Love: 13 Reasons Why It May Not Lead to Marriage
The singles epidemic: Why fewer folks are marrying, plus two potential solutions
Posted October 13, 2014
When I was growing up in the 1950's and 60's, marriage was the norm. Now there's an epidemic of singledom, both of never-marrieds and of used-to-be-marrieds.
Singles can live fine lives. At the same time, the disappearance of marriage would present a radical shift in social structure.
The link between love and marriage
A popular 1950's Frank Sinatra song began "Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage...This I tell ya, brother, you can't have one without the other."
Marriage used to be an inevitability once couples fell in love. Now, within half a century, is marriage antiquated, like a horse and buggy?
The problem is not that boys and girls do not want love to lead to marriage.
According to recent studies, most high school kids still aspire to the love and marriage duo. A 2013 Gallup poll for instance found that a whopping 84.5 percent of high school senior girls and 77 percent of high school senior boys still believe marriage to be "extremely important."
That's good news, at least to those of us who believe that emotionally healthy marriages and families form the foundations of a civilized society. Happy families generally raise happy kids, who in turn become happy grownups capable of being the strong workers of a viable economy and the informed citizens that democracies depend upon.
The reality however is that young adults stay single for many years longer than they used to.
Though young adults still fall in love and may even decide to live together, marriage has been getting postponed to an increasingly later age. Research from the Pew Center which is a non-partisan thinktank that conducts studies to gather statistics on many social issues, is quite clarifying in this regard:
"Americans are waiting longer and longer to get married. Last year, according to Census data, the median age at first marriage was 29.0 for men and 26.6 for women, both the highest since at least 1890. The low for both sexes since then came in 1956, when the median age at first marriage was 22.5 for men and 20.1 for women."
If the median age for men is now 29, that would say that half of men are waiting until their thirties, which is already toward the end of their healthiest child-creating years, to attain the status of full grownup by becoming married men.
To what extent are love and marriage no longer necessarily attached to each other?
Interestingly, the Pew Research center has found that about the same number of adults are in on-going relationships now as in 1960. But while this just-over-70% is the same percentage, almost 60% of these loving couples now are not living in marriage relationships.
Even more startling, Pew researchers found that whereas in 1960 only 9% of single folks over age 25 would never marry, now that number is up around 20%, that is, one in five!
What's causing this breakdown of the love and marriage, forever-together option?
Having been the beneficiary of a bountiful married life for over forty years myself, I'm a huge marriage fan. At the same time, as a marriage therapist I have seen many reasons why so many folks either do not marry or marry and then divorce.
1. The times
There may be a watershed phenomenon. All of my 23 neices and nephews for instance who are older than 32 have married, and most of them either have children or are currently pregnant. The five who are younger than 32 though, by contrast, all still are single. Not exactly a random sample, but suggestive nonetheless of trends that match the statistics I relayed above.
Does this small sample suggest that many young adults wait until later than their twenties to marry? That with the economy slowed down, marriage rates have slowed as well because marriage feels to many like an economic leap appropriate just for couples with good enough jobs to support each other? Or maybe that marriage has gone out of fashion?
Certainly in Europe non-married partners have become the norm. Has that trend crossed the big pond to become contagious here in the US?
2. External barriers
One young man has lived for multiple years with a girlfriend who is still an undergraduate. In their California university, she would lose her financial aid if she was married. How's that for an institutionalized disincentive!
In this regard I recall many years ago when my elderly grandfather began living with an equally elderly grand dame. As my parents explained to me then, by the time people have already lived most of their lives, their kids are grown up, and they don't want to share their money or confuse the lines of inheritance, it then may be more sensible for them to share a living arrangement without exchanging wedding rings.
Government policies can create inadvertent barriers to marriage. The worst may have been Aid to Dependent Children. By giving increased aid to mothers who had no husband, the government created an unintended consequence. Women chose not to marry because the government gave them more than the father of their children could earn. Women married Uncle Sam.
3. Wanting to be on the right side of the 50% statistic.
Especially if your own parents divorced, and all the more so if you do not understand what went wrong in their marriage, caution makes sense.
As one young adult friend of mine said, "My parents divorced. I want to wait to marry until I'm sure which side of the 50% divorce statistic I'll end up on."
The good news here was that my friend met a woman who felt totally right. They now have been married for over a decade and they and their children as well have been flourishing.
4. Marriage breakup is too painful.
Many singles do not want to risk putting themselves, or their potential children, through the sadness and upheaval they experienced when their parents untied their knot, or when they themselves ended a prior marriage.
Call it commitment phobia, call it understandable caution. Whatever you call it, concerns about the pain associated with divorce block many young adults from wanting to tie a knot that may someday get untied.
5. No one else is marrying.
Societal norms, right or wrong, have enormous impacts. Everyone is doing it leads to everyone doing it. Few people doing it leads to even fewer doing it.
Alas, the culture of refraining from marrying seems to be economic-related. Jonathan Rauch of Brookings Institution offers statistics that the more educated and moneyed a couple are, the more likely that they will marry. His conclusion: that marriage is starting to look like a gated community. That's really sad.
Has marriage begun to look like a privelege of the wealthy because weddings have turned into such expensive extravaganzas? Because a man is supposed to look like he's able to support a family, which few men now can do since the economy has adjusted to requiring two incomes for most familiels to survive? Or because women have become too busy trying to survive economically to think about marriage and children? Or maybe because women go ahead and have children with or without a commitment from their father to also be a husband?
