There is no way to guarantee how any relationship you enter into–including marriage–will unfold. Things might go much better than you’re expecting. They might go much worse. Legally binding yourself to someone will not guarantee that a relationship will work. But that said, if you want to give yourself the best chance at succeeding in a marriage, then you should do two things: avoid sexual interactions until after you are married, and get legally married.
Uh-oh, is this going to be one of those religious lectures on the sin of premarital sex? No, because this is a psychological site. I have other sites in which I focus on spiritual matters. Here the focus is on psychology, and while it is true that the non-human Entity who created us all is pro-marriage, marriage is not just a moral issue. It’s primarily a psychological issue.
If you want your car to run well, then you should be very particular about the kind of liquid you put into its fuel tank. If you just grab any liquid that is readily available–such as water or some kind of cooking oil–you will actually do major damage to a very expensive bit of machinery. This is because the folks who designed your car designed it to run best on gasoline and only on gasoline. Sure, you can blow off the designer’s instructions about how to get the best performance from your vehicle, but if you do, you’ll soon discover those instructions were a lot more important than you thought.
The same is true when it comes to this issue of marriage and saving sex for after marriage. While these principles are often fluffed off as unnecessary rules that are being promoted by a bunch of moral nitpickers, the truth is that these two guiding principles can steer you around a whole lot of heartache. This is because all humans were designed with certain limitations, needs, and mental processes which cause them to naturally flower in certain situations and wither in others.
Now since I specialize in trauma, and since traumatized people are some of the most immoral people on the planet (and, in my personal opinion, the folks with the greatest potential), I don’t want those of you who are sexing it up all over the place to get bummed reading this post. What I’m going to explain are some basic principles about how humans are designed which result in legal marriage being a far better choice than just moving in with your partner and doing everything but commit to each other in a binding way. But while those principles are true, it’s also true that trauma has a way of knocking us off course from our natural programming and introducing other factors that complicate things.
If I hand you a glass of milk, it’s reasonable for me to say, “You should drink it because milk is nutritious and good for you.” Generally speaking, this is true. But if your body has a problem with digesting dairy products, then guzzling down the milk is going to cause you acute pain. In this situation, we need to acknowledge that your body is acting abnormally. We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that you should be able to process milk. If we start pretending there is no such thing as normal, then soon we’re just celebrating misery and not giving people the help that would make their lives a lot more comfortable. Trauma is not normal. Trauma is a problem which is worth trying to fix. But that said, as long as someone is in a traumatized state, we need to acknowledge that and adjust our expectations of what that person can reasonably do.
If you’re lactose intolerant, then it’s really not a good idea for you to drink milk without taking some kind of digestive aid. If you have certain forms of psychological trauma, then you can find it quite impossible to stay out of the beds of strangers. Sexual interactions are highly symbolic for humans, with every human attaching his or her own meanings to the experience. Traumatized people can attach some very different meanings to sex than normal people do, and this difference in mental associations can lead to overwhelming obsessions with sex–so much so that it is utterly unreasonable to expect certain traumatized people to abstain from sex or to remain faithful to a single sexual partner. Some people are being driven by overwhelming psychological forces to sleep with many different partners. Until this need is resolved at its core, such people will be unable to remain faithful to any single partner, regardless of whether they are legally married or not. In short, sex addicts should not attempt marriage until they get their addictions under control, because having sex with people other than your spouse is guaranteed to tank your marriage.
Understanding Intimate Relationships
Human relationships fall into different categories. Intimate relationships are ones in which you give another human the most access to your person: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and physically. What’s important to realize about relationships is that there are unwritten rules which all humans instinctively expect each other to follow. For example, it is instinctively understood that parent-child relationships should not include any sexual interactions. A young girl doesn’t have to be told that her dad is violating the rules of the relationship when he forces sex on her. She instantly understands that his behavior is wrong. The same is true when your friend spreads gossip about you. It is instinctively understood that the title of “friend” is supposed to mean that someone can be counted on not to talk nasty about you to others.
Now you can intentionally break unwritten rules, and you can try to pretend that they don’t exist or that they don’t apply to you. But these rules remain in force no matter what you do, and every time you violate them, there will be negative consequences.
Every type of relationship has its own set of rules. Some rules apply to many types of relationships, while others only apply to certain kinds of relationships. Understanding the unique rules that apply to intimate relationships will really help you succeed at them. One of those rules is that you are only supposed to have one intimate partner at a time. This is the rule that is being violated when your boyfriend gets another girl on the side. If you were in a casual relationship, it would be expected that your guy have multiple friends besides you. But in an intimate relationship, the rules are different. Intimate partners have a strong, instinctive desire to be the only intimate in their partner’s life. If you violate that rule, you will do massive damage to the relationship.
