- Engaged couples may need help establishing clear expectations and boundaries around pornography and social media contact with former lovers. Tweet This
- Effective marriage preparation is more important than ever for today’s emerging adults, or iGens, who have experienced a vastly different pathway to adulthood compared to previous generations. Tweet This
Last week, Alan discussed Utah’s new policy to promote premarital education (if you missed it, you can read it here.) This week, we will address why effective marriage preparation is more important than ever for today’s emerging adults, or iGens, who have experienced a vastly different pathway to adulthood compared to previous generations. That pathway often includes extensive premarital sex, cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, media exposure to unhealthy relationship patterns, and diverse ideas about the meaning of marriage. There are at least four overarching trends influencing the next generation’s ability to form healthy marriages, and we argue that effective premarital education can help couples address the potential problems these trends create.
Before we address those trends, though, it is important to note that premarital education is different from therapy or pastoral counseling. Premarital education is an education program offered specifically to couples preparing for or seriously considering marriage. An effective premarital education program helps prospective or engaged couples evaluate their relationship prior to marriage by covering areas that are potentially problematic and by providing preventative skills training to help couples improve their relationship and reduce their risk of divorce.
1. Individualism and Commitment Ambivalence
Emerging adulthood is an identifiable period of the life course focused on personal exploration, self-development, individual attainment, and delayed commitment. This period is marked by unlimited choices for many, which can be both exhilarating and frightening. Not surprisingly, most emerging adults are delaying marriage until they complete an education and settle into a job. Of course, for too many young adults, a college degree seems beyond their reach and attaining some level of economic stability is a major challenge. Young adults also find themselves navigating a sea of choices regarding sexuality, relationships, and marriage that are not subject to much societal scrutiny. In this context of extended freedom, self-exploration, and the struggle to find employment stability, delaying commitment to a partner is understandable. Yet most emerging adults believe that commitment is a key component of marriage. And lack of commitment is one of the most common reasons given for divorce (see Scott Stanley’s IFS blog post on this topic here).
Effective premarital education can help couples understand the importance of commitment and help strengthen it by discussing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that undergird the ability to make strong commitments. And it can shine a more positive light on the value of sacrifice and the benefits of prioritizing “we” over “me” as couples transition to marriage.
2. The Meaning of and Attitudes about Marriage
Previous generations—our parents and grandparents—often relied on social norms and institutions to help define adulthood, particularly marriage and family formation. But those have diminished today. Consequently, attitudes about marriage are more complex than ever. We focus on two possible attitudinal shifts here: deinstitutionalization and monogamy.
For many, marriage is “just a piece of paper.” While it still holds symbolic value, formal vows are no longer necessary. Many iGens subscribe to this attitude, even though they personally value marriage, desire to marry in the future,1 and support legal access to marriage for same-sex couples.2 Once married though, the institutional features still emerge which can be disorienting for couples as they try to adapt.
Also, more emerging adults are questioning whether monogamy remains an essential element of marriage. Research is finding more openness to participating in consensual non-monogamy with more than a quarter of American adults saying that monogamy is unrealistic in modern relationships.3 Overall, young people appear to be involved in consensual non-monogamy in greater numbers, with some viewing it as a way to explore identity and sexuality. As iGens approach marriage, many will need help to clarify for themselves the meaning of marriage and their expectations regarding monogamy, and then to sync their attitudes with their partner. Effective premarital education is designed to help couples with this task by facilitating these kinds of discussions in a safe environment.
3. Relationship History and Experiences
Many iGens come to marriage with diverse sexual and relational experiences. Approximately 90% of Americans have had premarital sex,4 with an average of five sexual partners prior to marriage.5 Emerging adults generally do not perceive any marital penalties for sex before marriage, even though premarital sex with someone besides one’s spouse is associated with increased marital dissatisfaction and a higher risk of divorce.6 It is possible that premarital sex may make one more aware of alternative partners. And having more premarital sexual partners is associated with marital infidelity.7
Much of premarital sex occurs in cohabiting relationships. Nearly one-half of adults cohabit prior to marriage,8 often with multiple partners. Two-thirds of young adults in one study agreed that: “Living together before marriage may help prevent divorce.”9 Yet research has consistently found that cohabiting prior to marriage increases the risk of divorce unless there is clear commitment to the future together. However, most couples report no deliberate decision to move in together; instead, couples find themselves “sliding” into a cohabiting relationship before committing to marriage. (Scott Stanley’s blog about this phenomenon is worth reviewing.) Of those cohabiting relationships that transition to marriage, many occur due to constraints placed on the relationship (e.g., children, shared finances), or shear inertia rather than a deliberate decision to marry. The logic of cohabitation can be compelling to young adults, yet the actual practice is associated with added risk for marital problems and stability.
In addition, more than 40% of births are to unwed parents10 and about 60% of these births are to cohabiting couples.11 So, many marriages now begin with children in the union —hers, his, or theirs. Nonmarital childbirth is related to increased marital stress, lower marital quality, and increased likelihood of divorce.12
Engaged couples need help addressing the complexities that result from extensive premarital sexual experience, cohabitation histories, and premarital childbearing. Effective premarital education can be helpful here as well, specifically by creating an openness—and again providing a safe space—to bring up sensitive matters that couples may gloss over without such help.
