Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The "m" word

I'm not sure how it happens, but over the past couple of weeks I have found myself smack in the middle of marriage conversations with a surprising array of parents (including my own). It has been enlightening to hear parents' perspectives on why we young people aren't getting married as early or at all. Some ideas are backed by research, some are just musings, but all are fascinating to me, because they provide context for viewing my generation's desires and sacrifices. I think a few of their reasons are just off-track entirely. Others are viable reasons, but, based on my experience, are insufficient to explain a complete phenomenon.

And so I sit here stumped, trying to explain what seems to be inexplicable. I just don't get it. I often hear that young people just don't want to get married. That, to me, is glib and unrepresentative. Everything I have seen tells me that desire is there. In fact, it is so much there that anxiety and bitterness can start to run the show. In my experience, and we're talking Mormons and non-Mormons alike, I have been hard pressed to find somebody lacking the desire for marriage. That sentiment is definitely out there, but has been rare enough for me to discount it as a reason for explaining a broad phenomenon.

I have also heard that my generation just isn't willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to commit to and maintain a marriage. Again, I think that may be true to a certain extent, but that aversion to sacrifices is not widespread enough to be a significant reason. Perhaps others have found it otherwise, and I would love to hear about it. Perhaps I associate with such high quality people (true!) that I miss the reality of the situation.

Other reasons for delayed and absent marriage include addiction to video games, pornography, increasing education levels among women, ease of materialism, selfishness, pride, lack of understanding about marriage, fear of failure, unrealistic expectations, negative feedback from friends and family, and on and on. The reasons behind this complexity surely cannot be explained by one reason, or even two. Even so, I feel consistently baffled by the fact that so many wonderful people who intensely desire to get married, are still single.

It makes me wonder whether it's not the marriage part that people have a problem with, but what leads up to a marriage: in a word, courtship. Is courtship a dying art? Is courtship still necessary in these times? Do we have unrealistic expectations when it comes to dating and courting? Do we shrug people off too early in the game? Are we too set on what we think we want and need, that we don't open ourselves to new possibilities? Are people getting asked out? I think it's pretty clear that our perception of love has been completely skewed by the media. We often believe that is not affecting us, but I think it may have more impact than we want to admit. Do we secretly hope and believe that love will be like in the movies? Do we not appreciate the work that goes into any relationship? Do we over-emphasize a first date? Are we too prideful to take a chance on somebody if we don't immediately feel something for them?

I am really grappling with this. If anybody is still reading this blog (since I never post...), PLEASE let me know what you think.


Erin said...

i think you're totally right! i don't think it's a marriage problem, i think it's a courtship problem. no one DATES, so obviously no one will get married. might be a few people who don't want to, are selfish, etc. etc., but i think you're right.

Adriana said...

i think you gotta realize the social circles you're in sister. late-twenties/early-thirties with higher education and careers. we've had our string of relationships happy or not but mostly content (and accustomed) to living on our own and not 'needing' someone. we're over the "marry-your first starry-eyed love" stage and living in a more settled stable state.

Kelly said...

I have about a mil thoughts, retrospects and understandings... it would take a phone call...or a visit!!! wanna come?

I'm reading your gpa's book again :)

Kelly said...

oh, just focus on your sticker chart and all will be well

Anderson., M.N. said...

Interesting post. I'm not all that qualified to weigh in but I would say that it involves at least three things.

First, there is a growing inability, or perhaps avoidance, in our post-modern world society to stay with an idea all the way through to its logical end, no matter what. To do so almost seems naive. In terms of preparing for marriage, the question is always, "Am I completely sure about this?" Given that we've developed our minds in a post-modern context, the answer to this question will always be "no". David Brooks comments about this phenomena but in the context of Obama being able to win military wars: "They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion."

Second, there is a risk-avoidance factor. This is entirely understandable because we hear so many stories of relationships that appear so glamorous but then find out that they end in tragedy due to a dark secret. Marriage avoidance, in this case, is tragedy avoidance. If marriage is not painted in a tragedy-laden fashion, then it is illustrated as a fairy tale and completely unattainable (similar to what you mention in your post).

Lastly, I think there is a lack of faith in ourselves, especially on part of males. I do not mean faith necessarily in a religious sense. Instead, I mean that we don't believe that we can accomplish our goals, much less our dreams. We don't believe that trying yields results either.

The fact of the matter is, however, that marriages--happy and entirely imperfect--still can happen.

