Are there Standard Procedures for Romantic Relationships?

When I wrote about How to Tell Your Catholic Parents you’re Moving in with your Boyfriend last week, a commenter who disagreed with my decision suggested every relationship, no matter how unique, must go through “standard procedures.” He was respectful in his disagreement and this post is in no way intended to bash or disrespect him. It’s just that his words made me think. Are there indeed standard procedures that every relationship must have and, if so, what are they?

standard procedures

I was under the impression this commenter thought marriage before living together to be one standard procedure. Perhaps there are others, too. Growing up in the Catholic church, the “standard procedures” appeared to be as follows:

  • Date/ Fall in love
  • Get engaged
  • Get married
  • Move in together
  • Have children
  • Raise children
  • Die

There’s nothing wrong with that plan at all. In fact, I’m sure many people have gone on to have fantastic relationships following that exact order. Still, I know people who would cross some things out. Maybe they don’t believe in marriage or don’t want children. Maybe they already have a child even though they’re not with anyone at the moment.

Depending on who you are, you may even add some milestones. Meeting the parents might be a big deal, for example. Maybe you want to go on a week vacation, just the two of you, to see how you interact.

All these ideas are largely centered in Western ideas and Western religions, though. I’m sure there are successful relationships around the world who follow a completely different trajectory seen as standard in their culture. If they can be happy by following different standards, are there really and standards that must be followed?

The reason I believe there is no one path and no standard for relationships is because each person is unique. We have unique beliefs, dreams and ideas. Different things make us feel happy and fulfilled. Knowing that, it makes no sense to me that such great uniqueness could find happiness following the same relationship standards. Moreover, I have seen people deviate from what is considered traditional and go on to have very happy lives. Many, if not most, of my friends live with a significant other or have lived with a significant other in the past. Some have very happy, health relationships, though they don’t believe in marriage and/or want children. I’ve read stories of people having open relationships or celibate relationships who are also very happy.

How can all those people be happy if there is only one set of “standard procedures” that lead to a happy, healthy relationship?

If that wasn’t enough to convince me of my opinion, then seeing the harm so-called traditional marriage can cause certainly does. It wasn’t that long ago that divorce was illegal in the United States, making it virtually impossible for a person to escape an abusive or destructive spouse. Throughout history, beating one’s wife or raping her wasn’t seen as wrong and still isn’t in some countries. I still read stories about women who are forced to marry their rapist because of how the culture views a women who dares have sex outside of marriage. Never mind that it wasn’t consensual.

The hard truth is, traditional marriage hasn’t, until recently, been about fulfillment or happiness. It was just what you did. Maybe a man could get by without getting married, but a woman? Without the ability to work or own land, how could a woman not marry? What did love, happiness or anything else matter. Simply having a guy who was kind would be enough. In some countries, families were (and still are) frantic to marry their daughters who are little more than an expense. They throw dowries at the feet of men, nearly selling them off. A woman can make no money, after all. Not if she can’t work.

I realize most of these ideas are about women, but they are high on my list because I am a woman. Maybe there are aspects of traditional marriage that are detrimental to men as well, but I can’t think of any. At the end of the day, regardless of gender, I feel marrying someone who you don’t at least like, let alone love, wouldn’t be great. Marrying someone who couldn’t make you feel fulfilled and happy in life is just a shame. But then, it’s only been in recent years that people around the world have the ability to gain all the old benefits of marriage on their own. A single person can gain food, shelter, income, land and even children on their own. It makes people think differently about what they really want in a marriage. More than once I have been asked if there is even a point to the ceremony anymore.

Well, I certainly still believe in marriage (“why?” is a blog post for another day), but I certainly don’t think the ceremony must follow a specific procedure any more than my relationship. Marriage should celebrate the unique individuals being wed. Likewise, a relationship should follow whatever path unique individuals feel will lead to a happy, health future together.

Do you believe in “standard procedures” that every single relationship should follow? Do you have your own standards you want for yourself? Is there a specific formula that will lead to a happy, healthy relationship, not matter who you are?

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30 thoughts on “Are there Standard Procedures for Romantic Relationships?”

  1. Good thoughts. There is no one path.

    “Maybe there are aspects of traditional marriage that are detrimental to men as well, but I can’t think of any.”

    The biggest downside to marriage for men (speaking as a man who was married for decades) is the loss of self-interest to meet societal norms.

    There are selfish men who do their own thing and spend their time and money how they please who maintain long marriages.

