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  • "You have to be a secure person, a full person," to get married, says one young divorced man. Tweet This
  • How do you strengthen marriage in places where traumatic experiences give rise to pervasive distrust and addiction? Tweet This

The first night that Christopher and his future wife, Cammi, hung out, they drank Jim Beam and smoked pot. And that’s what he would always do, he told her. That’s how he was raised.

The first time Christopher smoked pot, he was twelve—he stole it from his father’s closet.  When he was three, his parents divorced and he moved with his dad to Florida, where his dad supervised construction sites. But his dad struggled with substance abuse, and they moved back to Ohio. Christopher remembers that his mom, who also struggled with drug use, tried to get rid of him and his siblings on Sunday by shipping them off to church. Christopher liked it because it meant being away from his mom, “who was pretty mad in those days.”

Christopher loved to drink and party, but vowed that he would be a functioning alcoholic. “I always had to be the best at work,” he said. “And I was. I was very successful at a young age. I was running big construction jobs at a young age that a lot of kids I know wouldn’t even consider doing or want to do.” As he said, he worked hard because “I didn’t want all the things I grew up with.”

In high school, he attended vocational school to become an electrician, and afterwards found work at an electrical company through a four-year apprenticeship. He credits his boss for having faith in him and pushing him to succeed.

Cammi always said that she would change him, but when it came to alcohol and partying, nobody was going to tell him to change. “When I was young, I was always gonna drink and I was always gonna get high because pot’s natural and it grows in the ground, and that’s what I was raised with,” Christopher said. He added, “I wasn’t gonna let nobody change me; I wasn’t gonna let nobody in. Nobody had been in yet, and there wasn’t anybody getting all the way in.”

Still, Christopher “found comfort” in Cammi, and wanted to marry her—even if he was afraid. “I was afraid of it. I didn’t know how to love.” He knew he had issues that he had to work through, but he wanted to be with her forever.

He also wanted to save kids until marriage. As he said, “We weren’t gonna have kids out of wedlock…. I didn’t want to have a split family like I was raised in, and she didn’t either.”

And they did wait, and they did get married. Cammi worked hard to finish her dental hygiene degree, and Christopher worked hard in his apprenticeship. And every Friday night, “We’d stop at Speedway and get a case of beer and fill the cooler up and go to Taco Bell and get some tacos and head to the country and camp and party and drink and raise hell and listen to country music and drink moonshine.” They were just trying to build “the great, happy American home.”

Two children later, though, Christopher’s alcoholism tore his marriage apart. He knew that his alcohol use was hurting their marriage, and he and Cammi did try to save their marriage, but he didn’t change. They went to marriage counseling a few times; nothing worked. In one last desperate attempt to save their marriage, they took an all-inclusive vacation to Mexico—and spent most of the vacation drunk. “It was miserable,” Christopher said.

‘Marriage isn’t gonna work if you’re not complete.’

When I interviewed Christopher, he had been divorced from Cammi for about a year, and he had “found God” through Alcoholics Anonymous, which was clearly a powerful experience for him. In tears, Christopher spoke of the love that he now realized Cammi was trying to give him, but that he kept refusing—because, as he said, “I was afraid when I loved something, it would hurt me.” In retrospect, he thinks that both he and Cammi entered marriage with deep insecurities. He also thinks that they moved too fast in their relationship: they had sex soon after meeting each other, and he thinks the frequent sex they had early in their relationship “fueled our relationship to continue.”

His new philosophy is that you have to be emotionally “complete” as a person before you enter marriage. “Marriage isn’t gonna work if you’re not complete,” he insisted. “I don’t know, man. You have to be a secure person, a full person. I think really you have to have God in your life and you have to live that life.”

When I first heard people express sentiments like this, I interpreted them through my own experience: I had a safe, stable childhood and route to adulthood. To me, it was overkill to say that you had to be “complete,” “a full person,” before marriage. After all, I thought, isn’t marriage about helping you to become more complete and to live a fuller life?

But the more I pondered Christopher’s story—and the stories of other young adults who were anxious about marriage—the more I realized that we were coming from two very different worlds. Christopher entered marriage still struggling with the trauma of his unstable childhood; I entered marriage with the surplus of trust that I inherited from my intact family and stable childhood. Christopher’s experience had taught him that to love someone is dangerous; my experience had taught me that to love someone is safe. I could take for granted that I felt loved and secure through my childhood, and thus scoff a little at the notion that you have to be emotionally complete before marriage. But when Christopher said that you should be emotionally complete before marrying, I suspect he was just thinking about a baseline sense of trust and security that he felt he lacked entering marriage.

Christopher’s story was similar to the stories of other young, working-class divorced people my wife and I met for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project. There was the couple we met who got married earlier than scheduled because the Baptist pastor said that unless they stopped cohabiting, he wouldn’t marry them. The trouble was, while they were living apart and preparing for marriage, the groom—who experienced a lot of trauma growing up—started secretly taking the prescription pills that would eventually lead to him abusing heroin and the couple divorcing.

Another couple got married soon after finding out the woman was pregnant, in part because they wanted to give their child a married, two-parent family. But that marriage broke down within a few months, after she accused her husband—who also had experienced a lot of trauma in his childhood—of putting pot and video games over his new family.

Their stories raise questions for me. We know that well-paying, decent work and marriage have benefits. But what are the limits of those benefits, particularly for people with traumatic childhood experiences (like Christopher)? The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of over 17,000 people found that almost two-thirds of participants reported at least one “adverse childhood experience,” like physical abuse, a household member’s mental illness, or parental separation or divorce (the study identifies ten). More than one in five people reported at least three adverse experiences.

How do you strengthen marriage—a social institution that requires trust and core character strengths—in communities where trust and core character strengths are harder to acquire because of such traumatic experiences? Or, more specifically, how does the event that is at least partly the source of some young adults’ childhood trauma—the (temporary) joining of two people in marriage—become the force for personal and communal stability that it’s meant to be?

We would be foolish to give up on marriage, and to think we could focus on making cohabitation more stable for young adults. The vast majority of young adults want lifelong marriage, and we should take their aspirations seriously, to say nothing of the security that a stable marriage provides for adults and children.

Moreover, Christopher’s story is not a call to give up on strengthening marriage directly, and to instead focus simply on strengthening the economy. With a vocational education and apprenticeship at an electrical company, followed by more than a decade of job security at the same company, Christopher had a straight path to relative economic security right out of high school. But he still could not shake the childhood trauma that led to his alcohol addiction. Like marriage, economic security is no panacea.

Rather, marriage and economic security are better understood as two important features, but certainly not the only features, of what John Paul II and Pope Francis have described as “an authentic human ecology.” Just as the natural environment depends on thriving ecosystems, so our social environment depends on thriving ecosystems. That means also paying attention to things like the state of courtship and dating, mental health, the character traits conducive to thriving marriages, and communities that can provide belonging and meaning.

Strengthening marriage does not just mean increasing the likelihood that young couples get married; it means paying attention to the whole person who is the subject of marriage.