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  • Substance abuse, mental health challenges, and financial instability are common obstacles to forming stable families. Tweet This
  • Erratic work schedules, part-time hours, and low pay only heighten the unpredictability in many young people's lives. Tweet This

Sometimes those who care about strengthening marriage and families focus almost exclusively on the legal, cultural, and philosophical issues at stake, because, as we point out, laws shape the moral imagination, culture shapes character, and ideas have consequences. I highlighted some of these issues in my last post. But in emphasizing them, it’s easy to ignore the grittier problems of substance abuse, mental health challenges, and financial instability.

Before I started interviewing working-class young adults about their stories of forming families, I barely gave a thought to these knotty problems. But spend any time in a poor or working-class neighborhood, interview residents about the challenges they see, and you’ll quickly realize that drugs and depression and money problems are widespread, and also have pernicious consequences. They are part of the spectrum of challenges that keep working-class young adults from forming the stable families they want.

Substance abuse. Christopher did things the right way: he got married and then had kids. He believed in marriage. He worked hard as an electrician and made good money. But there was one problem that bedeviled him: alcohol. As he said, “I worked every day but I partied every night.” Even after marrying and having kids, when the weekend came around, he and his wife would hire a babysitter and gather their buddies to play Euchre and drink beer and dance at clubs.

“And every time I had a problem, I would drink,” he said. “I would get high, and it would relieve the pain, temporarily. A hard day at work, a man deserves a beer when he gets off, right?”

It began taking a toll on his marriage, and in a desperate effort to save their relationship, he and his wife planned a vacation getaway in Mexico. It didn’t work, because they spent most of the week drunk.

'Every time I had a problem, I would drink.'

After his wife left him, Christopher finally sought help through Alcoholics Anonymous. He now wishes that he would have addressed his alcoholism before getting married. As he said, “We just weren’t secure people.”

His story is a reminder that while marriage can be a transformative institution, it’s also a two-way street: in order for marriage to transform a person, the person has to have a basic level of self-mastery and emotional health. Otherwise, the problem—in this case, Christopher’s alcoholism—can destroy the marriage.

Substance abuse can also prevent a couple from getting married in the first place. For instance, when I first met Ricky, he confidently told me that he and his fiancée planned to marry one year later. He didn’t have a job, but he was looking, and he knew he wanted to marry her. But two years later they had broken off their engagement. Why? Ricky confided that at the time of our first interview, he and his fiancée were using heroin. After they passed out from an overdose, Ricky landed in jail, and they eventually broke up. Drug abuse also wrecked Ricky’s two prior engagements.

One analysis of nationally representative data found that, in response to an open-ended question about why their marriages ended, the third most-cited response by divorced people was drinking or drug use (after infidelity and incompatibility). A 2008 study of Texas residents found that one-third of ever-divorced respondents cited problems with drugs or alcohol as a reason for their divorce. (For perspective, about the same percentage of respondents cited “serious financial problems” as a reason: 30 percent.) Moreover, a 2003 study of Florida residents found that 16 percent of low-income, unmarried respondents cited drugs or alcohol as a “major reason” why they are not pursuing marriage.

Mental health. I think of Seth, who struggles with depression. In high school, Seth’s parents put him in a psychiatric ward because they were so concerned about his mental health. After high school, Seth cycled through a lot of jobs, most of them in restaurants. The pattern is that after a few months of working, he quits. Once, when he worked as a cook, he quit in the middle of the shift. “I was like, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore,’” he recounted.  “I told my manager, and I walked out…. Sometimes I get so low, I’m like, ‘Ugh, this sucks.’”

His girlfriend also struggles with depression. When asked what needs to happen before she and Seth could think about marriage, she mentioned how she needs to stop being depressed. “But I just kind of don’t necessarily know how to get out of it, I guess,” she said.

Mental disorders are associated with a lower likelihood of marriage and a higher likelihood of divorce.

Another married couple we interviewed described how they briefly separated, in part because of the husband’s struggles with anxiety. After he was prescribed medication, his wife said that he took a turn for the worse. “He started taking it, and it was just like he was a different person. He was just so hateful and nasty,” she said. After he stopped taking the medication—a church counselor they visited suggested that it wasn’t working like it was supposed to—she says that their marriage was “125 percent better.” One cross-national sample found that mental disorders are associated with a lower likelihood of marriage, as well as a higher likelihood of divorce.

Financial instability. It isn’t always clear that financial instability—another barrier to stable, happy relationships—is the result of a poor economy: sometimes it appears that another challenge is driving the financial instability. For instance, in Seth’s case, it’s his struggle with depression (which dates to at least high school). Ditto for Anthony, who earned $13 an hour as a cook at a nursing home. His boss had promised that the business would also help pay for his culinary school education, because he saw potential in him. Still, Anthony kept coming into work drunk. As he explains, he was depressed.

At the same time, it would be ignorant to pretend that all financial instability is the result of some non-economic factor. I interviewed one man in a cohabiting relationship who said that money worries were the primary thing keeping him from getting married. “I’ve always worried about the money,” he said. “That’d probably be the one big thing—make sure you got some money in the bank before we try to do anything.” He watched friends and family members live from paycheck to paycheck, and he sees the toll it took on their family. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him.

And when he talks about “money in the bank,” he doesn’t mean an extravagant amount: he suggested $5,000 would be ideal, but maybe $1,000 would do. The problem is, he can’t find and keep a job that pays enough. (He is a cook.) He doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol—he doesn’t even smoke—and he is constantly in search of a better opportunity at another restaurant. So the low-wage service economy can be a serious obstacle to getting married. The Florida study mentioned earlier found that 36 percent of low-income people cited “not enough money in savings” as a major reason why they might not be planning on getting married. A study of California residents found that 53 percent of ever-divorced people cited “financial problems” as a factor in their divorce (though only 20 percent cited it as a “major reason”).

'I'm always worried about the money.'

Here is another way to think about it: particularly for young adults from fragmented families—whose lives have been marked by instability, and in some cases trauma—erratic work schedules and part-time hours and low pay only heighten the unpredictability and lack of structure in their lives. If more corporations were serious about providing their employees a wage that enabled them to provide for their families and to put some aside for savings, more young adults could begin laying the foundations of structure that they want and need. It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it could help.

For the range of challenges that confront working-class young adults in their search for a stable family, we need more than particular interventions from high above. As Pope Francis recently put it, we should pay attention to the “human ecology” that sustains families. The environment that poor and working-class people grow up in is polluted by many toxins, from bad ideas to heroin. Strengthening marriages and families must mean addressing all those challenges.