Many people feel there is nothing worse than being betrayed by an unfaithful spouse. Why is it such a big deal when a spouse cheats? Because in these cases, the unwritten rule that is being broken is unique to an intimate relationship. You can have more than one father, more than one sibling, more than one friend, and more than one coworker. But you can’t have more than one intimate partner at the same time without major fallout. This is simply the way humans are designed, and since you can’t escape this fact about yourself, it’s wise to understand it and adjust your strategies accordingly.
Four Important Rules
Now when it comes to marriage and sex, there are four unwritten rules that are especially important to understand. They are as follows:
- Giving someone access to your privates causes you to feel intensely connected to them.
- How much humans value something is directly related to how much it costs them.
- Respect is extremely important to men. They do not respect what they don’t have to work for. They won’t commit to what they can’t respect.
- Emotional commitment is extremely important to women. They tend to view sex as a symbol of emotional intimacy. Where they perceive emotional intimacy, they assume commitment.
Given these key psychological principles, let’s now look at how legal marriage differs from simply moving in together and rolling about in the bed without any formal commitment being made.
The Hassle of Marriage
First, we need to get real about what legal marriage is. Simply put, it’s a hassle. That might sound negative, but it’s actually the very reason marriage is so important. If getting legally bound to someone was pure fun, the whole institution would lose significance. It’s precisely because legally binding yourself to someone comes with so many negatives that makes it so valuable.
In many societies, it’s more expensive to be married, because extra fees and taxes are levied on married couples. There is also a significant increase in the risk of your spouse’s financial decisions impacting you negatively. In many places, legally binding yourself to someone causes you to become responsible for debts that they incur, and it causes your material assets to become their property as well, which puts you at risk of losing your stuff if the marriage should tank. There is also the timeless problem of cultural stereotypes causing unfair judgments to be made about contributions to the marriage. In many cultures, the partner who maintains the home and does the bulk of the parenting is viewed as contributing very little while the partner who brings home a paycheck is viewed as the essential provider. Countless trips to the grocery store, endless cleaning, innumerable diaper changes, and child nurturing never seem able to stand up to a single printed paycheck from a legal business. Such biases will always exist no matter how much yammering people do about “equality” among the genders. Marriage is a risk. Marriage meshes your personal business with someone else’s in a way that will hound you for the rest of your life. And the longer the marriage runs, the messier it is to undo.
Unwritten rules are ones that humans instinctively understand and react to. When people come up with prenuptial agreements, they are reacting to their innate understanding that marriage makes them vulnerable to being hurt in new ways. Prenuptial contracts are essentially ways of saying, “I understand that I’m about to cross a line with you that will give you more power to harm me. So I’m going to take action now to limit how much harm you can do to me and make it easier for me to escape this situation if I decide that I don’t like it.” As appealing as it is to safeguard your exit route, the very fact of doing so actually lowers your chances of succeeding at the marriage because by reducing the risk level, you are reducing the value you place on the relationship. By reducing your value of it, you are weakening your motivation to work at it. It all goes back to that second rule that I listed above:
How much humans value something is directly related to how much it costs them.
The concepts of cost and risk are inseparable. High risk relationships have much greater potential to harm you than low risk relationships. Whenever you increase the intimacy level of a relationship, you increase the level of risk. This is why many people instinctively avoid intimacy: they don’t want to be hurt, and they automatically understand that intimacy increases the risk of being hurt. After all, if you don’t tell someone any sensitive information about yourself, then they can’t use that information against you. But you will also block intimacy from happening, which means you’ll never experience the incredible benefits of intimacy.
So what’s so fabulous about intimacy? Well, all humans have certain core needs. Just as you can’t escape those unwritten rules I’ve been talking about, you can’t choose or change your core needs. Being known, feeling safe, and being accepted as you are are three core needs which intimate relationships have the potential to meet to degrees that no other relationship can.
Humans instinctively assess the value of their relationships based on how well those relationships meet their own core needs. The more core needs a single relationship meets, the more valued it is. The reason we all secretly yearn for an intimate partner is because we understand that out of all the relationships we can have with other humans, intimate ones have the greatest potential to satisfy our core needs. There is no such thing as a human who can meet all of your core needs, but an intimate partner has the possibility of doing more for you than any other kind of partner. They also have the ability to hurt you more than any other partner can. This is another principle we cannot escape: the potential to help will always equal the potential to harm.