    The reality for most, however, is their desires get squashed by the myriad needs of wife, children, etc. They choose marriage, they choose children, but they are expected to be provider. They are expected to put their desires on hold to spoil a wife and family.

    It’s subtle – like water dripping into a large bucket. But when one who has raised children, bought houses and spoiled his wife becomes suddenly single, it becomes immediately obvious.

    I don’t regret having children. I don’t regret marrying my High School sweetheart. But my life was on hold for many years.

    Talking to my close male friends who are still married, many of them want out. Not out of marriage, not out of parenting, but out of the expectation they are responsible for everyone’s happiness but their own. I have come to believe it is common for men in their mid-40’s through 50’s.

    I should have been more appropriately selfish. I should have put my own happiness first without slighting my family.

    Instead I followed the societal norm of sacrificing self for family.

    Your wife wants to stay home for a few years with the kids? You work more, make more money to make it happen. She stops caring about her appearance? You try to be affirming even though her appearance is of primary importance to you.

    Maybe this only happens in “bad” marriages. I suspect it is common.

    Then what happens if the man leaves or the woman leaves or the marriage falls apart for one of hundreds of reasons?

    Typically (though this may be changing) the family’s wealth – mostly contributed to by the man – is split and the woman gets half. Did she contribute? Well, yes, in many cases. Did she contribute on the same level as the husband? Rarely.

    Women sacrifice too. I get that. Especially women who marry poorly, have children and then try to make a go.

    But there are certainly downsides for men as well.

    1. I feel like societal pressures are bad for relationships all around. We shouldn’t have to fit a mold. We should have the relationship that makes us happy. Sometimes I think this is a huge problem. Too many people are obsessed with what society says is right and will make them happy instead of doing what they think is right and what they think they need for happiness.

  2. I absolutely do not believe in these standard procedures. I want my life to be fulfilling because I make it my own, not because I follow these “perceived” rules of society. There are a lot of people around me who are my age and who are getting engaged and married at this time (I’m 22) and I can’t help but wonder if they’re doing it because they really want to or because it’s just “the thing to do.” Of course, I have no business imposing on their life choices, but I do wonder about it regardless.

    I’ve recently been questioning whether or not I even want a traditional wedding ceremony when I do get married. I’m not against traditional marriage, either, and I do hope to be married someday. The traditional ceremony just seems so exuberant and unnecessary, though, in my mind. I’d rather focus on the life ahead of me with this person than on one day. Marriage is a long way off for me at this point–I’m currently single and wouldn’t want to get married now even if I was in a relationship–but it’s still something worth considering.

    Great post. I think this is a really important topic to look in to–and one that not many people consider at all.

    1. Tell me about it! I grew up in a very small town and most people I know – women and men – that I grew up with are married by now. That’s fine for them, but I haven’t really hit that point yet, even at 25. I know I want it in the future… it just that now doesn’t feel quite right. I’m certainly not going to rush into something so important (not to mention expensive) because of those perceived rules of society.

      I think you should make your wedding your own. I’ve personally considered having readings from places other than the Bible. Like, what about a favorite book of mine? Perhaps there are celebratory words about love that are specific to me. I’ve also considered having both of my parents walk me down the isle since they both had an equal role in raising me – that is assuming they will come to a non-catholic wedding. If not, I kind of like the idea of my husband to be and I walked down together. Why should one wait and one be presented? Why not start the whole thing off by showing we are united in our decision by walking down together?

      Whatever you want for your wedding, whenever that day comes, I say go for it!

  3. I feel like the “standard procedures” have changed over the years. As you said, at one time women married because they had to. We couldn’t own land or anything that would allow us to survive on our own. Times have changed and with that the standard relationship procedures have changed.

  4. This was an interesting read because it was not something I had ever pondered before. Thinking about it I immediately knew that I do not believe in “standard procedures” because that implies a one-size-fits-all approach to life and, of course, humans are far more complex and diverse. It may well be that some people choose to follow a pre-set path through their relationships because of their culture or belief systems but that should still come down to it being their personal choice (and if it is not then that is a whole other issue).

    It is that personal choice that is key and, therefore, each person should have their own individual “tests” of if and when to progress their relationship to the next stage or in which order to do certain things within the context of their relationship.

    I personally think that progressing a relationship is dependent upon conditions such as love, partnership, commitment, maturity and shared values/qualities/aims/whatever but that is my personal road map and not one I would impose on others.

