The news of actor Keisha Castle-Hughes' engagement following a six-week romance was interesting to me. Not because I doubt (or am particularly invested in) the strength of their relationship - how on earth would I know - but because it raises the issue of relationship timing. And quandaries like: how much time is appropriate before an engagement? How long should you be engaged? Does a quick engagement spell disaster? Will he leave dental floss in the sink 4EVA?
The personal nature of relationships makes such questions almost impossible to answer definitively. But everyone likes to weigh in anyway. And, like the divisive issue of gay marriage, on which side of conservative they pop up can be unexpected. Like with author and media pundit Dan Savage, writer of the internationally syndicated sex and love advice column, Savage Love. Renowned for his liberal and somewhat 'anything goes' stance on all things relationship, fans were surprised a while back when he opined:
"Three months - eight months, sixteen months - is way too soon to be discussing marriage. Sure, you can allow yourself to be swept away by new love .... so long as that admission is immediately followed by this statement: 'But I realise it's way too soon to even think about it seriously.'"
There's not much research into how long couples court before engagement. The most cited example is Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships (PAIR) - a project started in 1979 by a US researcher called Ted Huston. Huston found happily married couples had been together for about two years before they got married. Unhappy couples fell into two categories: those who were divorced swiftly after marriage; they were married at - or after - three years of courtship. And those who divorced sometime after seven years of marriage, who tended to have got engaged around nine months in.
The basic conclusions from Huston's research aren't so illuminating: speedy courtships can become a problem when they're driven by romance and fantasy, because the eventual reality can be a downer. And overly long courtships often indicate hesitation, rather than caution. Huston says the courtships that result in lasting marriages are undramatic. Personal warmth is paramount, as is genuine concern for each other's welfare. "When there are conflicts, the couples typically don't break up, they work their problems out."
Another US researcher, Cathy Surra, Ph.D., predicts marriage success by distinguishing between "event-driven" and "relationship-driven" courtships. A coupling that progresses thanks to external factors unrelated to intimacy (like moving in together to save on rent) could be classed as event-driven. She says these types of relationships report more uncertainty - and are at higher risk of eventual divorce.
Locally, veteran relationship counsellor Jill Goldson - director of Auckland's Family Matters Centre - says questions of 'when?' are tricky. "It's hard to generalise a specific timeframe. A rule of thumb is that a relationship fuelled by real communication, as well as chemistry, is the safest bet. And the acid test of communication is how well you navigate the differences between you."
Goldson has noticed a spike in demand for pre-marriage counselling to smooth any bumps before the big day: "It makes sense: we get our houses valued, our vehicles tested, our dentists vetted and our pets checked out. A committed relationship is such a huge investment emotionally and often financially." And she says the most promising relationships she sees are: "not between clones, but between those who can make room for the diverse potential of each other. Whilst rushing into an engagement or marriage is never good advice, it is still useful to remember that relationships are a work in progress. There doesn't have to be a 'Eureka!' moment."
Our Keisha joins a long list of celebrities who got engaged quick smart - with varying results. Jessica Simpson and what's-his-name (five months); Katy Perry and Russell Brand (three months); Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (from dating to married in a year - is it just me or is this couple ADORABLE?); Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (two months too long); Kate Hudson and Matt Bellamy. And on and on.
For what it's worth, I once read that a year is a good amount of pre-proposal time, because you get to see how your partner blooms - or wilts - through all four seasons. JUST DON'T FORGET TO WATER YOUR RELATIONSHIP PLANT EVERYBODY.
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