Psychotherapists (non-medical professionals who counsel people by the hour) hear much more about what’s really going on in their minds and relationships, because they have much more time with the patient/client than the psychiatrist ever will. For a psychiatrist, Dr. Ablow’s comments strike me as unusually astute and to the point.

My own preferred label for this phenomenon is ‘marriage remorse.’ It’s the same principle as buyer’s remorse. When you think about comparable situations—with less far-reaching consequences—the basic principle is the same.

Let’s say you order a meal on your birthday at a special restaurant. The instant you order the meal, you feel regret. You might or might not admit it to anyone, but it’s still what you feel.

The same kind of ‘buyer’s remorse’ applies when people make more significant commitments, such as a new car or a new house. I hear this from people all the time, and nearly everyone can relate. ‘Why did I get a red car instead of black?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t I move into Jerry’s neighborhood instead of this one? It’s much nicer than where my house is.’

There seems to be something about the very nature of making a final, essentially irreversible commitment that strikes people as ‘ well, all too final.

It seems to me that the antidote to marriage remorse is the one thing that people in love rarely want to hear: Take your time. Why rush to get married? What’s marriage going to do for you, anyway? Many people will reply it’s a required benefit for having children. But what’s the rush to have children? Why even consider a child until you’re so fine with your choice of spouse that marriage remorse isn’t even a possibility? Isn’t it better to have one child you’re sure you can love (not to mention afford) than two or four who leave you constantly wondering?

The issue involves more than taking your time, however. That’s a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one for avoiding marriage remorse.

Another major cause of marriage remorse is the false belief that we can have it all. In all honesty: We really can’t.

Let’s be real. For every major decision you make in your life, you close off other possibilities. There’s no getting around this fact. If you eschew marriage or commitment altogether, then you’re going to miss out on all the enjoyable things that can come from a connection with just one special person over a long period of time. You have someone as a constant in your life, someone to pursue hobbies or travel with, and someone with whom to share life’s inevitable ups and downs. The longer you’re with someone who’s a good match, the more intimate you become with him or her, in a sense, simply because you go through so many things together.

When people experience marriage remorse, they tend to overlook the good sides of sustained, enduring connection. They minimize or overlook the positive side of the tradeoff. They look at what they’re losing, but not at what they gain.

A lot of this happens because too many people accept ‘marriage’ as simply a given. It’s something you do. It’s what happens. That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be so. Be a questioner. Be a thinker. I don’t mean become a radical for the sake of being different. Just really question and think. ‘Why is marriage important to me? What will it do to advance my life? What are the benefits and disadvantages of getting married now? Or in five years, if not now?’

I have always been a thinker and a questioner, for as far back as I can remember. Perhaps the biggest thing I have learned as a therapist is just how rare this is. It astonishes and shocks me how few people are willing to think. They fail to ask the right questions of themselves at crucial times. Some fail to ask any questions at all. Others evade questions they know they should ask themselves, and then later ask for sympathy or even some kind of unspecified, impossible intervention to make the consequences of their prior non-thinking somehow disappear. (Ever meet anyone like this?)

People pay a very high price for not thinking. Thinking does not guarantee that you’ll make the right choice. People’s needs and desires honestly change over time, which is one of the major reasons why many marriages or relationships end. There’s nothing unhealthy, immoral or irrational about that fact. All we can ask of ourselves—and each other—is to be honest and intellectually alert enough to think.

If we do that, then marriage, along with a lot of other life decisions or dilemmas, will become a lot less of a burden.


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