In this fellow note, I would like to share a few thoughts about how we can promote better marriage readiness among young people. For me, the key to doing this lies in getting to the whys behind the whats in the patterns we see in our society. We must be able to explain, not simply describe, what is happening if we are going to make meaningful changes. Part of the explanation for the marriage struggles we see in our society today is that many young people today are preparing for marriage in ways that are actually producing the opposite of what they intend. In short, their preparation for marriage is paradoxical in nature. A paradox is a proposition that, in spite of apparently sound reasoning, leads to a conclusion that is senseless, logically unacceptable, and self-contradictory. Let’s explore some of these widespread paradoxes and then I’ll suggest some steps we can collectively take to counter these marriage preparation paradoxes and foster a culture of true marriage readiness.
Marriage Preparation Paradoxes
I believe that what we have in our culture today is the emergence of what I call “marriage preparation paradoxes.” Marriage preparation paradoxes are behaviors believed to increase one’s chances of marriage success, which actually, on average, diminish one’s chances of having a loving and lasting marriage. The key point here is that these behaviors are not being engaged in as a departure from marriage or a giving up on marriage, but rather are being embraced by the rising generation because they believe they will strengthen their future marriages. For these patterns to change, the faulty logic that undergirds them must be exposed and corrected.
The Cohabitation Paradox
What are some examples of marriage preparation paradoxes in our broader culture? Perhaps the best prototype example is the cohabitation paradox. The primary reason that young people, and their parents and families, give today for encouraging cohabitation prior to marriage is that it will be a “test drive.” In short, it is believed to be a way to lessen the risk and chance of a later divorce. In fact, many of our best and brightest minds in the social sciences back in the 1980s were claiming that we would see a huge reduction in the divorce rate because of the climb we were beginning to see in cohabitation. The belief was that cohabitation would act as a sort of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mechanism that would weed out the weak relationships and only the strong ones would ultimately survive into marriage—and thus divorce rates would decline. Well, we now have 30 years of studies that have shown just the opposite. Cohabitation before marriage has historically been associated with greater odds of divorce. And while some of the more recent studies have shown that there may be a weakening of this association, no study to date has ever shown cohabitation to have a protective factor on divorce (see Stanley et al., 2006).
The Sowing Wild Oats Paradox
Another example of a marriage preparation paradox is what I call the sowing wild oats paradox. I see examples of this paradox all the time in my research on young adults. Many young people, and their parents, refer to the young adult time of life as a time to sexually experiment—to have a variety of sexual experiences with a variety of people. The central logic behind this way of preparing for marriage is that young people need to do this to “get it out of their system” so they will be ready to “settle down” in marriage. A thorough examination of the data related to this paradox would require more time than I have available in this fellow note, but suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that what is happening is the exact opposite (see Busby et al.,2013). Instead of settling down, we see people getting worked up. Sexual experimentation before marriage does nothing to get such attitudes and behaviors out of your system, rather it gets them into your system. Dozens of studies have shown that individuals with greater patterns of sexual promiscuity and more sexual partners actually have higher, not lower, chances of divorce when they marry. Again, it’s a paradox—the logic does not work.
The Sexual Chemistry Paradox
The sexual chemistry paradox is an extension of this way of thinking. The current dating culture often emphasizes that two people should test their “sexual chemistry” before committing to each other. This type of compatibility is frequently mentioned as an essential characteristic for people to seek out in romantic relationships, particularly ones that could lead to marriage. Couples who do not test their sexual chemistry prior to the commitments of exclusivity, engagement, and marriage are often seen as putting themselves at risk of getting into a relationship that will not satisfy them in the future—thus increasing their probability of later marital dissatisfaction and divorce. However, two recently published studies call into question the validity of testing sexual chemistry early in dating.
My colleagues and I published the first study a few years ago in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology (see Busby et al., 2010). This study involved a national sample of 2,035 married individuals who participated in the popular online couple assessment survey called “RELATE.” We found that the longer a dating couple waits to have sex, the better their relationship is after marriage. In fact, couples who wait until marriage to have sex report higher relationship satisfaction (20% higher), better communication patterns (12% better), less consideration of divorce (22% lower), and better sexual quality (15% better) than those who started having sex early in their dating. For couples in between—those that became sexually involved later in their dating, but prior to marriage—the benefits were about half as strong. These patterns were statistically significant even when controlling for a variety of other variables such as respondents’ number of prior sexual partners, education levels, religiosity, and relationship length.
The second study, by Sharon Sassler and her colleagues (2012) at Cornell University, also found that rapid sexual involvement has adverse long-term implications for relationship quality. Using data from the Marital and Relationship Survey, which provides information on nearly 600 low- to moderate-income couples living with minor children, their study examined the tempo of sexual intimacy and subsequent relationship quality in a sample of married and cohabiting men and women. Their analyses also suggest that delaying sexual involvement is associated with higher relationship quality across several dimensions. They discovered that the negative association between sexual timing and relationship quality is largely driven by a link between early sex and cohabitation. Specifically, sexual involvement early in a romantic relationship is associated with an increased likelihood of moving more quickly into living together, which in turn is associated with lower relationship quality.
