Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Millennials Are Changing the Rules on Marriage

Is a beta-marriage a good idea or not?

Americans like Boston Globe columnist Tom Keane are worried that marriage is dying a slow death because millennials are not getting married until they are well established in their lives. The institution that used to be the foundation for life seems to have been demoted to an afterthought.

Some believe that the lack of structure will wreak havoc on our social welfare. With its waning popularity, fewer marriages means less social control. Last week in his July 27 article, “Millennials, reject timely marriage at your own risk,” Keane expressed relief that this generation is marrying late but warned them that, “[n]ot getting married at all could prove tragic.”

Really? Tragic? Is that true, or is it just media propaganda trying to pressure up-and-comers to conform to "tradition"?

The truth is that young people actually do want to wed, but they're not willing to go into marriage as readily (and blindly) as previous generations.

An article in TIME Magazine, also published last week, explained that millennials want to test-drive their nuptials before jumping into what is supposed to be a lifelong commitment. The author, Jessica Bennett, suggests a trial—or what she calls a beta—marriage option. Margaret Mead, a woman well ahead of her time, threw this notion out in the 1960s; in 2002, journalist and author, Pamela Paul, wrote a book on starter marriages, and; in 2011, Mexico City proposed laws supporting two-year renewable marriage contracts.

This option addresses conservatives' concerns but it's nowhere near conventional. In fact, it's quite contrary to what marriage stands for, yet it makes perfect sense.

As a therapist who specializes in working with couples, I’ve seen the emotional benefits that marriage has to offer. I’ve also seen the devastation caused by divorce and the challenges that accompany single life. Unquestionably, happy marriages make living better and easier. But the “traditional marriage” paradigm is stale. As a result, it’s becoming less appealing to the masses—in spite of well-meaning relatives, friends and members of the media trying to convince us that our lives will be ruined unless we choose this lifestyle.

I'd like to call for an end of trying to make young people feel they are wrong for not marrying, or for marrying later. I myself tied the knot for the first time at age 43. My husband, also a first-time marrier, was 45. Having been pelted much of my adulthood with the question, “What’s wrong with you? How come you’re not married?” I can tell you, it’s not fun to be treated as if being single is a disease and marriage its only cure.

Let’s step away from the myopic perspective of married=good, not married=bad, and offer more options within marriage. Let’s stop making people the culprits and put the onus to change on a one-size-fits-all model that, in reality, only fits one size.

In 2009, when nearly a quarter of my client-base was homeless or on the brink of bankruptcy, people had no choice but to find creative living solutions: Some moved back in with family members, some took on boarders and one woman literally went shopping for a husband. Everyone understood that desperate times required desperate measures. But why do we reserve resourceful alternatives for times of crisis when the divorce rate for the past several decades has been abysmal?

Rather than having only a choice to marry the same old way, or to not marry, let’s get a little imaginative and come up with marital options that would be better suited to a variety of people, including a short-term trial union for younger couples, a child-rearing marriage for those who’d like to be nothing more than co-parents, or a socially acceptable live apart arrangement.

In writing and researching, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014), my co-author and I learned that many people are already informally tapering marriage to fit into their personal lifestyles, but most don’t tell others about their choice to be different for fear of being judged. Instead, they pretend to be “normal.”

I hope one day we’ll have the freedom to be different. I hope we’ll be able to choose which model of marriage we’d like based on our age, socio-economic status, propensity for parenthood and sexuality.

Let’s put our energy into fixing the real problem: the archaic one-dimensional institution that we continue to idealize, but that continues to fail us.

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author. Failure to comply with these terms may expose you to legal action and damages for copyright infringement.

More from Psychology Today

More from Susan Pease Gadoua L.C.S.W.

More from Psychology Today