School takes so long, and you're not really a grownup while you are still a student. Medical school, law school, many kinds of grad school can keep young adults infantalized as financial dependents up into their late twenties.
Some students, and especially students who work part-time and therefore are older or who are in graduate school, do defy the norm and marry. In my graduate school program, only two of the twenty of us were married. Yet the two of us were the only two who finished the five-year PhD program in just five years, the rest took six, seven and more to complete their doctorates.
Bob, the son of one of my close friends, dropped out of college. His parents were quite concerned, until Bob met the love of his life, married, and returned to school...successfully not only completing college but going on from there to earn a spot in a prestigious law school, a clerkship with an important judge, and then a job at one of the city's best law practices. Bob is certain of the secret to his transformation from uninspired student to hard-working star....MARRIAGE.
In sum, marriage doesn't need to wait until after education. Early marriage fosters educational success.
7. No career so not yet marriage material.
Establishing a career path may take longer than ever. In this economy especially, young adults feel fortunate to get any full time job, or at least to cobble together a pastiche of work situations. Those who actually land on a viable career path within the first few years after high school or college graduation are becoming the exceptions rather than the rule.
While a full career may not be necessary for marriage, women do seem to want to know if the man they are choosing for lifetime partnership has potential to become a serious bread-winner.
8. The pill.
Love used to mean that sex, which could invite a pregnancy, required you to have a marriage to take care of the children. Now love means sex with only minimal likelihood of pregnancy. Who needs marriage?
The Sinatra song insisted, "Love and marriage...Dad was told by mother, you can't have one without the other." Now you can.
9. Marriage takes skills.
Many young aduts, and older ones as well, have not learned the skills they would need for marriage happiness. Living a life yoked together on the same life path, spouses need skills for talking over differences without fighting. Emotional IQ alone is not enough; couple communication skills also are essential if you want to experience the joys with very little of the struggles of marital partnership.
It used to be that if your parents dealt with conflict by either fighting or avoiding each other, you were likely as an adult to "speak the language" of conflict that you learned in your family of origin. Fortunately now there's courses anyone can take that teach these skills. The SmartMarriages website lists many that can teach you how to:
a) handle anger so they don't hurt others with needless emotional escalation
b) talk collaboratively instead of getting adversarial, becoming blaming, or listening dismissively
c) resolve differences with win-win action plans and
d) convey positivity, that is, affection, appreciation and love.
10. Divorce has become easier and more socially acceptable.
Have we become a society in which relationships are like paper plates? Throw it away once it has been used or looks sullied.
11. Been there done that.
Adults who have been married and then divorced may feel that the pain they experienced in their prior marriage was not worth the gain. For these people divorce may have meant liberation.
"Never again" may then become their marriage motto, even if a second marriage, if based on both better collaborative communication skills and a better choice of mate, could bring a vastly different outcome than the first.
12. Not a pair-bonder
Some animals pair-bond for life. Others go from sexual partner to sexual partner. Still others mate for one season, and then find new partners for the next. People may be similar. While most seem to want to pair-bond, some may be genetically from a different breed.
In my practice I find this pattern of discomfort with the idea of picking one partner to stick with for the rest of their living days mostly associated with narcissism. When "it's all about me," a person in a sense has already pair-bonded for life--with him/herself.
Similarly, people with Aspergers and others on the autistic spectrum may find the constant togetherness of marriage and the associated need to consider always another person's concerns, preferences, feelings etc. emotionally overwhelming. The idea of being married may sound appealing to them. At the same time the realities of living in tandem with someone else may not work for them.
13. Cultural stereotypes
The Frank Sinatra song continued with the words "Love and marriage...it's an institute you can't disparage." Yet too much of today's movies, songs and other media do disparage marriage. Too often they seem to assume that marriages are either a) non-existent or b) for ending.
What do today's media depictions of marriage portray? Not a pretty picture, for the most part.
What could make a difference to stimulate the re-linking of love and marriage?
Two strategies seem especially potentially high impact for changing both societal and individuals' views of marriage as an appropriate sequel to love.
1) Teach/learn the skills for marriage success.
Our society needs to teach skills for collaborative dialogue and problem solving, including how to keep anger at bay, from the early grades onward. That trend has begun. Many schools, at the preschool level and all the way up through high school, include a curriculum on conflict resolution without fighting. We just have a long ways to go.
Meanwhile, unmarried individuals who decide that marriage partnership sounds appealing to them need to sign up to learn the skills. Would you expect to become a surgeon without medical training? The good news is that training to be a mate is far easier. At the same time, trying to be a mate without the requisite skills just doesn't work.
2) Hope that the media will offer more positive marriage images: movies, TV, songs, etc.
Our society needs many more positive media depictions of marriage. Change a culture's images of marriage and maybe the whole deal will swing around.
Take a look for instance at this video by Denver singer-songwriter Julie Geller: click here. Note, by the way, that the participants in the video who portray her husband and children are her actual hubby and kids. Now that's a heart-warming, inspiring and yet still realistic view of marriage.
Will love and marriage again reconnect?
Can you imagine how attitudes toward marriage might shift if a) most people learned the skills that enable couples to sustain love in their marriage and b) the positive take on marriage that Julie Geller so lovingly portrays in this music video were to pervade our tv shows, movies and songs?
May that day come soon!
------------------------------------(c) Susan Heitler, PhD-----------------------------------------
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, has authored the Power of Two book, workbook, and interactive website. All three teach the couple communication skills for successful relationships.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz.
Click here to learn the skills for strong and loving relationships.