This finding supports Norval Glenn’s (2002) hypothesis that sexual involvement may lead to unhealthy emotional entanglements that make ending a bad relationship difficult. As Sassler and her colleagues (2012) concluded, “Adequate time is required for romantic relationships to develop in a healthy way. In contrast, relationships that move too quickly, without adequate discussion of the goals and long-term desires of each partner, may be insufficiently committed and therefore result in relationship distress, especially if one partner is more committed than the other” (p. 710). Again, the research shows a pattern of sexual restraint, where commitment preceding sex creates the pattern that really lowers the risk of relationship dissolution.
The Older is Better Paradox
All of this can be tied together into what I call the older is better paradox. Too many of our young people today are growing up with the view that marriage is a transition of loss, rather than a transition of gain. A number of years ago, I worked as a visiting scholar for the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. We conducted focus groups all across the country; and in these focus groups the young twenty-somethings talked about what marriage would ultimately “take from them,” “what they would lose,” “what they would ultimately have to give up,” and “what they would have to stop doing.” These statements contrast the historical pattern we have seen where individuals, and society as a whole, view marriage as a transition of gain. That it is something that adds to our lives, allows us to start doing meaningful things, and gives us a better and richer life.
This line of thinking is paradoxical as well, given that numerous studies have shown that getting married and staying married is linked to several aspects of individual health and well-being, such as better financial status, improved physical health, enhanced mental health, and higher sexual satisfaction. Therefore, as marriage is delayed in order to avoid the perceived losses associated with marriage, many young adults begin to miss out on these known benefits of marriage—creating once again a paradoxical outcome.
Fostering a Culture of True Marriage Readiness
I’ll conclude with some final thoughts on how we can counter these marriage preparation paradoxes and foster a culture of true marriage readiness.
A Window of Opportunity
While the risks of teenage marriage have long been understood, the possibility of risks associated with 30+ marriages are just beginning to be understood. There is a need for more attention to later marriages as the national median age of marriage continues to increase. We need to find ways of helping young people appreciate the curvilinear nature of outcomes associated with the age of marriage; this will help counter the risks of early marriage, but not unintentionally replace this with the newly identified risks associated with later marriage.
A Dynamic versus Static Dating Pool
It is highly likely that some of the benefits of marriage at later ages are offset by less than ideal matching due to a diminishing dating pool. Too many parents and others convey the mistaken idea to their young adult children that marriage readiness and spouse selection is simply a matter of personal preference and preparation. The dating pool is dynamic and shifts across the life course, making high quality matches with marriage and family center-people less likely later in life.
The Strength of Twenty-something Marriages
A notable finding across many datasets and dozens of studies is how well so many marriages started in the early to mid-20s are doing. This is particularly true when educational trajectories are maintained. The benefits of college education occur whether the degree is obtained before or after marriage. Rather than simply becoming overly concerned about later marriages, the data suggests we should be more open to and supportive of earlier twentysomething marriages.
Choice versus Constraint
While some might see the delay of marriage as proof that young people think marriage is obsolete or that they don’t believe in the institution anymore, the evidence does not support that conclusion. In the Knot Yet Report, we used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to document that, in fact, by age 25 nearly two-thirds of women are either married (33%) or wish they were married (30%); and nearly half of men by age 25 are either married (29%) or wish they were married (19%). These figures should remind us that while age of marriage is associated with desired timing of marriage, it is not always a factor of choice. Many young adults are frustrated by the erosion of courtship in our culture and the difficulty they are experiencing in dating and getting married.
Factors Other Than Age
After the teenage years, studies have shown that age of marriage is associated with marital outcomes, but it is not a particularly strong predictor of marital satisfaction or divorce proneness. We would do better to promote a greater understanding of the individual and couple factors that are strong predictors of marital quality and encourage young adults to pursue high quality relationships when possible; rather than waiting for an arbitrarily selected age of marriage.
Over 80 years of research on premarital predictors of marriage outcomes have shown that true marital competence or readiness involves helping young people develop the capacity to love and the capacity to communicate (see Carroll et al., 2006). Thus, the foundation factors of personal maturity, emotional readiness, commitment, forgiveness, religious devotion, sexual restraint, communication skills, and the management of conflict are far stronger predictors of marriage trajectories than age at marriage. We should also stress the “success sequence” of family formation which involves gaining maturity and education prior to marriage and marriage prior to child bearing. It’s time for the college-educated segment of our culture to start preaching what they practice when it comes to family formation patterns.
This fellow note is in part an excerpt from a recent article in The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.
("http://familyinamerica.org/journals/winter-2016/love-or-money/#.V6NlwusrJD8">http://familyinamerica.org/journals/winter-2016/love-or-money/#.V6NlwusrJD8) and modified from a plenary address delivered at the World Congress on Families (WCF9), Salt Lake City, Utah, October 29, 2015
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Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Carroll, J. S. (2013). Sowing Wild Oats: Valuable Experience or a Field Full of Weeds? Personal Relationships. Personal Relationships, 20, 706-718 . Carroll, J. S., Badger, S., & Yang, C. (2006).
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