A few weeks ago, I attended the wedding of one of my dear friends from high school. She and her fiancé married young – they’re just out of college. They are caring, smart individuals and I don’t think their future could be any brighter. But their story is not the norm for my generation.
Studies have shown that millennials are getting married significantly later than previous generations. However, many still desire to be married. According to a 2017 study, 57% of those age 21-36 have never been married, compared to my grandparents’ generation (those 72-89) of whom only 17% were never married at those ages. In 1965, the average woman married at 21, and the average man married at 23. In 2017, the average woman married at 27 and the average man married for the first time at 29. However, 2/3 of never-married millennials still aspire to marriage. The most common reasons given for not marrying yet are: not being financially prepared (29%), they haven’t found someone with the qualities they’re looking for (26%), or they are too young and not ready to settle down (26%).
While I’ve seen several articles saying the decline of marriage is a good thing – the institution is “outdated” so we’re leaving it behind – that implies that we can replace it with something better. (What does “better” look like? The hookup culture, Cohabitation, single parenting, or long-term singleness.) But the data shows that marriage is the best way to create a stable and thriving family. Children who live in homes with a married mother and father are much less likely to live in poverty, experience teen pregnancy, or become victims of abuse and neglect. Children who live in single-mother families are more likely to have behavioral problems. Children who live apart from their parents are much more likely to use drugs, and those who live in father-absent homes are 279% more likely to carry guns than those who live with their fathers. Kids who grow up without their fathers are also much more likely to end up in prison and are twice as likely to repeat a grade in school.
Marriage helps foster abundant life. God created marriage as a picture of Christ’s union with the Church; its place in society is deep and profound. Marriage is the best foundation for a family: children receive care and support from both a mother and a father, united in love with each other, loving God, and loving their children. God shows us this model in the story of Christ’s birth. He gave Jesus both a mother, Mary, and a father, Joseph to show us his design for abundant life.
If God wanted that for His Son, shouldn’t we want it for our society?
So how did we as a culture move away from marriage? Many factors have converged – it’s beyond me to identify them all. Hookup culture, longer life expectancy, entitlement, the rise in mental health struggles, or the rising divorce rate - any and all of those could be factors. I’ve seen articles attributing it to all these things. Regardless of the causes, there has been a shift in the cultural understanding of marriage – it’s purpose, importance, and place.
I think that my generation has lost faith that we can know and be fully known by another person. I think we feel like intimacy – the joining of souls that reaches its fullest in marriage – may not be possible. This is the fallout of postmodernism, the hookup culture, and the focus on self. My generation is afraid of marriage – afraid they’re not ready, afraid it won’t satisfy their needs, afraid that they’ll fail, and afraid that failure is inevitable.
One of the largest factors, I believe, is ideological. Marriage goes against one of our culture’s central narratives – that freedom is the greatest good and that freedom is the absence of restraints. Marriage requires sacrifice – you love your spouse and you give yourself up for them. You seek the good of your spouse before your own. You put them first. But that’s the opposite of what our culture says: You have to put your own needs first. No one has a higher claim on your time, money, energy, or love than you do. If someone threatens that, get rid of them. That thing or person is threatening your highest good – your freedom. (For a current example of this trend, look no further than one of Planned Parenthood’s recent ad campaigns: “Protect Our Freedom to [expletive].” Planned Parenthood sought to tap into this drive for lack of restraint.)
In reality though, that narrative is a destructive way to live. Putting yourself at the center of your life and valuing autonomy over love leads to isolation. When you break free of all limits and responsibilities, what do you have left?
Philosophers and thinkers from Plato to Thomas Jefferson have agreed that happiness is the highest good. What do people want most in life? To be happy. The problem lies in how to find happiness. Our culture says that valuing self and autonomy over all else will give us happiness. But humans are happiest when they are loved – truly known and loved despite their flaws. That comes from having close relationships with the people around you. Marriage, when working well, is the closest relationship a human being can share with another. Ultimate fulfillment and love can only come from God, but marriage is like a picture of that. But how do we become close to others? We love them. And I don’t mean we have fuzzy feelings in their direction. We give up our own desires for their good.
Christ is the ultimate example of love. He gave up everything for our good, even though we did nothing, less than nothing, to deserve His sacrifice. But sacrificing for the good of the beloved doesn’t happen when you have decided to value yourself – your needs and your freedom – above all else. Love is sacrifice. And love is what makes life meaningful.
Marriage rates decline as worship of self-interest increases.
Our culture says the way to find happiness – the way to live an abundant life – is to ensure that no one is enforcing limits on you: to be free. But the real source of abundant life is Christ; he came that we may have abundant life. But he did not give us abundant life by ensuring his freedom. He gave it to us by dying. He sacrificed everything because he loved us. In its own way, marriage is a reflection of that great love. It is no surprise then, that marriage suffers when selfishness eclipses sacrifice.