Emerging adults, approximately ages 18 to 25, navigate a large number of transitions in a small number of years (Arnett, 2004). Policymakers focus on this population as these young people are setting out a life course that can make or break their economic futures individually and society’s future collectively. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill (2009) note that emerging adults increase their chances for economic and general life success by completing milestones in the following order: (1) graduate from high school, (2) maintain a full-time job or have a partner who does; and (3) have children while married and after age 21, should they choose to become parents.
Recommending that young people prioritize education is commonplace; however, the “marriage” portion of step three is more controversial. The idea of marriage (and delaying parenthood until after this event) clashes with a nationwide trend of “marital deinstitutionalization” (Cherlin, 2004): Americans have begun leaning toward the idea that marriage is more of an option, rather than a milestone on the path to adulthood. Although the mean age at first marriage has increased overall, the timing of marriage still varies by sex, ethnicity (Goodwin, McGill, & Chandra, 2009), and socioeconomic background (Uecker & Stokes, 2008).
Understanding geographic and cultural variability in marriage and family formation is also important for local policy considerations and for designing relevant relationship education programs. Since Oklahoma has one of the nation’s youngest ages of first marriage as well as one of the highest divorce rates,1 our research team set out to gain greater clarity about how cultural niches might impact adolescents’ attitudes about marriage.
Through partnerships with family and consumer sciences (FACS) educators in three counties, our team set up focus groups with high school students, ages 14 to 18. The sample included groups in the following settings: (1) an alternative learning academy with students from low-income and ethnically diverse families, (2) teens in one of the state’s wealthiest suburban areas, and (3) two groups of student leaders from rural areas of south/southeast Oklahoma with elevated poverty rates, but generally from stable, two-parent homes. Each focus group lasted about 1.25 hours, and discussion leaders prompted students with questions related to their beliefs about marriage in general and to the appropriate age for marriage.
How groups were similar
When asked about their general attitudes about marriage, most students in all three settings agreed that it “takes work” and that it is “for life.” When asked for details, students were specific about their ideas of daily life and relationship skills needed to keep a marriage healthy (e.g., communication, “not fighting,” learning to cook, getting a job, “it takes commitment,” etc.). However, the learning academy students offered slightly more idealized and “fairytale-like” definitions of a marital relationship. Those who had observed long-term marriages offered more realistic and clear marital attitude frameworks.
Overall, each group seemed to take the notion of marriage seriously, and they had by and large given the topic a great deal of thought.
How groups differed
The students’ experiences with marriage showed more variety. The learning academy group used grandparents as their reference for positive marital examples, while the leadership and suburban groups pointed to their parents or the parents of their peers. An academy student said, “I think it’s just our parents’ generation that messed up. I’ve seen my grandparents, and they’ve stuck together.” A leadership group student mentioned, “My mom’s wedding song was ‘Bridge over Troubled Water,’ and it’s about being there for someone not just when times are good but being able to sacrifice yourself for the other person.”
‘Every friend in my group has parents who have been divorced at least once.’
Other differences were observed related to appropriate marital age, and clarity of their short- and long-term goals. When asked their “ideal age to marry,” students provided the following ranges: (1) suburban group, 25 to 30; (2) rural leadership group, 22 to 28; and (3) alternative school group, 18 to 22. Responding to a prompt about academic or career goals, a leadership student stated, “I’m going to college and playing sports,” whereas a suburban student said more specifically, “I’m majoring in anthropology and hope to become an archaeologist someday.” The academy group differed from the other two in showing a primary focus on survival (short-term) goals rather than career goals. One academy student, for instance, stated, “I plan on working and earning money first before I think about going to tech school or getting married.”
Finally, teens’ general outlook about whether or not they could successfully navigate a marriage varied. When asked about hope and their marital futures, the suburban group’s predictions were more tentatively pensive. One student observed, “Every friend in my group has parents who have been divorced at least once.” Students in this high-income group had even reviewed research on how to make marriages last in hopes of avoiding the divorce troubles they had experienced. The rurally based leadership group expressed the fewest doubts and the highest degrees of optimism about their marriage prospects. Citing faith or belief systems as well as their largely intact, two-parent homes, they dispelled questions about divorce: “My entire family has gone to the same church for 15 years and so they’ve shown me how I’m supposed to live.” Finally, the academy group seemed to offer slightly more idealized aspirations about marriage once again; citing “love” and “determination,” they concurred that they could beat the odds they had seen in the news. One academy stated strongly, “If you’re gonna get married, you’re gonna get married and no one’s going to talk you out of it. But if you think you are ready to make that decision to get married, you better know what you’re getting into. Know how you have to react in certain situations and how to have self-control.”
Summary and Implications
Because there are many FACS education or health courses containing relationship education components in middle and high schools, we believe it is important to consider just how different students are in classrooms across states who offer this curricula, as well as across the U.S. Reviewing curricula with an eye for diversity is always a good idea, but thinking about ways to build on strengths such as the “grandparent marital model” or recommending grandparents as resources for dating advice could be enriching to both students and their elders. Further, empowering educators to adapt curricula to the background and needs of their students, rather than requiring precise fidelity to curricula, could help both students and their teachers.
Kelly Roberts is a marriage and family therapist and assistant professor at the University of North Texas. Daniel Hubler is a certified family life educator and an assistant professor at Weber State University. Kate Kirk is a graduate of the Human Development and Family Science program at Oklahoma State University.
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1. For perspective, in Oklahoma, 42 percent of babies are born to unmarried women, versus 40 percent nationally. The state high school graduation rate is 84 percent; it is 81 percent nationally. The U.S. average age at first marriage is 27 for women, 29 for men; Oklahoma hovers at 25.3 for women and 27 for men. And to add divorce rate perspective, one national tracking system shows Oklahoma hovering around the third-highest divorce rate in the nation, topped only by Nevada and Arkansas, although all states having been trending lower or plateauing over the past few decades.