Visiting the complicated world of emerging adults (young people between the ages of 18 and 29, with data now available up to age 23), Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker report back with findings that raise challenges for the future of marriage as an institution. Some of their findings, which will appear next year in a volume from the Oxford University Press titled Premarital Sex in America, were presented last week at a Heritage Foundation conference on what scholarly research says about religious practice in America.

The good news is that emerging adults (five percent of fewer) say almost without exception that they expect and want to marry someday. The bad news is that this goal is not only being postponed for their late 20s or even 30s chronologically, but repositioned in ways that call into question whether marriage as they conceive it can be more than a mirage.

Regnerus and Uecker note, among other findings, that the “majority of young adults in America not only think they should explore different relationships,” including sexual intimacy, “but they believe it may be foolish and wrong not to.” This belief has much to do with their ideas regarding sexual chemistry, which emerging adults tend to think of as a form of spontaneous combustion rather than smoldering possibility. Such concepts as the preservation of independence and “being your own person” combine with the belief that marriage is about finding the perfect “soul mate” to persuade emerging adults that a period of trial-and-error with various prospects is necessary to find the best fit for the permanent oasis of marriage.

Chemistry and biology are not necessarily compatible in this course of self-fulfillment. Most of the emerging adults the researchers studied desire to have children (albeit they are seen as drags on such perceived imperatives as career selection and travel), but to postpone that particular life change until later. While the findings the researchers excerpted for the Heritage conference did not address this factor directly, the reality that female fertility declines as a woman reaches age 30, and sharply so after age 35, does not seem to have impressed itself upon emerging adults as a prime consideration. Moreover, the potential impact of having multiple premarital sexual partners for comparison’s sake on the health of a later, permanent relationship, where such comparisons may hamper sustained intimacy and happiness, is a question that can be deferred but not avoided.

The sociological result is that the age at first marriage in the United States is rapidly rising, to 26 for women and 28 for men. In addition, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is approaching 40 percent for all U.S. births and is at 60 percent for the age group that Regnerus and Uecker studied. These changes follow both experiential disappointment with marriage (children watching their parents’ struggles) and cultural devaluation and deinstitutionalization of marriage. Such phenomena as no fault divorce, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage may not be altering the marriages contracted 20 years ago, but each may be playing a role in affecting the marriages not yet contracted and the families not yet formed. We are learning more, rapidly, about premarital sexual activity, with much more to learn about the hopes and hazards for post-sexual-activity marriages.