The Wheatley Institution

True Love Need Not Wait: The Case for Twentysomething Marriage

Bradford Wilcox
April 4, 2013

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The article on the subject has engendered a furious response. But what I think what is interesting about the point that she was making was that our culture and our universities in general tend to basically tel young adults, both women and men, and BYU I think is an exception but certain UVA that served the basic ideas that are really focusing for the next five or ten years on your work and on your education. That those are the most for you, and yet if you look at what predicts meaning and purpose and happiness it is our most fundamental relationships with other people. Our friendships, and especially our marriages and so she was kind of making that point and saying that you should use your time at college as an opportunity to take that college time to spring board into your future family life as well.

Other questions?

Question: Thank you for coming and for this presentation. My name is Annie Grow and I actually graduated about 2 years ago. I was just wondering, I noticed when you were talking about the benefits of marrying young you mainly used the statistics of women, I was wondering if that was because on average women seem to marry younger or if it was for the simplicity’s sake of the presentation, or that women do benefit more than men for marrying young.

Answer: it was basically for simplicity’s sake but I think it is important to come back to two slides I think here that are specifically reporting on the associations between age and marriage for men, here you can see that men who get married in their 20s are more likely to pull in a decent wage in their mid 30s compared to those who get married in their 30s and especially those who don’t get married at all. There is a broader literature that suggests that when men get married they tend to become more responsible, they work longer hours, they work more strategically. Now on the strategic point, we’ve seen for instance that men who are married are more likely to keep job A if they’re not happy with job A and then get job B in hand before they drop their first job whereas men who are unmarried are more likely just to quit without any sort of option in the wings and then go try to find this other job. Of course, the first strategy is much more prudent than the second strategy. It is one example of the way in which marriage is associated with a kind of prudence, a kind of responsibility, on the part of young men. But it is also the case too when we look at something like drinking that where here it is about a 20% difference for men and only about a 12% difference for women. So this is an example of where young men who are getting married are more likely to kind of engage in responsible behavior and men are also, as a consequence, more likely to be happy. So, the benefits I’m talking about are also applicable to men but the most powerful association that comes with marital happiness are for women.

Question: My name is Todd Goodsell, I’m in the department of sociology, I have a question about how we conceptualize singlehood. I’m still not sure myself about how to conceptualize it, but I noticed in your presentation you were using a lot of language that suggests agency on the part of the individual single. You used language like wait, delay, forgo, in relation to what singles are doing with marriage and I’ve wondered if that is always the case, or even if it is the case, if maybe the singles don’t think themselves in those terms, they don’t understand it as a choice that they’re making. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

Answer: Yeah, it is a great point Todd. I would certainly say for many of the folks who are forgoing marriage or who are getting married later, this can be involuntary obviously and I would say two things: one is that it is the case that for many Americans it is hard to find decent stable paying work. Which may make some of them less likely to get married or make them less attractive as a potential spouse in the eyes of their potential partners. So there is an economic reality here where the economy is particularly less likely to give men decent jobs if they don’t have a college education, and the jobs that are available are less likely to provide job security in ways that 30 or 40 years ago, and that has some impact too on people’s marital prospect. The second point that I think is worth making too is we don’t have a common courtship culture in our country that allows women and men to signal in an easy, comprehensible fashion, that they’re looking for a spouse and they’re ready for marriage and they’d like to meet someone who would make for a good wife or good husband for them. The lack of a common culture of courtship or common norms or common roles can leave many folks, women and men, who would like to marry involuntarily single for either the duration of their lives or for a longer period than they might otherwise have chosen for themselves. In classic sort of sociological fashion, it is important to acknowledge that there is agency out there and some are choosing, which seems to be the case for Jessica and the story from where I got … (7:00)… and seems to be that’s the case too for Kate Bullock and her essay in the Atlantic, they’re choosing either over the course of their lives or in a certain point of their lives, to steer clear of marriage and that can either lead to just postpone marriage or to end up single for their entire lives. But for other people there is a sincere desire to get married and either for economic reasons or for other reasons, or because we live in a culture where there isn’t a common courtship culture which sort of facilitates good marriages it can be hard for them to achieve their desired goal of getting married.

Question: I was intrigued by the final sentence on the last slide, you made the observation that if you’re in a good relationship, you would probably finish up by saying, “then you ought to be thinking about marriage.” But you added a caveat, “if you’re in a good relationship and your friends and family are enthusiastic about the character of your beloved, you ought to be thinking about marriage.” I’m curious why you underlined and stressed character rather than some other parameters as one question. The other question is can you share anything with us about the value of parental consent to subsequent marriage success.