    1. I agree 100%. I think the worst thing anyone can do for themselves, their relationship and their happiness is to assume some societal standard is right for them. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The point is, it shouldn’t matter. What each unique individuals needs for themselves, their relationship and their happiness is what matters.

  5. Do you have your own standards you want for yourself? I’ve always had my own standards that I’ve wanted for myself. I’ve faced many adversaries on my quest for happiness. Some claimed my happiness was important to them, but they always proved themselves wrong. Ultimately, others can think and say whatever they want. That’s fine. That’s them. That’s not you. That’s not me. We are not all the same and as such our happiness, our goals, and our futures aren’t going to take the same building materials and there is no way that ONE set formula will work for us all. This isn’t a bad thing, this is an amazing opportunity for all of humanity! The ability to find your own happiness is by far the most fulfilling and exciting thing about being alive!

    1. My standards? Anything specific has changed overtime. I don’t like being too specific because it makes it hard to break away from those ideas. Maybe my 14-year-old self thought I could only be happy if I was married by the age of 21, but my 21-year-old self may have learned some things to the contrary. I want to keep myself open to learning new things about what makes me happy and fulfilled. My standard for relationships is really my standard for everything. If it feels right in my soul, if it makes me a better, happier for fulfilled person, then it is right.

      “The ability to find your own happiness is by far the most fulfilling and exciting things about being alive!” Right on!

  6. Even if there was a standard, where would it come from and who will enforce it?

    I am glad women can work and live happy single lives. I want it available for them everywhere. Otherwise they are forced to marry men they can’t stand.

    1. I guess I assume it would come from religions, who would then enforce it, but that kind of assumes every religion has the same ideas about marriage. I certainly hope it’s not enforce by government. You know, freedom and all that.

      I think, across the globe, there’s this illusion that women are most happy in that one way. People have told me every women wants children regardless of what she says. That ever woman wants to be a stay at home mom no matter what she says. On an odd flip side, they also say every husband honors his wife, regardless of what she says differently.

      I guess what I mean is, somewhere, there is this ideal that everyone is happy being one way. Though, the reality is that everyone is truly happy being who they are and following whatever dreams they have, marriage or otherwise.

      1. Yes, there is no one size fits all method to happiness. The fact that there is no standard that all religions can agree on about any subject makes it problematic for them to try to enforce it in any way. In fact it is this disagreement that may prevent certain disasters from happening. If they can’t agree on what marriage is, what morality is, or what happens when you die, then the system crumbles.

        1. I actually disagree thatreligions don’t see eye to eye on anything. I feel like religions all share a message of peace, good will, and acceptance.

          Now, many who say they’re religious don’t emulate those ideas, but that a different phenomenon.

              1. True, not all religions even have holy books set up as an infallible source of truth or morality. Jainism is my favorite of the religions because it is anti-violence.

                1. I can see that. I’ve always had a thing for Buddhism, because it’s more of a way of life than anything else. Also, I love the Dalai Lama. Such a great guy!

  7. Great post!!

    “But then, it’s only been in recent years that people around the world have the ability to gain all the old benefits of marriage on their own. A single person can gain food, shelter, income, land and even children on their own. It makes people think differently about what they really want in a marriage. More than once I have been asked if there is even a point to the ceremony anymore.”

    Couldn’t agree to this more. I was in a painful marriage for almost three years before getting divorced. Now , I can relate to what you have written. I am an independent working woman and can afford everything I want. So , for me the big question is “Can marriage actually give me something more to make my life a bit more better?”
    If that’s the case , I surely would want to settle down again.

    As for the procedure, for someone like me, it’s still governed by the social background I come from. To be honest, I really can’t have a live-in kind of relationship. But falling in love and feeling the need surely comes before the marriage when I do it the second time.

    1. In a word where you can survive independently without marriage until the day you die, I think marriage becomes about finding someone who you feel motivates you to be a better person, to be the best you can be. Depending on your country and culture, you can live with that person and do the whole thing without marriage if you want. Personally, I still like the idea of marriage as a celebration of the unique love between two people and a kind of public announcement that this is the person I want to commit to for the rest of my life.

  8. When I say “standard procedure” I mean universally acceptable ways of doing things. These ways have been tried and tested over millennia. For instance, greeting people is a standard procedure. No matter how unique you are, you can’t devise your own way of greeting. It is the same with relationships, especially marriage.

    I get the impression you are not really interested in marriage in the sense of the word and or child bearing. And that’s fine as long as you have no problem with loneliness in the future.

