Marriage and the scientific method

August 18, 2013

To the happy newlyweds – my sister-in-law Kim and Jordan on the eve of their wedding. May your adventures be many, and may you not worry so much about statistical significance.

Before I got married, I spent a lot of time agonizing – how could I know with absolute certainty that I was making the right choice?  How, based on 3 years of data, could I definitively make a decision which would impact the next half-century (or longer!) of my life? In statistics, the larger your sample size, the more confidence you can have that a pattern is emerging in your data.  When you have a statistically significant sample size, you can say with greater conviction that the trends you’ve observed actually support a particular hypothesis.

But in matters of love, how do you quantify data?  How do you know when you’ve got a large enough sample?  What even counts as a measurable data point – is it number of kisses and “I love yous”?  Number of breakfasts in bed times the average duration of snuggle time?  Something else entirely? How could I ever support my own marriage hypothesis?

In my endless search to figure out how I could gain one hundred percent confidence in my decision, I turned to the internet.  It wasn’t helpful.  I drowned in a sea of articles with horrifying titles like “19 Ways to Know if You’re Marrying the Right Person!” and “Take Our Quiz to See if You’re Ready to Tie the Knot!”

Even the supposedly science-based articles (with names like “Psychologists Have Found Ways to Predict if a Couple Will Go the Distance!”) were clinical and depressing, alternately telling me either that my marriage would be a rousing success or end in shambles.

Amidst the insanity, though, I stumbled across an article which resonated profoundly: one woman wrote about going through exactly this same struggle.  She loved her boyfriend very much, but how could she know for sure that this was the right choice? It seemed to be a fundamentally illogical decision, which, to her extremely rational disposition, was incredibly disconcerting.  How can you make such a life-changing decision based on so little data?

Her solution: every year, she and her now-husband renew their commitment to each other.  Every year, she has the option to revise her hypothesis based on new data.  He asks if she still wants to be married to him, and, for over 10 years, her answer has been an unequivocal “yes”.

This clearly doesn’t apply to everyone.  (And, let’s be honest, now that I’m married, I don’t actually require an annual escape hatch.)

Nonetheless, I loved this article because it so perfectly captured my own struggles with the implications of marriage.  What I learned in the midst of my endless internet searches is that, to some extent, it is a leap of faith.  No article, quiz, or psychological analyses can tell you if you’re ready, or if your partner is the right person, or divine the future and tell you if it’ll all work out.  You have to go with your gut instinct – your intuition.

What I learned was that, at some point, you have to make the best decision possible with the data you have on hand.  For me, there was no just knowing I was making the right choice.  There was no magical moment of clarity and absolute certainty.  I realized there couldn’t be – at least not in the logical, scientific way I wanted.  I could never have a perfect dataset.

Still, I thought about it to great lengths.  We saw a premarital counselor to see if there was anything we needed to work on before getting married, and she gave us her seal of approval.

So, I went with it.  I looked at the data I had, drew a conclusion, and took the leap.

Surprisingly, what I learned after getting married was that it didn’t change much of anything.  I wondered why I’d made such a big fuss before.  But, when I think about it, I feel like that’s the way it should be.  Does marriage fundamentally change your relationship? Does it redefine your feelings for each other?  Or is it simply an expression of what’s already there?

After we got married, a certificate arrived in the mail, we stashed it in a file cabinet somewhere, car insurance got cheaper, filing taxes got more interesting, and we continued on.

Before we got married, he was my best friend – he still is.  Sometimes we get grumpy at each other – we still do.  But mostly we go on great adventures, make each other laugh, and have fun.  When I wake up in the morning and look at him, he is my husband, and I am his wife; other than that, not too much has changed.

For you guys, I also hope that not much changes, in the best possible way. If you don’t feel much different after getting married, you’re not doing it wrong – you’re doing it exactly right.

I hope that it will be the same as always: two people who deeply love each other – two people who have wonderful adventures, with many more yet to come.

In all that you do, it’s clear how much you care for each other.  Marriage doesn’t change that – it’s simply an expression of it.  It’s a statement to each other and to the world about your mutual dedication – but there is no doubt in my mind that your commitment and love has always been there.  What you have is wonderful.

In the end, you’re two people taking the data you have and going with it.

Ultimately, I think that leap of faith is what defines marriage.  You have to throw statistical significance out the window and jump together: into your lives, into your love, into all your shared successes, adventures, and passions.

And that, I think, is the most significant data point of them all.

Photo credit: Jeff Belmonte / Foter / CC BY

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