- The promoted path many young adults today are pursuing in an effort to be better prepared for a lasting marriage is actually producing the opposite of what they intend. Tweet This
- Research shows that a pattern of sexual restraint creates the best pattern for lowering the risk of relationship dissolution. Tweet This
How can we promote better marriage readiness among young people? For many, the answer to this question involves promoting three things: 1) encouraging the delay of marriage into the thirties or beyond; 2) endorsing the “sowing of wild oats” during the young adult years so that one is ready to settle down and get married later; and 3) insisting on cohabitation during courtship in order to properly test the relationship’s readiness for marriage.
But do these patterns really deliver the later marital quality and stability they are expected to provide? The fact is that the promoted path many young adults today are pursuing in an effort to be better prepared for a lasting marriage is actually producing the opposite of what they intend.
Marriage Preparation Paradoxes
I believe that what we have in our culture today is the emergence of “marriage preparation paradoxes.” These are behaviors believed to increase one’s chances of marriage success, which actually, on average, diminish one’s chances of having a loving and lasting marriage. The key here is that these behaviors are not being embraced as a departure from marriage or because young people are giving up on marriage, but rather because many young people mistakenly believe they will strengthen their future marriages. For these patterns to change, the faulty logic that undergirds them must be exposed and corrected.
Cohabitation. Perhaps the best example is the cohabitation paradox. The primary reason that young people, and their parents and families, give today for encouraging cohabitation prior to marriage is that it will be a “test drive.” In short, it is believed to be a way to lessen the risk and chance of a later divorce.
In fact, many of our best and brightest minds in the social sciences back in the 1980s were claiming that we would see a huge reduction in the divorce rate because of the climb we were beginning to see in cohabitation. The belief was that cohabitation would act as a sort of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mechanism that would weed out the weak relationships and only the strong ones would ultimately survive into marriage–and thus divorce rates would decline.
Well, we now have 30 years of studies that have shown just the opposite. Cohabitation before marriage has historically been associated with greater odds of divorce. And while some of the more recent studies have shown that there may be a weakening of this association, no study to date has ever shown cohabitation to have a protective factor on divorce.
Sowing Wild Oats. Another example is what I call the sowing wild oats paradox. I see examples of this paradox all the time in my research on young adults. Many young people and their parents refer to the young adult time of life as a time to sexually experiment—to have a variety of sexual experiences with a variety of people. The central logic behind this way of preparing for marriage is that young people need to do this to “get it out of their system” so they will be ready “settle down” in marriage. There is ample evidence that what is happening is the exact opposite. Instead of settling down, we see people getting worked up. Sexual experimentation before marriage does nothing to get such attitudes and behaviors out of your system, rather it gets them into your system. Dozens of studies have shown that individuals with greater patterns of sexual promiscuity and more sexual partners actually have higher, not lower, chances of divorce when they marry. Again, it’s a paradox—the logic does not work.
Sexual Chemistry. The sexual chemistry paradox is an extension of this way of thinking. The current dating culture often emphasizes that two people should test their “sexual chemistry” before committing to each other. This type of compatibility is frequently mentioned as an essential characteristic for people to seek out in romantic relationships, particularly ones that could lead to marriage. Couples who do not test their sexual chemistry prior to the commitments of exclusivity, engagement, and marriage are often seen as putting themselves at risk of getting into a relationship that will not satisfy them in the future—thus increasing their probability of later marital dissatisfaction and divorce. However, two published studies call into question the validity of testing sexual chemistry early in dating (see my previous IFS blog post for a review). These studies support the hypothesis that sexual involvement may lead to unhealthy emotional entanglements that make ending a bad relationship difficult. Again, the research shows that a pattern of sexual restraint—where commitment precedes sex—creates the best pattern for lowering the risk of relationship dissolution.
