Friday, March 30, 2012

What Marriage Means to Today's Young Adults

From an article linked in today's Mercator Net, a study in Ohio reveals some interesting facts about young adults and their views on marriage.

...more than half of births to American women under age 30 now occur outside of marriage...

Nonmarital births have been common among Americans without a high school diploma for at least thirty years: as the 2010 State of Our Unions reports, in 1982 33 percent of births to women without a high school diploma occurred outside of marriage, compared to 13 percent of births to high-school educated women. But in the past thirty years, nonmarital births to high-school educated women surged: in the late 2000s’, 44 percent of births to high-school educated women occurred outside of marriage. (By comparison, only 6 percent of births to college-educated women were outside of marriage.) It is the behavioral changes of this “moderately educated middle”—the 58 percent of high-school educated Americans—that put the “normal” into “the new normal” that the Times describes.

Furthermore, the “new normal” is not driven primarily by an increase in single mothers, but in the number of cohabiting couples: in 1988, 39 percent of high-school educated Americans had cohabited; in the late 2000’s, 68 percent. According to Child Trends, 52 percent of all nonmarital births took place within a cohabiting relationship. Almost two-thirds (61 percent) of nonmarital births to white women took place in cohabiting unions.

These trends raise important questions. How do working-class young adults think about marriage today? Do they still revere it even while they choose to delay it, or are they jettisoning marriage altogether? If they do revere it, why the increase in cohabiting unions with children?

As the interviewers questioned young adults about their views on marriage, several things became clear: most wanted to be married one day; most did not want to be divorced; most thought that if you divorced, it was because you had not found the right person to begin with; most thought that love was that emotional connection with another person; and most thought that happiness was the barometer of a good marriage.

As I read the article, I was struck by the fact that these young adults, almost to a man (or woman), did not know that commitment plays a significant (perhaps the most significant) role in achieving a successful marriage. It is almost as if there is a passivity involved; being in love and staying in love are things that just happen; perhaps that is the result of all the Hollywood flicks that young adults have based their life views on. Not one interviewee said anything about, when the emotional sparks die down, it is commitment that keeps the relationship going.

One young man who was interviewed was an unmarried father of 27 who had already been in 18 "relationships" and has been engaged four times. He has a date to be married, but questions the purpose of signing a contract when you already know you are going to stay with that person for life. Does this young fellow not look around and see the lives of his friends? Has he not realized that cohabiting relationships fail far more often than legal marriage? His knowledge of marriage seems to be entirely subjective, and given his own mother's three divorces as well as the divorces of his numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, his chances of staying married are pretty slim.

Another interesting fact that came out of this survey was that most young adults did not see children and marriage necessarily connected. The prevailing view was that sex might have the result of producing a child, in which case you would accept that, but most did not see marriage as being the place where one actually parented children and built family life. Is it any wonder that so many women are now single parents?

This article calls to mind so many things I have read or listened to in the past. Ronald Reagan's deep regret that he helped push through the no-fault divorce law in California, once he came to realise that he had facilitated easy divorce; Ann Coulter's statement on a tv talk show that the one thing every child should want first of all was a married mother and father (based on the stats of criminal rate amongst children of single mothers and based on the fact that single motherhood is the surest way to be poor in America); the Pope's recent exhortation to American bishops to preach against the evils of co-habitation.

Myself, I have been married for 38 years and to the same man. I had no illusions about marriage being a bed of roses; my own parents had a rocky marriage that ended in separation after 27 years. Even at the age of 21, the breakdown of a family is emotionally and psychologically devastating. When I married, I was terrified because I knew how easy it would be to become a bitter nagging wife, and how easy it would be to come to hate the person I was married to. I recall, being in a campground and hearing a woman speaking to her husband, and the tone of voice resounded within me with dread. Above all, I did not want to sound like that woman in 20 years time. Her voice was full of irritation and resentment as she asked her husband to do something in a way that indicated she thought he was next to useless. It was a horrific foreshadowing to me of what I could become, if I chose to behave in a certain way.

The unfortunate fact is that so many of today's young adults don't come from happy homes, where parents have remained married, so what example do they have to follow? And who is telling them what they need to know? That love is an act of the will, not an emotion.

And that is precisely why getting married, and not co-habiting, is so necessary for relationships to last. It is committing to behaving in a loving way that builds success in a relationship. You are not going to feel lovey-dovey in two years time, and certainly not once children arrive with the demands they make upon their parents. Some rare folks do seem to stay "in love" as they were pre-marriage, but they are extremely rare. Most of us have to work at being loving.

One thing I learned early on in my married life was that the thing that most attracted me to my husband, became the very thing that irritated me most. He has a wonderful quirky sense of humour; and I was completely charmed by it when I met him. I couldn't stop laughing; he was just so smart and funny in such a different way (he is British, what more do I have to say?). However, that very humour was the thing that drove me crazy in a couple of years. I found it immensely irritating; he seemed to find humour in things that I thought were dire, and the fact that he did made me angry.

Over time, and over some years, an amazing thing began to happen. I started to find him funny once again. And I remember once, looking over at him during dinner, and realising this was the man I fell in love with and I loved him all over again. That doesn't happen if you give up when the loving feeling goes away; it can only happen if you stick to the relationship through the tough years (most of which seem to be while raising kids). But if you can stick to it, the very things you found so attractive at first, will once again become attractive again. And this second time, they are so much more lasting.

None of this can happen if you don't commit to someone in a deep way. If you pledge your life to them, come thick or thin, through hard times and good times. When your ability to love seems to be parched, it is that commitment that carries you through. Don't count on the loving emotions to bring you through those years; it is commitment on a deeper level that will win the day. And when you come through it, you and your spouse realise that you actually love each other more and in a much more satisfying way than what you first experienced with the "flush of love".

h/t What Marriage Means to Today's Young Adults by Amber and David Lapp

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