Russtafarian said...

I'm not sure that no one dates anymore--perhaps I too associate with such quality people that every guy I know is more than willing to ask a girl on a date. And unforunately, the people I know who complain the most about being shut down (guys) or not getting asked out to begin with (girls) often mean that the guys they would want to go out with aren't asking them out. Or the girls they want to go with are telling them no.

I do tend to think that the causes are many, but I think a general narcissism--"if someone is going to step into the middle of my life, they had better be dang worth it." And frankly, I don't know what to do about it. Whether you want to talk about personality, physique, or a *really* annoying laugh, what do we expect said guy/girl to do? Plug their ears when they laugh? Cover their eyes when they're getting ready to procreate? Just tune out when they start talking about video games like they *always* do? Sure, they go to church, don't beat you, fix dinner...but gosh, their quirks are annoying. And they're the ones who have to live with it

Or maybe we're wrong to view this change in age as a "bad" or "good" thing. Maybe it's just a thing--part of the changing world to which we should adapt. I have yet to hear anyone in any position of authority bemoan the increasing marriage age. Certainly not to the extent that we should fundamentally change. Calls to date more are not the same thing as calls to marry earlier, in my view.

Jones said...

yes, courtship is a huge issue. i also think that (because of the media's influence) we have unrealistic expectations of relationships and other people in general. this all coming from someone who married young--by today's standards...

Dianne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dianne said...

I think you nailed it on the head about courtship. At least that's the conclusion I've come to recently. I think Adriana is right about our particular demographic. We are accustomed to being on our own. We have an amazing network of friends and family that fill most of our emotional, intellectual and social needs. We're basically pretty happy people who have gotten this far on our own and who bring so much to the table (because we do!), and so I think that, at least on some level, we're all waiting for the star-spangled one. Life is pretty good as-is. As such, I think it takes a heck of a person to get us to really consider marriage (or even courtship for that matter).

I don't know if that's a bad thing or not.

Brian and chelsea said...

I'm responding to Dianne's last statement... in the affirmative, that it IS a "bad thing." From my limited perspective, I feel like too many singles have unrealistic expectations. Everyone is so imperfect. I married quite young - to a man I tried to break up with twice. Because although he was a spiritual giant, incredibly good-looking, and ambitious in his career path... he wasn't an intellectual superstar. And I wanted to marry a man I could stay up with late at night, philosophizing, hypothesizing... in short, someone PERFECT for me.
After the second break-up, I read Bonds That Make Us Free and met the author. It changed my life. I thought more about the imperfections HE was willing to put up with for our lifetime(s) together. After 5 mostly happy years of marriage, I admit I do occasionally think of what it would've been like to wait it out and see if Mr. Perfect came flying in. I'm pretty sure I'd still be single and regretting my earlier judgments.
Hope no one takes offense to this.
So there's my two cents - worth about that much, since most all the "high-quality individuals I associate with" in my Zion bubble-world are similarly situated young marrieds.

And Smeaths - I would bet (monopoly) money that you will never meet any man as brilliant as you are. Give up. But not blogging... I love reading yours! It's so much more refreshing that the bubbly pretentious "my-life-is-seriously-so-blessed" blogs I encounter from my current peers.

I like Kelly's comment.

Tiffani said...

I loved your post. I am glad that I am not the only one whose mind is often perplexed by the issues surrounding dating and marriage. I have asked similar questions myself... so much that I sometimes try to create research studies on the topic thinking, surely this is worth studying. But then I think about proposing, "why are we all still single" to my professors as a research question... when I am very much single and "anxious" at times about my relationship status (and they know it)...I am just not sure how they'd take that. :) Nonetheless... I can dispel one of your myths, research has shown a link between levels of education of women and marriage and quality of marriage. More education actually increases a woman's chance of marriage and decreases her chance of divorce. Throw in religion and sexual abstinence before marriage and it increases her chances for a successful marriage dramatically. I'll have to look up the study for you. Anyway, that was sort of a tangent... you should read a book called, "The Unhooked Generation: The Truth about why we're still single" by Jillian Straus. It might shed some light on the subject. We should chat about this later. :)

Mark said...

I still read your blog.

Courtship is definitely where this discussion lies. Why? Because in the last 30 years it has changed dramatically. The older generation doesn't get this - we are having to innovate the dating world like no generation has had to before us. What's worse is that the older generation often condemns our innovation.