Answer: Yeah, so what I think can happen at least in some contexts in our culture is people are focused on appearance and personality. Is someone handsome or beautiful? Is someone funny or warm in general, they have a pleasant personality? I’m not saying those things are not important but, actually, I’m not very funny and my wife, the day after we got engaged, she said that her biggest concern getting married to me was I wasn’t very funny. But I had other characteristics that she obviously appreciated, thankfully. But my point here is that there are things like loyalty, fidelity, charity, fortitude, these kinds of virtues that we associate with character that of course are much more important for going the distance in a marriage and as a father and as a mother then having the best sense of comedic timing or being the most handsome or the prettiest person in the room. And I think, people who are younger may succumb to the temptation to focus on personality or appearance and if they get some good advice from friends and family they recognize that over the long haul, when you’re old and wrinkled sitting on the front porch of your house somewhere at the age of 75 it is that character and those common values and interests that will obviously be of greatest value to you not some of the ephemera that we associate with physical appearance or with some personality traits. That is why I wanted to add that point about character and making the point too that often times friends and family, when you first meet someone or get to know someone there can be a very strong, literally chemical connection between people. When I was at the University of Virginia for instance, I lived in a community on the quad and we had the head of the college republicans and a young woman who was a journalist for a progressive paper at the university, and they hit it off, but their connection was completely driven by chemistry. They had nothing in common with one another. And of course, over the course of a few months they parted ways. So it is important for people who have gotten some more perspective than you might as a young person to weigh in too and say, yeah, this person is a good potential husband or wife for you because they may have a better eye for their character as opposed to their appearance or their personality. Does that answer your question?

Question: I am Jonathan Pike, I wanted to ask you two questions, one had to do with you just commenting on some of the micro economic benefits of marriage and the macro economic benefits of marriage, and then also just to follow up on that common courtship culture and what, in your opinion, that would look like.

Answer: In terms of the macro economic benefits of marriage, I haven’t seen anything on this. I would like to see some work on it I have a colleague who has looked at patterns of unionization at the state level, and we could take that kind of methodological approach and look at how patterns in family structure at the state level are associated with patterns of economic growth. But I haven’t seen anything on that. My assumption is of course that at the micro economic level we know that men are more likely to be productively engaged in the labor force, my assumption is that populations with higher percentages of married folks, particularly married men, will be more likely to enjoy, at the macro level, growth. But I haven’t seen any good empirical research on that question.

Pike: Just as a quick follow up to that there is a great book called “Family and Civilization’ that was written in the 1940s by Carle Zimmerman, a Harvard professor, he does talk about the macro approach in this relation to western tradition, mainly Rome and that is one book.

Answer: Right, so there are certainly people who are reflecting historically on the connection but in terms of seeing pretty rigorous, empirically grounded research, I haven’t seen anything on that front. On the issue of courtship, I think it is, I think the key idea that I would want to get across is that it looks like, based on some research that has been done by Jason Carol at BYU and Sharon Sassler at Cornell and also Scott Stanley at the University of Denver, that people proceed relatively slowly in their relationship are more likely to flourish over the long term and that is because they are sort of basically scaffolding intimacy in a way that allows a certain measure of trust and communication and commitment to kind of develop in a reasonable fashion and they are not giving away their heart right from the get go, or their body right from the get go. So, when they scaffold it in a sort of more slow and, in a sense, deliberate fashion, that seems to allow them to develop the best form of romantic attachment. Yeah, I think that is the term that Stanley would use. So I think the challenge for a new courtship culture is how do we scaffold intimacy for young couples who are looking toward marriage, both in the line of intimacy that this is a good relationship and it should lead to marriage, and also that it give them enough freedom to realize that this person is not meant for me at least, and it gives them an off-ramp to detach themselves from the relationship. I don’t have a ten point plan for reviving courtship in America or even courtship in some sub-cultures in America, but I think my bigger meta point here is that what we need is something that will allow us to scaffold intimacy in the right way but also to build off-ramps to that either individuals or couples recognize that they are not meant to marry one another because they do not have those common values or commitments or even common interests or share those same values, or their personality types don’t seem to really go hand in glove, then they have a fairly straightforward way of signaling that to one another and to their network of friends and family as well.

