I talked to a bunch of couples who had been married for 30 years to figure out if I should marry my boyfriend

At 29 years old, the question of marriage and settling down has started taking root in my brain more than it ever has in previous years. It’s not that I necessarily feel ready for marriage; it’s more that the reality of committing myself to one person for an entire lifetime is starting to take a vague, semi-recognizable shape on the horizon.

And it makes me really anxious.

How do I know if my partner and I have the right kind of love (and if there even is such a thing)? How do I know if what we have can sustain a stimulating and satisfying partnership for a lifetime? What if love is blinding us to the fact that we’re not quite right for each other and marriage won’t lead to the happiest versions of our lives? How can I be sure that we have enough of the same interests? That we’ll help each other evolve as people? That we can handle kids together?

Or maybe the problem is that I just can’t turn off my brain. Maybe all of this analyzing and second-guessing is preventing me from seeing the potential for happiness right there in front of me. And how does one know the difference? How are we able to distinguish the normal and unavoidable thought processes of our overactive brains with well-founded doubt?

After wrestling with this for long enough to drive me slightly insane, I decided to talk to couples who had made the leap into marriage in the hopes of gleaning some insight. I asked couples in their 60s, all of whom have been married for 30+ years, one simple question:

How did you know you were marrying the right person?

Here were just a few of the things they had to say:

“I knew I was marrying the right person because we felt as comfortable around each other as we did being alone. Things like drinking milk and laughing so hard the milk came out of your nose weren’t embarrassing. Those things were funny. I always thought the right person is the one who tells you a story and afterwards says, “You know, I’ve never told that to anyone before.” – M.S.

“Maybe some people are absolutely convinced that they have married the right person, but I’m the kind of person who always second-guesses myself, worries about whether I’m doing the right thing […]. And there are no guarantees, so if you’re the kind of person who really wants to be sure — and I am — you worry about that.” –J.B.

“Well, to be honest, I wasn’t totally sure, but I was pretty sure no one else I had dated would have been a good match for me. I did know that we had a good time together and could easily laugh. […] He wanted kids and wasn’t afraid to say it. He was generous and nice, but not a pushover. […] When we started dating I found myself thinking about him a lot.” – K.B.

“I liked his legs!!  And that he was a great person. I had no idea if he was Mr. Right. Didn't even think about that. Too young and stupid. – J.K.

“I knew I was marrying the right person because there was something in her character that appealed to my basic nature.  I thrived in her company, loved to talk with her, and everything about being human seemed so natural in her presence. Equally as important was the feeling that I was valuable to her and could contribute to her well- being. It was so comfortable to be able to give without feeling like someone owes you for giving.” – T.B.

So there seemed to be a lot of variation in everyone’s answers. Some of the people I asked had been totally sure in their decision to get married, others had second-guessed themselves but decided to take a calculated risk, and one had just kind of gone for it without thinking too hard either way. It didn’t seem like the reasons for getting married necessarily correlated with the long-term success of the marriage.  

I wanted more information. So I followed up with one more seemingly simple question: What do you think made it work?

And again, here were some of their responses:

“Never giving up on your spouse and not shying away from the challenges that marriage, parenting, and life present. I vowed to give our marriage every chance to succeed and then one more. I believe in talking, and when there is a problem, don’t let it become insurmountable…fix it, even if it means giving up something on occasion. You’ll never regret investing in someone you love and you can’t fully enjoy something you haven’t invested in.” – T.B.

“We agreed on the big things. The kind of lifestyle and priorities — whether family or how to spend money […] and I tried never to say things when I was mad that I couldn’t take back.” – K.B.

“Not having anywhere to go. When we made the commitment we decided not to depend on our parents, so that meant not telling them about our relationship or any problems or arguments we had. We couldn’t go home, so we had to work things out between us.  I think when people start having places to go, rooms in the other wing of the house, other homes or apartments, back to mom’s, things fall apart.” – M.S.

“We compromise 100 times a day and when I get upset with him I email him and he apologizes.  No, it's not perfect, but it’s about as perfect as it needs to be to be happy. - J.K.

“What definitely made it work is the ability to communicate and to enjoy talking to each other.  If you have that, you can work out the inevitable issues. I would also say that it is important to compromise (not to always give in, but to have a healthy balance with the other person of accommodation). In the early years, when you face all the pressures of getting used to each other, building careers, starting and raising a family and all of the other challenges of young and mid-adulthood, it is important to not forget that you have to work at a relationship, that it is truly a two-way street, and you have to decide what is important and what isn’t important.” – J.B.

Okay, this was kind of a lot, but I started to notice a definite pattern emerging. For example, the word “compromise” came up again and again, all across the board. As did “the ability to talk things out” and communication. Also, even the couples who initially seemed to have been the most sure about getting married didn’t shy away from the fact that marriage is hard. They spoke a lot about challenges and a commitment to working through them.

There was also the notion of giving each other and the relationship a lot of chances.

I don’t know about you, but this gives me the very real sense that realistically, there are going to be moments when it is very tempting to call it quits — but you have be committed to “giving it a chance, and then one more” as one of the respondents said.

So maybe the true take away is that if you’re the kind of person who overanalyzes and overthinks, you will never be totally sure about Mr. or Mrs. Right, even if you agree on the “big things,” like kids, and basic values. Aside from genuinely enjoying each other’s company, you just have to be sure that you both have it in you to work through problems together and understand that the reality of life is…a lot of problems.

And as pessimistic as a lot of people might find this (I know I essentially boiled things down to, “Can you be happy sometimes being unhappy together?”) I oddly found it reassuring.  If perfectly happy, perfectly harmonious, and challenge-free lifelong relationships don’t realistically exist, and I fully allow myself to accept that reality, then things become a little simpler.

I basically just have to be confident in the answer to two questions: “Do I genuinely enjoy spending time with you?” and “How are we at working through conflict together?” Because at the end of the day, after the big things, those seem to be the only two ingredients that really matter.

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