Here are what I think are some of the most significant changes in the last 30 years that have also driven changes in courtship (and I'm being totally serious with all of these):

1. The invention of the personal computer. People spend more time indoors, by themselves, or in small groups.

2. The invention of the cell phone. People rely on face to face communication far less (within reason this isn't a bad thing. It's definitely more efficient most of the time).

3. The advent of the internet. So much information is at our fingertips that we spend even more time indoors, learning, studying, being entertained. The need to get out is lessened, especially as shopping and other learning activities are obsoleted by the internet.

4. The coming of efficient social networking. Today, we know details of people in 5 minutes on facebook that would have taken 5 dates back in the 50's to discover (or more).

5. The affordability of home entertainment. Flat screen TVs, amazing video games, thousands of channels...? Who needs to go outside anymore? The average american household has a TV on for 8 hours of the day.

6. We are richer. In effect, this means that there is more opportunity cost to expending energy and more importantly time on dating. This bullet should be a paper on itself. Economics has everything to do with the number of kids people have, not the erosion of societal morality.

7. Work has become increasingly more demanding of our time. 30 years ago the 70-hour work week was unheard of except for the CEO's or crazies. Today, this is often expected of people. But maybe the anecdotes I've heard are exaggerated.

8. Transportation has become quick, cheap, and safe. Living far away from your birthplace has also become normal. I have siblings in 3 different states in two countries right now. Two years ago it was 3 different states and 4 different countries. Not too unheard of these days. We can't exactly meet people through the town matchmaker anymore, can we?

Additionally, in the DC area I think there are some special considerations: Few people who live and work here are actually FROM here. We've come here for the competitive and rewarding environment. This environment means people, on average, are much more busy. You have to be in order to survive and thrive in one of the richest places in the WORLD. Time and money associated with dates mean a higher opportunity cost because of this.

Additionally, this means that most of us are separated from family. 30 years ago most people were meeting their spouses through family members and friends. In the past decade the percent of marriages where this is the case has gone down, whereas marriages among coworkers and people meeting online has gone WAY up. I can find the statistics if you want.

Anyway, times are changing, and we have to innovate or, yeah - we will be standing around scratching our heads saying, "video games. It must be those darn video games." Or, "pornography. Better have another sermon on pornography." And everyone will stay single...

Adam said...

I guess I'll play the part of "Peter Priesthood" and weigh in on a spiritual note. Until quite recently, dating--correction--the mental prep work involved in actually getting the nerve to ask a girl I'm interested in on a date, baffled me. Not only did I want to avoid the tragedy of a broken marriage, but I avoided even the seemingly small tragedy of a bad first date.

The only thing that has helped me is to use the Atonement in the dating process. It's too hard otherwise and I wouldn't have the stamina or emotional fortitude to do it.

Next time you go on a terrible date, or feel horrible that you're home on a Friday night...again, or experience that creeping, anxious feeling about calling up your intended, turn to the Lord. He can take the pain, the heartache, and even the jitters away.

Also remember that people are people and we all have pain, aspirations, die-hard fairytales inculcated from our infancy, and more. Be as real as possible, cut through the crap, and someone might surprise you and be refreshingly real in return.

Micah E. said...

A thought provoking post. But would we expect anything less from our Heather? No.

I do have a question to add to the mix that I’ve been wondering about. I’ve become a bit of a skeptic as of late regarding the proposition that there is somehow a dramatic difference in the average marriage age of males and females from our generation as compared to our parents generation.

I guess what I’m wondering is—is there really some sort of marriage crisis going on in the LDS church?

Heather Sanders said...

From Tyler: "Totally get this post. And yet I have no idea.

I think saying that it's a courtship problem is basically the same as saying that it's a marriage problem. We haven't defined any real underlying problem. All the questions you ask after saying that it might be a courtship problem show that this is the case. Those questions are basically asking whether the reason has something to do with all the things you mentioned in the previous paragraph. Circled back to the begining!

I also disagree that we are in a place where "we don't need anyone." I see loneliness at least as intensely manifested in those of higher age and education; perhaps more so, even if we aren't willing to recognize it as such. We like to show how independent we are and how we can do it on our own, and we've told ourselves that long enough to believe it and get along ok. But I agree that it's very difficult to find someone even in those circles that wouldn't trade their current single life for a happy marriage. Perhaps it's a case of being too picky and selfish to believe that we can be happier married than we are on our own. Or maybe it's addiction. Or maybe it's unrealistic expectations. Circle again!

