Archive for April, 2009

Say Maybe. (Call before midnight tonight)

April 27, 2009

Jamelle links to a Washington Post article by Mark Regnerus, in which the latter warns today’s young men and women (but mostly women) to rethink delaying marriage:

Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life. … I realize that marrying early means that you engage in a shorter search. In the age of online dating personality algorithms and matches, Americans have become well acquainted with the cultural (and commercial) notion that melding marriage with science will somehow assure a good fit. But what really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing.

I am not blessed with Regnerus’ eloquence, and if I had to summarize his argument, I would write – Some of you young people out there are going to be sorry you hadn’t married earlier. This I agree with wholeheartedly. But I would also add a caveat: Remember, before you drop the job applications and the grad school brochures and run off to the altar, that no one has any idea what your marriages will turn out like. Sorry. Good luck with that.

See, Mark Regnerus pins the blame for today’s marriage-phobia on the older generation, who are passing on defective life-lessons to their offspring:

If you’re seeking a mate in college, you’re considered a pariah, someone after her “MRS degree.” Actively considering marriage when you’re 20 or 21 seems so sappy, so unsexy, so anachronistic. … How did we get here? The fault lies less with indecisive young people than it does with us, their parents. Our own ideas about marriage changed as we climbed toward career success. Many of us got our MBAs, JDs, MDs and PhDs. Now we advise our children to complete their education before even contemplating marriage, to launch their careers and become financially independent. We caution that depending on another person is weak and fragile. We don’t want them to rush into a relationship. We won’t help you with college tuition anymore, we threaten. Don’t repeat our mistakes, we warn.

Maybe today’s youth are operating on a bad set of assumptions about marriage, but they’re still the ones who decide who, when, and how to marry. Maybe they’re making that decision inefficiently – delaying marriage at an age when they ready and willing to take it on. But maybe they’re making that decision because (or at least at the same time as) they remain immature, fearful of commitment, or distrusting of matrimony. If the culture of tomorrow’s couples has changed in a way that precludes lasting marriage, then no one can predict if their marriages will be successful or satisfying.

Regnerus believes that “today, as ever, marriage wisely entered into remains good for the economy and the community, good for one’s personal well-being, good for wealth creation and, yes, good for the environment, too.” The “today, as ever” clause is dangerous. The institution of marriage changes over time – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically. In the past we had the idealized Victorian household, with a Man of the House and a Lady of the House secure in their eternal, sacred roles. But looking at the recent history of marriage, a cynical demographer might conclude that the main function of marriage in postwar America has been to produce divorces. Consider this graph:

Between 1960 and 1980, something changed in the wide world of marriage – something which made marriages implode at a much faster pace. After divorce rates peaked, there seemed to be another change, which sent them on a slow decline. Who could have predicted in 1955 that so many marriages would end in divorce 20 years later? On the other hand, who could have seen at the end of the 70s that the divorce rate was about to peak?

The success of a marriage, of course, is not binary – “married” vs. “divorced.” It is far more complicated. All we know is that for past cohorts, marrying earlier might have been a good idea. But people change, cultures change, and even the institution of marriage changes. No one really knows if young people today are better or worse suited for marriage than young people before them; nor how their marriages will work compared to the marriages of their parents and grandparents. If I had to write up a pithy op-ed on contemporary marriage, I would stand by the main point Regnerus makes – don’t let a regression coefficient discourage you from marrying young. But, as above, I would chase this point with a disclaimer: since the institution of marriage is in constant flux, no one knows how marrying early (or late) will work for you or your peers. We’ll get back to you on that one.