A king with great power can use that power to save or destroy lives. A man with no power can’t help or harm. There’s no such thing as a relationship in which you can only be helped and never harmed. If you can be helped, you can also be harmed to an equal degree. If you take steps to prevent someone from being able to harm you, those same steps will also block them from being able to help you. So you see, relationships are like a two sided coin: one side being good, the other being bad. If you pick up the coin, you pick up both sides. It’s not possible to just take the good without also risking an equal amount of bad.
So if you can’t escape the risk of someone hurting you, why bother to engage with people at all? Because those core needs that you can’t get rid of are going to keep gnawing at you until you do something to address them. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that we pursue relationships with other humans for entirely selfish reasons. Our true motivation is to get our own needs met. Is this a bad thing? No, it’s a human thing. It’s how we were designed. Humans are incapable of altruism. We are self-serving to the bone and in our efforts to help ourselves, we do a lot of wonderful things. Being selfish doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A selfish desire to improve your own quality of life is what motivates maturity, and maturity is a truly wonderful thing that brings out the best in humans.
Ah, but if you just move in with someone without legally binding yourself to them, you reduce the chance of them hurting you…or at least this is what you tell yourself. But in real life, any increase in intimacy will increase your partner’s ability to harm you. When you move in together yet avoid legal marriage, you think you’re pulling off that impossible feat of decreasing harm while increasing help. But are you? No. The way the psychology works out, moving in together increases your sense of intimacy with the other person. Now they’re always in your face, seeing you with your guard down. Plus they’re in your bed: getting all hands on with your body and getting access to your privates, which is the greatest degree of physical intimacy that you can give someone…all without having to fully commit to you.
When you give away your sex without demanding marriage first, you are just putting a lower price tag on your sex. You’re essentially functioning as a free prostitute: come and get it, free of charge. No hassle involved. No payment up front. The problem is that cost directly impacts value, and value directly impacts satisfaction. Your partner just isn’t going to value or enjoy your sex or your body as much when you give them away for free instead of demanding a stiff payment up front. This goes for guys and gals.
Because men have sperm pressure giving them a biological need to have sex more frequently than women, a lot of men try to tell themselves that they can afford to sleep around without negative consequences by staying focused on the fact that they are getting a biological need met. But is this really how it works? Can you effectively convince yourself that you’re nothing more than an animal in heat in the moment and then walk away not feeling at all debased by the fact that the woman you just slept with hasn’t put anything on the line for you?
Speaking To The Guys…
Men: the better you know yourselves, the better you’ll do in the sex department. Yes, you do have a legitimate need for sex. But you are also wired to feel that respect is a critical element in your intimate relationships. If you don’t respect the woman you’re sleeping with, you’re going to start feeling grosser and grosser about doing it with her. Sperm release just isn’t enough for you, because you are not a grunting beast, you are a complex human being with needs that go beyond satisfying biological urges.
In many cultures today, men are being taught to view themselves as nothing more than walking penises. They are being taught to measure their personal worth by the size and activeness of their private parts. And yet all of this garbage about “sowing your oats” with a bunch of women who you couldn’t care less about is only going to harm you in the end. You need to respect your own wiring, and realize what an important issue respect is for you in your intimate relationships. You then need to understand that your respect for a woman will actually increase if she shows evidence of respecting herself by not just throwing open the doors of her castle and letting you take whatever you want without insisting that you follow any house rules.
Women have a deep need for commitment. Given this reality, a woman who does not demand that you commit to her before she gives you full access to her body is not respecting herself. Men are very good at sensing when they are with a woman who is not respecting herself, and the automatic response here is one of disgust. A very common experience for men is that they find their women extremely enticing as long as those women aren’t allowing sex in the dating relationship. The hope of one day scoring sex and gaining full access to a body that is currently being hidden from view is very motivating to functional men. But the secret hope here is that your woman will actually demand something from you–that she’ll increase her value in your eyes and deepen your satisfaction of having sex with her by putting some kind of price on herself that takes some effort for you to meet. The fabulous hassle that is legal marriage is the perfect price for her to demand. When instead, she just moves in with you and hands you everything for free, you can’t help but feel disappointed. When she also starts acting like your personal maid, doing all of your chores of life for you and letting you have your way with her body, all without demanding that you go out on a limb by legally committing to her…well, it’s just going to be a lot harder staying motivated to work at that relationship. Since maintaining intimate relationships requires a lot of work, it’s in everyone’s best interest to cross the line of legal marriage so that the entire project will feel more valuable, and thus worth putting serious effort into.