Stumped I tell ya! :)

Really I think we all just need to stop thinking in circles and get back to the true principles underlying happy marriage. If we commit to living those principles, then we can talk about any issues that come up for us in the light of those principles and adjust our lives accordingly. We can theorize on this stuff into perpetuity. But we can only truly internalize much of this by actually living it.

So let's just all go out and find someone to try it out with! But who would I be most compatible with... I don't know about that... you see, I need someone like this and not like that... and they must do these things and not those... Why can't I find anyone like that? Circle!"

M. said...

I think the divorce thing is crap. I mean look at the people getting divorced! It's generations above us... that i think make many paranoid to ever get married. I also think yeah, people get too busy and courtship doesn't exist, at least in the U.S. if it's somewhere else, let me know. I'll move there asap.

Brian said...

I think there have been a lot of interesting comments. I agree with the study Tiffani referred to, since I was always more attracted to previous girlfriends who were more intelligent & educated, and now my wife is almost done with her graduate program.

One thing that hasn't really been touched upon is the length of time it takes our generation to complete its education. For our parents' generation, a 4 year college degree would set you up so that you could own a house, have a family (provided that you worked hard). For our grandparents, merely finishing college and going to work at a local business could give you the opportunity to own a home and raise a family someday. But in today's society, advanced degrees are almost a necessity if you want to get ahead.

In Mormon circles, the expectation is often that a family will be larger than normal. It's no surprise that BYU is one of the top schools at placing people in dental, medical, and law schools. Faithful priesthood holders genuinely want to provide well for their future families, and that means a well-paying career, given the rising cost of living.

What this boils down to is that young people, and particularly LDS males, are often in higher education for 6+ years. And this means that marriage, although greatly desired, is much more difficult to financially accomplish at a young age. I can't back it up with statistics, but I would wager that the increased time for education would probably correlate well with the increased median age at marriage for our generation.

So it might not be entirely the fault of today's youth. The system is actually against them, in terms of finance and education, when compared to previous generations. Marriage then comes later, once financial security starts to appear on the horizon.

Mike said...

Micah, great question - your skepticism is on the money. Researching the stastics shows that our assumption, at least for males, is wrong: The average age of men getting married in the US in the last 100 years has fluctuated, but today's average age isn't all that crazy. Of note is that there was a 30-year dip between 1950 and 1980, right when our parents were getting married. Compared with 1900, the average age for first marriage for men has only increased 1.6 years, to 27.7.

Women, on the other hand, have been getting married steadily later since 1960, with an especially sharp rise from 1980 to now. Maybe this correlates with women entering the workforce? Not sure. The average age now is 26.0 (1900 was 22.0).

Check this out:
From US Census data

As far as Mormon-specific data goes, we'd have to dig deeper. Our best bet would be US Census data for Utah. But that's not necessarily representative.

Becky said...

Love this post. Your posts are always thought provoking. And every time I read your blog my vocabulary increases.

I'm baffled though. The whole situation baffles me. So much so, I can't really comment and have my comment make sense.

Keep posting though. Looks like lots of people are still reading!

abassett said...

One more thing to add to this discussion is that all of us have opportunities that our grandparents, and perhaps parents, never had. With that comes a hope for someone who has had x, y, and z experiences and has a, b, and c qualities, when none of these things was ever an issue fifty years ago. How often do we think, "I want him to play this sport, I want him to appreciate that hobby, I want him to like to travel, I hope he speaks this certain language, I hope he drives this particular car" etc. When the list is secularized (as it inevitably will), the list grows, sometimes to an inordinate length. I don't think we should entirely throw out that list, but I do think that the luxury of so many varied interests and activities was never so for our grandparents. I believe it is another factor to consider in this discussion of getting married.

Heather Sanders said...

I'm overwhelmed by the responses. Thank you for your insights - they have really helped me to think this through more thoroughly. This has sparked a great process of self-reflection, which I have loved. Going back to Tyler's comment, I realize that it is simplistic to rename the problem from a marriage issue to a courtship issue. But, for me, I cannot really accurately address the issue until I understand fully what the issue is. Understanding the issue is just a jumping off point. To the question of whether this a problem or not, I suppose it's debatable. I would label it a problem not because other people think "we" have a problem, but because there are so many people who have a strong desire for something that is not happening. The unfulfilled desire and not knowing what to do about it is what makes me call it a problem. Thank you all for your fabulous thoughts.

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