    Your parents took care of you since infancy, it is only fair and right to honour them before leaving home. They ought to take bride price not as “purchasing fee” but as some kind of hounourarium. Your partner may be a good person and may have provided you with a lot of fianancial support but that is an aside.

    Nobody is saying live this way or that way but I am focusing on the best and right way that leads to happiness. How do you know many people are happy with their own unique arrangements? When in fact, we as humans, are only skilled at hiding our unhappiness. Do it if you think it’s the right thing to do but remember your emotional needs will change over time.

    1. Again, the “right” way of greeting is different among cultures and even in America there are differences. Do you give a hug? A handshake? A kiss on the cheek? A wave? It largely depends on your culture, the culture you’re interacting with and your perceived relationship with the other individual. There is no one way. I suppose you could say greeting someone is a standard, but I’m compare that to love. Love is a standard when it comes to relationships, but how that love is expressed depends on the individuals involved.

      I do very much want to get married someday, though, no, I’m not really sold on children. I’d be happy either way, really, and I certainly don’t think deciding not to have children would leave me lonely. There are always people to be friends with ^_^.

      I don’t really understand the comment about my parents honor, but I think that might be a cultural divide between us. I moved out of my parents house seven years ago, so anything I needed to do before leaving home is long done. I certainly don’t think my parents need to pay my husband anything and financially, I don’t need my partner to support me. I make a fine living on my own. Unless we’re talking about the emotional support of a life partner. I definitely rely on him for that.

      I suppose you could say I know the relationships I mentioned are happy because I was speaking of close family and friends. But then, if I can’t trust anyone who says they are happy, then I end up in the same spot – following the path that I believe will lead to my happiness.

      1. “I certainly don’t think my parents need to pay my husband anything,” –You understood wrongly. It should be the other way round.

        “and financially, I don’t need my partner to support me.”– Good, but sounds strange to me. Anyway, call me old fashioned.

        1. Wait… so my husband should pay my parents something? I still don’t get it, but like I said, I think this misunderstanding might be because we are coming from different cultural backgrounds.

          As for the finances, I certainly have friends who prefer being stay at home wives/mothers and are happy that way. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s great for them. It’s just not me. I like having a healthy career that not only earns me a great salary but allows me to stretch my creativity to greater heights.

          I suppose you could summarize by saying, “to each their own.”

          1. Cultural backgrounds aside, no society has ever existed without customs/norms as regards marriage, trade, property ownership etc. Maybe it was your idea to move in together? That’s fine, but even then the idea of payment of bride price is not alien to western culture.

            Under certain jurisdictions, couples who cohabit for more than five years are automatically seen by the law as husband and wife. It is clear that you prefer this kind of open relationship, the fact that you don’t want to be bound by rules. And that’s also fine.

            Lastly, if you proceed without any formal marriage ceremony, then you can never refer to him as your husband (in the sense of the word). Who are your witnesses? He is not yours to keep until maybe after five years depending on the specific laws in your state.

            I get the impression you really don’t place much value on marriage. You prefer a successful career, which is why I see nothing wrong with your father removing you from his insurance. All relationships thrive on compromise but I can see you are a tough cookie. In this case personal freedom goes with personal responsibility.

  9. TK- I was taught it’s a good idea to “court,” and that’s what I did 20 something years ago. In the modern era it seems the school of thought is to go for it and share your dividends before you’ve fully invested. Our marriage counselor said to “summer and winter” which meant to spend time with each other to see whether it was a whim or something that would last. We’ve been married 23 years, with seasons up and seasons down. We didn’t have sex or live together while we were courting, we waited and just dated. I’m still madly in love with her and I think I’m the luckiest man alive to have found her.

    I’d like to know if statistics on living together before marriage vs not living together say anything about marital success. But I don’t know where to find a reliable survey for that kind of data.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with courting that way. As I said in the blog, I think the “right” way to go about a relationship is really dependent on the people involved.

      I actually do know about stats regarding living together before marriage. The prevailing idea for a long time was that living together before marriage increased divorce rates, although that was largely a correlation (as oppose to causation). Recently, studies have looked at the ages at which people start living together, regardless of marital status. They found that couples who living together under the age of 23 – married or otherwise – were more likely to end up divorced. For those above 23, it made no difference. Well, except for one group. For whatever reason, people who had many sexual partners in their past were more likely to remain married if they lived together first.

      I think a lot of what makes a marriage work has to do with maturity and effectively communicating what both people want/expect out of the relationship.

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