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  • To achieve lifelong love, many young adults must confront a past marked by family instability. Tweet This
  • Family instability seems to undermine people's trust and grit in all areas of life—not just their relationships. Tweet This

To win lifelong love today, many young adults must endure two big battles.

The first battle is to confront the past. About 70 percent of the 75 working-class young people my wife and I interviewed in southwest Ohio grew up in unstable families, marked by everything from divorce to abuse to addiction. For them, the task was to prove that they could be different. As Megan told us, “My parents had the craziest relationship in the world. And I always said I never wanted that for my kids. Never, ever, ever. And I always said that I would never get divorced, too. That I would only get married once, and I would never get divorced. I’ve always said that.”

The legacy of family fragmentation makes some cautious about getting married. As much as they profess their love for their significant other, they’d rather buy time by living together for a few years if they have to in order to ensure that their “first marriage is their only marriage.” In the meantime, the children that they bear together are just one proof of a passionate attachment in the making.

Confronting the past involves a heroic effort to win trust in an age of distrust. In the background are scenes of their parents’ divorce, or abuse, or battles with drugs and mental illness. Sometimes a mom reminds her daughter that you can’t trust men, or a dad admonishes his son that women are just out for the buck. The children acknowledge that their parents have reasons for believing these things, but they will be different. Difficulties become the impetus for grit.

The legacy of family fragmentation makes some cautious about getting married.

The second battle is to conquer the future: to write a different story than the one they have known in their own families, or at least perceive in the culture. Those who get married proudly mark their anniversaries: they’re like the couple in the country song that got married young, and people said they’d never last, but here they are standing tall and still loving like crazy.

But then, for many such couples, something happens. Sometimes it’s a terrible event: she finds out that he’s abusing prescription pain pills (then heroin), or he becomes physically abusive. Just as often, though, it’s something less dramatic: she becomes slowly bored with the marriage and then acts on her unhappiness by sleeping with the neighbor across the street. Or he loses his job, and they start fighting more often and conclude that they’ve fallen out of love with each other.

Family researchers Paul R. Amato and Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott found that in a sample of more than 500 couples who divorced, about half had been in “high-distress” relationships, and about half in “low-distress” relationships. They also found that about a third of couples who divorced had at least one spouse who came from a divorced family, compared to only 16 percent of couples who stayed married.

Most of us understand how marriages marked by dramatic problems like violence or addiction or chronic infidelity dissolve. But what happens to those couples in low-distress marriages? And how do couples who say things like “I always said that I would never get divorced,” as Megan did, go on to divorce?

In our interviews, my wife and I heard many young people—whether they were single, married, or divorced—repeat a version of something that Tanya, who had filed for divorce, had told us: “There’s just a big, huge difference between loving somebody and being in love with somebody.” As she further explained, “I don’t think that a woman or a man should be in a relationship where they are unhappy. Because when you have children and you’re unhappy, they’re unhappy.” She still loved the father of her children, she said, but she had fallen out of love with him (which happened after he lost his job because of health issues), and that was the way life went. Her grandparents had a great marriage, she said, but life had changed since then—her own parents’ relationship didn’t work out—and people just didn’t take marriage as seriously anymore.

In other words, the event that had been an impetus for grit—the breakdown of the parental relationship, or the perception that “divorce is everywhere”—becomes the very force that withers grit. Judith Wallerstein, who spent years listening to the stories of children of divorce (most of whom came from relatively affluent families), explained it this way: “A central finding to my research is that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them. They carry the template of this relationship into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment.”

The event that had been an impetus for grit can become the very force that withers grit.

Once “it’s easy for married couples to fall out of love” becomes tattooed in people’s mental make-up, they may not consciously think about it much, but it’s still there. When boredom or difficulty does settle in, the thought returns with a force. Suddenly a person who swore that they’d never put their own kids through a divorce decides divorce is actually the best thing for their kids. But even people who demonstrate admirable grit and a “growth mindset” in other aspects of their lives may find it difficult to practice grit in their marriages.

