The contradicting state of marriage

July 11, 2016

Marriage has become an increasingly complex subject. Do people still desire it anymore? If so, what are they looking for? Why are people entering marriage much later in life and spending so much time cohabiting before marriage? What’s happening with this important institution?

TIME Magazine featured an important cover story in June on the tremendous importance of marriage, exploring many of these questions. It was unapologetically pro-marriage. Let’s address some of these important questions, taking a quick overview of what’s happening with marriage today, both the good and the bad news, seeing that it provides great opportunities for the Church.

Family formation trends

Marriage rates have generally been declining for some time. This didn’t start with the sexual revolution, but the Industrial Revolution. That revolution changed many things: How a husband and wife earned their household living, moving from working alongside each other on the farm to working alongside other people’s spouses in the factory. Women had more opportunity to remain single and more options to sustain themselves if divorce seemed wise. It created a tremendous change in how families formed and functioned.

In the 40s and 50s, marriage took on an additional shape that had substantial consequences. Sociologists call it the rise of the companionate marriage. Couples focused more on their relationship, friendship and compatibility, rather than on how to establish a life, family and common welfare together. Love has always been a part of marriage, to be sure, but the companionate marriage made this paramount, paving the way for spouses to become each other’s primary source for self-actualization. Each existed to make each other “a better person.” This gradually led to the “soul mate” idea of marriage where one seeks and finds their one, perfect soul mate, rather than becoming soul mates through decades of life together. Ma and Pa Ingalls didn’t “work” on their marriage, it just was, and it worked.

While marriage is declining today as cohabitation and unmarried childbearing among 20-something and 30-something women are growing at substantial rates, the desire for marriage still remains remarkably strong. Nearly everyone, if they could wave a magic wand and drop themselves into a relatively happy life as a spouse and parent would not hesitate to do so. This is consistently shown through many different sociological studies. So why are we seeing these contradicting trends?

Why aren’t people marrying?

People are as pro-marriage as they have ever been, perhaps more so. They want to marry and stay married for life. How can this be when marriage rates are declining and cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing skyrocketing? Curiously, these two factors are directly related. In order to understand why, we must understand a sociological truism. Generations, for good or bad, are formed by the generation from which they came. Look at the kids of the Great Depression. They became the most materially prosperous generation our nation has ever seen. They worked hard, built a robust economy, thanks to World War II, and settled down into a comfortable family life. Their kids rejected their dad as the company man, mom as the dutiful homemaker, nightly pre-dinner cocktails and meals around the evening dinner table as sure as clockwork. Suburbia wasn’t for them, so they went to Woodstock. As they grew and settled down, great numbers of them followed their hearts, asserted their independence and got divorced. This turned their children into ping-ponging latch-key kids, bouncing from mom’s place to dad’s home and back again through the week. They had to let themselves in after school because both parents were working. These children are now today’s emerging adults.

This brings to our answer for our current cultural irony. These young people have been existentially scared by the tremendous family instability they were thrust into and it has no recent historical precedent. It is the mark of their generation. They yearn for family stability for themselves and their own children, but are scared to death they will mess it up – and their own children as they were – just like their parents did. They have no good training or examples. They wonder if successful marriage is even possible. So what do they do?

They choose to cohabit and do so for three general reasons.

  1. They are desperately scared to take to the plunge marriage requires so they just wade safely near the shore.
  2. They cohabit as a relational “place-holder.” Not sure this guy is who I want to marry, but he’s good enough to live with until I find that guy.
  3. This could be the one, so they move into together to road test the relationship.

Each of these still retains successful marriage as the long-term plan. If ladies cannot find a marriageable man who seems to pose no relational risk, they will simply live with one until they find that guy. If they cannot find a marriageable man to answer the tick, tick ticking of their biological clock, they will settle for becoming a single mom with a “good-enough” baby daddy, which is happening among most demographics. These are the reasons we see these seemingly contradictory trends in society today.

Opportunities for the Church

These seemingly insurmountable troubles today are actually a wonderful opportunity for the church, if we will only recognize and seize them.

Our young adults desperately want what they were denied at home: marriage and even a real, meaningful faith. If we can show them with truth, love and imagination how these two go together so intimately, that is a message that will surprise their hearts with joy, hope and encouragement.

Glenn Stanton

Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the world. Read More by this Author