Older is Better. All of this can be tied together into what can be called the "older is better" paradox. Too many of our young people today are growing up with the view that marriage is a transition of loss, rather than a transition of gain. A number of years ago, I worked as a visiting scholar for the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. We conducted focus groups all across the country; and in these focus groups, young twenty-somethings talked about what marriage would ultimately “take from them," what they "would lose,” what they "would ultimately have to give up,” and what they "would have to stop doing,” rather than the historical pattern we have seen where individuals, and society as a whole, view marriage as a transition of gain. That it is something that adds to our lives, allows us to start doing meaningful things, and gives us a better and richer life. This line of thinking is paradoxical as well, given that numerous studies have shown that getting married and staying married is linked to several aspects of individual health and well-being, such as better financial status, improved physical health, enhanced mental health, and higher sexual satisfaction. Therefore, as marriage is delayed in order to avoid the perceived losses associated with it, many young adults begin to miss out on these known benefits of marriage—creating once again a paradoxical outcome.
As marriage is delayed in order to avoid the perceived losses associated with it, many young adults begin to miss out on these known benefits of marriage—creating a paradoxical outcome.
Fostering True Marriage Readiness
How might we counter these marriage preparation paradoxes and foster a culture of true marriage readiness?
1. Identify the Window of Opportunity. First, we must help identify the optimal window of opportunity for forging enduring marriages. While the risks of teenage marriage have long been understood, the possible risks associated with age 30+ marriages are just beginning to be understood. There is a need for more attention to later marriages as the national median age of marriage continues to increase. We need to find ways to help young people appreciate the curvilinear nature of outcomes associated with the age of marriage in order to help counter the risks of early marriage, but not unintentionally replace this with the newly-identified risks associated with later marriage.
2. Acknowledge the Realities of the Dating Pool. It is highly likely that some of the benefits of marriage at later ages are offset by less than ideal matching due to a diminishing dating pool. Too many parents and others convey the mistaken idea to their young adult children that marriage readiness and spouse selection is simply a matter of personal preference and preparation. The dating pool is dynamic and shifts across the life course, making high-quality matches with marriage and family-centered individuals less likely later in life.
3. Rethink the Potential of Twenty-something Marriages. A notable finding across many datasets and dozens of studies is how well many marriages that started when couples were in their early-to-mid-20s are doing. This is particularly true when educational trajectories are maintained. The benefits of college education occur whether the degree is obtained before or after marriage. Rather than simply becoming overly concerned about later marriages, the data suggests we should be more open to and supportive of earlier twenty-something marriages.
4. Distinguish Between Choice and Constraint. While some might see the delay of marriage as proof that young people think marriage is obsolete or that they don’t believe in the institution anymore, the evidence does not support that conclusion. In the 2013 Knot Yet Report, my colleagues and I used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to document that by age 25, nearly two-thirds of women are either married (33%) or wish they were married (30%); and nearly half of men by age 25 are either married (29%) or wish they were married (19%). These figures should remind us that while age of marriage is associated with the desired timing of marriage, it is not always a factor of choice. Many young adults are frustrated by the erosion of courtship in our culture and the difficulty they are experiencing in dating and getting married.
5. Promote the Importance of Individual and Couple Factors. After the teenage years, studies have shown that age of marriage is associated with marital outcomes, but it is not a particularly strong predictor of marital satisfaction or divorce proneness. We would do better to promote a greater understanding of the individual and couple factors that are strong predictors of marital quality and encourage young adults to pursue high-quality relationships when possible, rather than waiting for an arbitrarily selected age of marriage.
Over 80 years of research on premarital predictors of marriage outcomes have shown that true marital competence or readiness involves helping young people develop the capacity to love and the capacity to communicate. Thus, the foundational factors of personal maturity, emotional readiness, commitment, forgiveness, religious devotion, sexual restraint, communication skills, and the management of conflict are far stronger predictors of marriage trajectories than a person's age at marriage.
Finally, we should also stress the “success sequence” of family formation, which involves gaining maturity and education prior to marriage and marriage prior to childbearing. It’s time for the college-educated segment of our culture to start preaching what they practice when it comes to family formation patterns.
Jason S. Carroll, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and the Associate Director of the Wheatley Institution. In 2014, Dr. Carroll received the Berscheid-Hatfield Award for Distinguished Mid-Career Achievement, a biennial award given for distinguished scientific achievement by the International Association for Relationship Research.
Editor’s Note: This blog article is taken in part from an earlier article in The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.
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