Before the opening of the Catholic Church’s Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis invited the Church to “lend our ears to the beat of this time and perceive the ‘scent’ of the people today.” In interviews with dozens of working-class young people spanning the last four years, we have had the privilege to do a lot of listening to young people from varied family situations—from cohabiting couples to the happily married to the twice divorced. The stories we heard deeply moved us and have changed how we think and live.
What follows are some of the nuggets we’ve been gleaning from our interviews with young people.
Young people want lifelong love. We think of Mike, whose parents separated when he was three. At four, his stepmom tried drowning him in the toilet. Another time, for no reason other than to “get rid of me,” she dropped him off in a crime-ridden part of the city and left him to wander the streets alone for hours. “I made friends and we talked about The Rescuers Down Under,” Mike remembers. By six, he was flying by himself between his dad’s house in Ohio and his grandma in California. Later, when his stepmom took him to counseling, Mike didn’t want anything to do with it. “I just wanted her to look me in the eye and say ‘I love you,’” he said.
As a teenager, he describes craving a girl’s love. “There was a girl giving me a hug, and saying that she loves me,” he says. “I was freakin’ high as shit! Because that wasn’t part of my normal reality.” At fifteen, his new stepmom kicked him out of the house because he failed to correctly hang up a bath towel. He moved in with his girlfriend, whom he hoped to eventually marry. They broke up, but a few years later when his new girlfriend got pregnant, he proposed, because as he told her, “we’re family now.” He never felt like he had a family, and he wanted to be a family. “I had this intense loyalty,” Mike says. So they had a backyard wedding, and a few months later went to the hospital to have their baby.
Young people are conflicted about marriage. One year into marriage, Mike’s wife said that she wanted to be with another man—she wanted a divorce. Shocked, Mike refused to sign the divorce papers, but when it became clear his wife wasn’t changing her mind, he relented.
When we met Mike, he was in a cohabiting relationship with another woman, Sara. She had her own troubled family past to heal from: Her stepdad frequently had a woman on the side, and he was prone to violent outbursts of anger.
Mike and Sara told us that they didn’t need marriage. “I could just be like, ‘All right, we’re soulmates the rest of our life,” Mike said. He no longer felt the need for social approval of his relationship. “I don’t feel that marriage is necessary for me to prove anything to anyone,” he insisted. He knew that Sara was his soulmate for life, and that was all he needed, he said.
Sara agreed. She said, “I already feel married to Mike…. Certain people tend to trust people more, they’ve got that ring on their finger. Other people know. ‘Oh.’ There’s the symbol of ‘You can’t have me.’ I feel like a lot of people need that security. Once again, I just don’t feel that way.”
But they also extol marriage. Mike: “As far as a way to solidify [lifelong commitment] that's where marriage comes in and holds its place. For all its good and bad, for all the sides of it…. it's good to have a physical representation or an event [like a wedding]…. I think that it is the best way. I really do. The best way is to get married and have the physical event of marriage.” He says that the model of “man, woman, child, house” is better than any other model out there. “So I guess you could say marriage is for the future,” he ventured, and added, “I really believe that the family structure you come from does spawn whatever happens next.” And for that reason, he sees the point of marriage.
Moreover, about two years after we first met Mike and Sara, we interviewed Sara again. This time, she seemed more hopeful about marriage, and explained that she now thought marriage was a more serious option for them. Mike and Sara, like almost 70 percent of working-class young adults we interviewed, expressed conflicting views about marriage.
This conflict was exemplified by Carly, a cohabiting woman we interviewed, who during the first interview, insisted that she didn’t need to get married. “I don’t think you need a piece of paper,” she said. But a year later, she had broken up with that cohabiting boyfriend and was now engaged to another man. Explaining why she now wanted to get married, she directly contradicted what she had said a year earlier. She said, “Everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.’ But that piece of paper … is more binding than just really being together. It’s gonna be harder for you to stray.”
Young people are struggling to trust. Many young adults who express conflicting views of marriage also describe a crisis of trust in their lives. For instance, Carly, during our second interview with her (when she was engaged), revealed something that she had not disclosed a year earlier (when she was in a cohabiting relationship with her now ex-boyfriend): her boyfriend had been regularly cheating on her. In retrospect, her downplaying of marriage as a meaningless piece of paper probably had more to do with the fact that she couldn’t trust her boyfriend than it did with her views of marriage.
Moreover, Mike and Sara, we learned in later interviews, struggled to trust each other even as they insisted that they were basically married. They had separated, then gotten back together—only to separate again, with Sara returning to her high school sweetheart. When they were still together but on the verge of separation, Mike explained that he was on a journey “to find a place where I can be at peace and have some structure and solidity to my life.” But, he said, he didn’t know if she would be there for the journey. He couldn’t trust her. As he explained, “everyone has to watch their ass all the time.” “No one,” he said, “is going to assume, ‘Hey, everyone has character.’ The first thing you’re going to assume is that person is probably wanted.” That’s just the world we live in, he said. At least it matched his experience in marriage and romantic relationships.
Young people are afraid of marriage. In the context of mass divorce and mass distrust, young people, so full of aspiration for lifelong love, are also afraid of marriage. Whatever their marital state, they are like post-divorce Mike, who describes himself as “jaded” about marriage because of his experience of divorce. If you cannot trust marriage, if lifelong love is so precarious, and if you cannot trust that your boyfriend or girlfriend is being faithful to you, why would you not be ambivalent about marriage?
The Synod Fathers are on to something when they point out in their interim report that, “Simple cohabitation is often a choice inspired by a general attitude, which is opposed to institutions and definitive undertaking, but also while waiting for a secure existence (a steady job and income).” What they miss, though—and what many Western leaders miss—is that the instability and anxiety that many young adults feel about marriage has a great deal to do with the prevalence of divorce.
We must ask, “Why are so many young adults seemingly ‘opposed’ to institutions and definitive undertakings?” When it comes to marriage, what we heard over and over again was anxiety about the prospect of divorce. As one cohabiting man put it, “I pretty much think you should only be married one time. And you see a lot of people go through divorce and get married to someone else like six months later. Is that love? I want to find someone that I can spend the rest of my life with, and I think [my girlfriend] is that person. Then again—then again—is that true?”
Anyone who wants to understand how many young adults are thinking about marriage must grapple with the anxious legacy of divorce. We accomplish little by admonishing young people—many of whom would say that marriage has not worked out for most people they know—for failing to see the point of marriage. The same goes for extolling the benefits of marriage. We must start from a place of understanding their anxiety about marriage. It does no good to tell a person who has witnessed the crash of five of the last ten planes to take off that air travel is an amazing and transformative experience—and leave it at that. One has to begin by helping the person heal from the trauma of a very real experience. And from that deeply personal place, one can put in a good word for marriage.
And here is what the Synod’s interim report gets right: It understands that what many young people urgently need is “the joyous testimony of spouses and families,” or what Pope Francis describes as “the art of accompaniment.” Without that, they note, whatever one says about marriage and family, “even if correct, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words that is a characteristic of our society.” For the 43 percent of high-school-educated Americans who say that marriage has not worked out for most people they know, what they most need is not just words alone—though words and attitudes are important—but words backed by the credibility of marriages that do work out, the credibility of marriages that are marked by perseverance joined with an ever deepening love.
Young people want to believe in marriage again, but they need to see good marriages to restore their trust.