In the absence of a loving, intact family, who nurtures trust and grit? Conservatives advocate marriage, noting everything from its economic advantages to the benefits for children. What they say is true, but that message will fall on deaf ears among people with good reason to distrust marriage. Because you typically don’t join an institution that you don’t trust. Why would you? And even when you do take the leap, there’s still the thought in the back of your mind: this could easily fail.

Not that people from fragmented families are the helpless victim of their parents’ choices and destined to eventually fail in their own marriages. I’ve met couples in which both spouses come from divorced families and demonstrate amazing grit. One woman cheated on her husband before they achieved a difficult but successful reconciliation. Another couple were only high-school seniors when they found out she was pregnant. The next several years, they endured 70-hour work weeks trying to make ends meet and pay for his college education, all the while being newlyweds and trying to give their child the intact family they didn’t have growing up. Today, they’ve been happily married for over ten years and enjoy financial security. I could go on with similar stories. But the legacy of family fragmentation does present specific challenges for many adult children of divorce, and it would be folly to pretend otherwise.

To take one example of the toll that family fragmentation takes on trust and grit, consider what’s happening in the workforce today, even in relatively prosperous areas. In the Cincinnati region, where I live, there are 25,000 jobs left unfilled on any given day. Manufacturers searching for skilled workers (but not necessarily four-year college-educated) and offering decent wages are among the most concerned. A recent Cincinnati Enquirer story with the headline “Why regional employers can’t find the workers they need” noted that 98 percent of the region’s 100 largest privately held companies said that finding qualified workers was a challenge.

I believe deeper reasons are at play beyond the usual suspects, like lack of access to affordable child care and reliable transportation (important as they are). I’ve seen how the same ethic that now governs many marriages also governs some people’s relationship with work: as a friend once told me, if you’re not happy at work, you’re just going to make everyone else around you miserable. Better to just quit. Another friend told me that he lost a job because of his “anger issues,” which he believes stem at least in part from the years of physical abuse he suffered as a child.

Obviously, one’s commitment to work shouldn’t hold the same moral weight as one’s commitment to a spouse; we wouldn’t advise a person to promise to work at the same company for better or worse, until death do them part. And most of us are sympathetic (at least when we apply it to ourselves!) to the idea that you should work at a job that you love. But that ethic becomes a problem when it means that a person quits after their first experience of boredom or frustration, and isn’t willing to invest the time and hard work necessary to move up in a company, or pad their resume with experience in order to get a better job.

When trust breaks down, meaning breaks down.

The legacy of family fragmentation is surely not the only saboteur to the formation of trust and grit, but it’s an important one. And “sabotage” is an apt description, because it conveys how one’s deep desires for family stability must contend with persistent distrust: just as a woman meets a good man, she wonders how she deserves this. Just as a man finds a good job, he blows up at the supervisor because of deep-seated anger issues.

Trust is everything. Without trust, it’s difficult to form lasting bonds, and without lasting bonds, it’s hard to forge meaning—and without meaning, grit is scarce: you cannot persevere if you don’t find meaning in your relationships, religion, work, or community. As Viktor Frankl was fond of quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’” That’s why the crisis of trust metastasizes into a crisis of meaning. When trust breaks down, meaning breaks down. And I suspect that the crisis of trust is one of the deep roots of the rising mortality rates among working-class middle-aged white men and women.

But the loss of trust didn’t come out of nowhere; it happened because people have good reasons to distrust. And in the coming weeks, I’d like to explore the links between four big trends in American life today: family fragmentation, the economic hollowing out of the middle class, class segregation, and how all these trends collectively undermine civil society and the capacity to trust. These are four realities that conservatives and liberals are increasingly recognizing as problems, and we’re just beginning to absorb how profoundly they are affecting ordinary people and communities.

I’d also like to explore how these realities might especially inform the idea of conservatism. If there is truth to the statement that “realities are more important than ideas” (as Pope Francis is fond of saying), then conservatives will want to take a fresh look at these realities in order to craft an agenda fit for our times.