Pike: Another thought is when it comes to just before the courtship, meaning a culture that engenders courtship, that would be, I’m wondering, we have dances in our history, or other things like that, a culture that has people be able to get together that says I’m here because I’m interested in having relationships or interacting with the opposite sex for the purpose of getting into relationships, and I wonder if you could comment a little on that.

Answer: I think it is helpful to have social functions, a lot of people signal their interest and availability when it comes to marriage but also give, we need opportunities for young adults to see whether or not the person that they’re seeing has character. You need opportunities for that. And of course one can be over dinner and a movie, or at a dance, someone can be attractive and pleasant but you also need opportunities too where you can really learn about one another and have your friends and family learn about the person that you’re dating or that your courting so that I think that any kind of courtship culture would have both opportunities to signal your interests and find someone to marry, but also allow people to learn a fair bit about the other person before they go ahead and get married.

Pike: Not exactly the drinking culture then, right?

Answer: Yes, exactly, right.

Question: Not that the dating culture or dating and courtship culture of the past was perfect, but I think that it has changed significantly since our parents were dating and our grandparents, why do you think that it has changed. That might be a really broad question that is too involved, but, yeah.

Answer: that’s a good question and I think it goes partly to the point I was making to Todd and earlier. So I think that partly, part of the story here is that teens and 20-somethings have fewer economic opportunities to become stably established which makes them more hesitant to go ahead and get married and act also in a way that is sort of marriage minded. So Jason Carol here at BYU and I think others that he has worked with have talked about the marriage mentality, so it is not just about getting ready, but being ready to get married makes people more serious about life in general and also about their relationships in particular. So part of it is about the shifting economic foundations of our society, and part of it is too about a more individualistic culture that has come to the fore since the 70s, people are more likely to want to articulate and feel and be independent. That includes, of course, women like Kate Bullock in that Atlantic article that I was referencing. So that is part of the story here as well. If you are aspiring towards independence, it is hard to establish that kind of interdependent approach to both relationships and then more fundamentally to getting married. A third thing I think that’s really important here is the sexual revolution of the late 60s and 70s which basically made sex much more casual. I think a certain portion of the population became more likely to treat relationships in a casual manner because of the sexual revolution. This sort of came home to me when I was giving a talk at the university of Georgia law school and I was talking to a young man probably in his late 20s and he was cohabiting with his girlfriend, and I said to him, “well, if you couldn’t have sex with her, would you marry her?” and he said, “oh yeah!” So this is a concrete example of how the sexual revolution has changed the experience of relationships and marriage for young adults. So those are three things that I would say in terms of three factors that have helped to undercut the more courtship oriented culture for young adults in the united states.

Question: In your presentation, you noted that the age of first child birth has, we have had that crossover with the age of first marriage, have we seen any trends with age of first cohabitation perhaps, or, for example, are we seeing that people still tend to cohabit around the same time that our parents were getting married, around that same age?

Answer: One of the striking things of the report was that basically the timing of the first co-residence in the united states hasn’t changed much in the last 30-40 years. So even though people are postponing marriage, they are not postponing that first live-in experience if you will. It is just happening for more americans as a cohabitation verses a marriage. So that is a pretty profound difference. Of course, one of the problems with this new approach is that Americans who don’t have a college degrees are really not postponing their first child much at all so they’re postponing marriage but not the baby carriage and that’s why we see for americans who don’t have a college degree a majority of them are having their first child outside of wedlock.

Thank you

You’re welcome

Wilcox: We will take one more question

Question: My question deals with, you talked about the article by Kate Bolick and in it she argues that there are less good men to marry, would you, what would be your comment on that? Would you say that the societal expectations of men have shifted or would you say that women’s view have shifted?

Wilcox: Well, I think it’s both. I think it is true in some way that there are fewer good men today to marry, but that is partly a consequence of the fact that we are not demanding as much of our young men as we might of in a previous era, it is also because women are not to marry as much as they did in a previous era as well, so I think both the culture, the economy, and what some would call the romantic market place or the potential marriage market place is not one that demands a lot of today’s young men by and large and so it is not surprise that a certain proportion of them are not rising to the occasion to be responsible and potentially good suitors and good husbands. So, I grant her complaint about the state of at least some men in our culture but what I don’t think she adequately appreciates is the extent to which the low standards that women set for men, including, evidently, from her own article that she sets for the men that she’s been with. Also, if you don’t expect much from women or men in whatever domain you’re talking about, here or whatever domain, some o those guys, they’re just not going to rise to the occasion because they’re not really being asked to rise to the occasion. Does that make sense?

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