4. Media and Pornography
The iGens are the first cohort to be immersed in a media-saturated world and, on average, spend 12 hours per day engaged with some form of media.13 The effects of media on relational and marital attitudes are unique to this generation. For instance, there is some evidence that individuals use social networking sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, to reconnect and rekindle relationships with former partners or connect with potential partners while in a committed relationship. And research has documented several adverse outcomes for this phenomenon, including increased jealousy, infidelity, and divorce.14
In addition, many popular television dramas and sitcoms portray humorous but poor communication skills and interaction patterns among couples without showing the likely negative consequences. Add to this the reality television shows that portray the pursuit of a spouse as a competition or an experiment, and it is easy to see how emerging adults can passively absorb harmful ideas and expectations for marriage, including a soul mate mentality.
Also, nearly 90% of emerging adult men use pornography (20% nearly every day), and 30% of women report some level of use.15 Using pornography is related to changes in sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.16 Individuals who use pornography are more likely to have more casual sex and more sexual partners, which is associated with greater difficulty during marital transitions and lower levels of marital quality.17 Furthermore, pornography use is linked to decreased sexual satisfaction, and lower perceptions of partner’s sexual attraction, physical attraction, and sexual performance.18
Even though nearly all marrying couples are sexually experienced, they may need help establishing clearer expectations and boundaries around pornography and contact with former lovers. And basic literacy about what constitutes healthy relationships should not be assumed. Again, premarital education can be effective in meeting these kinds of needs by addressing the potential effects of media on relationship attitudes and behaviors and helping couples establish wise, mutual boundaries around media use that undergird a successful marriage.
The Need for Premarital Education
As the pathway to adulthood has changed dramatically in the past several decades, so has the pathway to marriage. Emerging adults enter marriage in diverse ways but typically experience premarital sex, cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, media exposure to unhealthy relationship patterns, and diverse ideas about the meaning of marriage. Together these (and other) trends forecast a challenging transition to marriage for iGens. As a result, we believe the need for effective premarital education is stronger than ever. Premarital programs developed in the 20th century will need to be revised for these 21st-century challenges. We look forward to watching the field adapt and grow to meet the needs of the next generation of marrying couples.
Tiffany L. Clyde is pursuing her Master’s degree in the Marriage, Family, and Human Development program at Brigham Young University; Alan J. Hawkins is a Co-Chair of the Utah Marriage Commission and Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
1. Carroll, J. S., Willoughby, B., Badger, S., Nelson, L. J., Barry, C. M., & Madsen, S. D. (2007). So close, yet so far away: The impact of varying marital horizons on emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22, 219-247.
2. Pew Research Center. (2017, June 26). Changing attitudes on Gay Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/
3. 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll: Marriage. (2016, October 26-30). http://www.cbsnews.com/news /60-minutes -vanity-fair-poll-marriage/
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2017a). Key Statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth - P Listing. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/key_statistics/p.htm#premarital
5. Chandra, A., Billioux, V. G., Copen, C. E., & Sionean, C. (2012). HIV risk-related behaviors in the United States household population aged 15–44 years: data from the National Survey of Family Growth, 2002 and 2006–2010. National Health Statistics Report, 46, 1-19.
6. Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2014) “Before ‘I do’: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today's young adults?” The National Marriage Project Working Paper. Retrieved from http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/NMP-BeforeIDoReport-Final.pdf.; Teachman, J. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 444-455.
7. Regnerus, M. (2017). Cheap sex: The transformation of men, marriage, and monogamy. New York: Oxford University Press.
8. Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., & Mosher, W. D. (2013). First premarital cohabitation in the United States: 2006-2010 national survey of family growth (No. 64). US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.
9. Daugherty J., & Copen C. E. (2016). Trends in attitudes about marriage, childbearing, and sexual behavior: United States, 2002, 2006–2010, and 2011–2013 (No. 92). US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.
10. Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brooking Institution.
11. Curtin, S. C., Ventura, S. J., & Martinez, G. M. (2014). Recent declines in nonmarital childbearing in the United States (No. 2014). US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.
12. Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2014) “Before ‘I do’: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today's young adults?” The National Marriage Project Working Paper. Retrieved from http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/NMP-BeforeIDoReport-Final.pdf.; Teachman, J. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 444-455; Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brooking Institution.
13. Alloy Media & Marketing. (2009). 9th Annual College Explorer Survey. Retrieved November 14, 2017, from https://www.marketingcharts.com/television-11195
14. Muise, A., Christofides, E., & Desmarais, S. (2009). More information than you ever wanted: Does Facebook bring out the green-eyed monster of jealousy? Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 12, 441-444; Clayton, R. B. (2014). The third wheel: The impact of Twitter use on relationship infidelity and divorce. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17, 425-430; Valenzuela, S., Halpern, D., & Katz, J. E. (2014). Social network sites, marriage well-being and divorce: Survey and state-level evidence from the United States. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 94-101.
15. Carroll, J. S., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Nelson, L. J., Olson, C. D., Barry, C. M., & Madsen, S. D. (2008). Generation XXX: Pornography acceptance and use among emerging adults. Journal Of Adolescent Research, 23, 6-30.
16. Regnerus, M. (2017). Cheap sex: The transformation of men, marriage, and monogamy. New York: Oxford University Press.
17. Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2014) “Before ‘I do’: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today's young adults?” The National Marriage Project Working Paper. Retrieved from http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/NMP-BeforeIDoReport-Final.pdf.; Teachman, J. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 444-455.
18. Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2009). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit internet material and notions of women as sex objects: Assessing causality and underlying processes. Journal of Communication, 59, 407-433; Kenrick, D., Gutierres, S., & Goldberg, L. (1989). Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 159–167; Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1988). Pornography’s impact on sexual satisfaction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, 438–453.