Speaking To The Gals…
Ladies: you also need to know yourselves and not fall for this bull that you are the same as men in every way. Women naturally perceive sex very differently than men, with one of the biggest differences being a female tendency to view sex as evidence of emotional commitment. This means that when you sleep with a guy, you consider that to be an obvious, unspoken statement that the two of you care deeply about each other. Yet while you naturally feel this way due to being female, males do not automatically read this message into their sexual encounters.
A very common story for women is that they let a boyfriend start sleeping with them, and then they perceive that act as evidence that he is emotionally committed to them. In reality, that is often the moment when the boyfriend’s commitment starts to wane due to the fact that you’re losing his respect by handing yourself over like a freebie. As time passes and the free sex keeps happening, your boyfriend starts struggling with a growing feeling of disgust. He might not want to feel this way towards you, but he has to contend with his own wiring. When the disillusionment and frustration he’s experiencing with you grows to be too much, he’ll naturally feel very enticed by another woman who comes along acting like she has a lot more self-respect than you do. Suddenly you find out he’s dumping you–the man who in your mind had emotionally committed to you forever. But had he really? No, this was just your perception of things because of the meaning you attached to getting naked together.
There are built in differences between the genders which can be fabulous assets or major detriments, depending on how we respond to them. As you can see, the sex issue is a mess because the two genders automatically view sex differently. And yet legal marriage is a fabulous fix to this issue, because it not only helps your man respect you, but it also helps you verify that the commitment you’re feeling is being reciprocated.
Too often in live in situations, the emotional commitment only exists on one side. Meanwhile, the subject of marriage is being intentionally avoided because both partners sense it will only cause conflict if they bring it up. This kind of situation is full of red flags. A healthy, growing intimate dating relationship will naturally lead towards legal marriage. Although there will be an awareness of the risk involved and a dash of nervous anxiety, there will also be a consensus that marriage is what both partners want. Because marriage increases a risk of being harmed, it also increases the potential for good to happen, and in healthy, growing relationships, there is an eager desire to increase the potential for good.
A Word To Gays…
What I’ve been discussing so far are wired in psychological dynamics that occur with non-traumatized partners. Once we move to the context of a homosexual relationship, things get more complicated, because now we have unresolved trauma added to the mix.
Homosexuality is a symptom of trauma. I’m very aware of how unpopular it is to do anything other than celebrate various sexual orientations these days, but I’m a trauma counselor, not a politician, and I’m not going to lie to people about something as serious as psychological trauma.
As I said earlier, trauma has a way of knocking us off course from having normal responses to life. While I have immense compassion for gays and I appreciate how rational and common it is for subconscious minds to reroute the sex drive as a defense mechanism, the fact remains that if you’re gay, you’ve got some unresolved psychological stress happening. Being honest with yourself about this is vital, because the more baggage you haul into a relationship, the more sensitivities you will have, and sensitivities lead to unreasonable expectations. I’m not saying that homosexuals can’t have positive intimate relationships. I’m saying you’re going to have to work harder at it, just as all trauma cases have to work harder. Again the key here is to know yourself. Understanding why your mind has rerouted your sex drive to pursue same sex partners would be a very helpful bit of information to have about yourself. Most gays are not this self-aware, and with counselors being legally gagged from discussing the psychological causes of homosexuality with their clients, it’s getting harder to find someone who can help you sort out the logic your mind is using. But it’s still worth pursuing this line of self-awareness, because all trauma is fueled by intense fears and desperate needs–both of which can quickly become obstacles in close relationships.
Far from being an outdated tradition, legal marriage is a fabulous institution which ends up helping both partners lay a proper foundation for a whole new level of intimacy. The hassle and risks involved with marriage naturally cause both partners to put a higher value on their relationship, and this in turn motivates everyone to try harder at making the marriage succeed. Getting legally bound together helps partners get on the same page about wanting a serious, exclusive intimate relationship with each other. The legal merging of money and stuff helps strengthen the sense of unity that is so essential to pulling together as a team.
The greatest power of legal marriage is the psychological impact it has on both partners, and that power is best felt when marriage occurs before sex. While it can seem very logical to postpone marriage and move in together to give yourselves time to find out if you’re compatible, in practice, this kind of safeguard actually decreases the relationship’s chance of success. Every relationship reaches natural plateaus, at which point partners must decide to take a big risk together or hang back out of fear and not pursue the relationship’s full potential. Once you and your partner reach the marriage milestone, you need to either take the leap or break up. If you’re not ready to go all in, it’s better to break up and do some more growing than settle for a small fraction of what you could have had together if you’d been willing to commit.
This post was written in response to a request.
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