Do Young People Delay Marriage Because They Value It?
by Emily Macke
Declining rates of marriage among today’s young adults are frequently the subject of social scientists’ research. But a new study published in The Journal of Psychology, and reported in the Washington Times, urges changing one’s perspective when looking at the low numbers.
Researchers from Ball State University and Brigham Young University claim that young people are not avoiding marriage because they have little esteem for the institution, but rather because they see marriage’s importance.
Nearly 600 students at Ball State were asked to predict how much effort and energy they would put into several future “projects” – marriage, parenthood, career and leisure/hobbies. The students then had to assemble a pie chart, with the total equaling 100 percent, reflecting the importance of each role. Marriage was deemed the most important, at nearly 30 percent.
“What we found when we made them (assign values) was marriage was still the most important thing they anticipated being in their future,” said Brian J. Willoughby, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. “So it was more evidence than we’ve seen in the past that young adults are still valuing marriage.”
Willoughby shared his perspective from tracking the shift in marriage attitudes among young adults: “Instead of marriage being thought of as the foundation on which you build a life with someone, it’s now a sort of capstone. They see it in terms of, ‘If you get through college and you have careers, getting married is how you reward yourself.’”
Co-author Scott Hall, an associate professor of family studies at Ball State, said that studies like his “continue to affirm that the delay in marriage may not represent that people think marriage is not important.” Instead, in a follow-up a year after the original study was conducted, Hall and Willoughby found a “marriage paradox.” Marriage became more important to the students than they reported the year before- and yet the amount of energy they expected to put into it decreased, instead competing with other pursuits, such as career or travel.
Willoughby surmised that as young adults seek to “do everything,” they may not see the impact of their priorities in their 20s on what occurs in their 30s. How do they negotiate all of these roles when their lives are just going to keep getting busier?” he said. “Seeing the trajectory is really helpful.”
Although the researchers do not pinpoint the best age to marry, they note that the mid-20s are a kind of “sweet spot.” Willoughby said waiting later in life can make marriage more challenging or “unsatisfying”: “By that time in life, they’ve prioritized career, friendship, other things […] It’s hard to hit the reset and say this marriage is going to be really important when those other things have already been important the last 20 years.”
Why do young adults delay marriage when they value it? Hall said a major factor is wanting to be sure they are ready to succeed.
The New York Post recently noted that despite cohabitation and social media access to seemingly endless information, many singles today don’t know significant details about the person they plan to marry. In fact, an increasing number are turning to private investigators to confirm the decision to enter into marriage.
The author of the Post article, Naomi Schaefer Riley, writes that she was “floored to learn that more than half of couples in interfaith marriages don’t talk about how they want to raise their kids before they seal the deal (and that was just among the ones who had kids). How is it possible that in all the deep, late-night conversations that led you to believe this person was your soulmate you never got around to faith and family?”
Riley notes that money is another significant subject often not adequately addressed by dating couples.
Ironically, Riley says that cohabitation might contribute to the lack of important information one has about a significant other – information that goes beyond the measureable data available through an online search. “[C]ohabitation often gives people the illusion of true intimacy while allowing partners to keep to themselves the most important pieces of information,” she writes. “As much as we might think living together is the ultimate test for whether a relationship will succeed, the truth of the matter is different. It is very easy to live under the same roof with someone and not have any conversations about plans for the future. You can chat endlessly about whether they leave dirty laundry on the floor or whether they’ve ever mopped a kitchen floor but having those serious chats about finances or children don’t get any easier just because you both collapse on the same couch at the end of the day.”
Another contributing factor to difficulties in truly knowing one’s future spouse is that couples often do not receive the same kind of input from family and community that they did in the past. Riley quotes author Pamela Paul, who noted in her research for The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony that “all the divorcees interviewed said their parents gave them no direction about marriage beyond telling them upon their engagement that ‘as long as you’re happy,’ they supported it.”
Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, pointed out that couples’ delay of marriage might lead, in part, to the desire to obtain additional information from outside sources – sources quite different from one’s family or community. “In a world where people are taking longer to get married, and accumulating more relationship baggage, I think many adults today are understandably nervous about going ahead with a major relationship commitment or engagement,” Wilcox said. “It’s no surprise that people are hiring private detectives or other services to look into their partner’s background.”
A chicken-or-the-egg phenomenon, one might ask which factors and consequences of delayed marriage among young adults are truly first. It is good news that Hall and Willoughby’s study of college students points to a valuing of marriage. But if young people truly value marriage, might they be more inclined to know more about the person to whom they plan to make a gift of self?
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.