When we interviewed Carly, 31, in the summer of 2010, she had been in an on-again, off-again cohabiting relationship with the father of her child for about 12 years. Never married, she called marriage a “piece of paper.”
One year later, however, she had broken up with her longtime boyfriend and was engaged to a different man.
Why did she accept his marriage proposal?
Contradicting what she said a year before, Carly (not her real name) told us: “Everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.’ But that piece of paper is … more binding than just really being together.”
She explained that her experience in a long-term cohabiting relationship had taught her that marriage was indeed different.
As we learned in our interviews with over 100 young adults in a mostly white working-class town in Ohio, most young people are neither adamantly opposed to marriage nor completely supportive: They are conflicted about marriage. They hope to get and stay married, providing for their own children the family stability that many of them did not have growing up. One national study found that in 2001-2002, more than 80 percent of young adults said that marriage was important in their life plan. But many are also uncertain about how to achieve that aspiration and unsure about whether marriage retains the meaning they believe it should have.
>>> Read The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity, which this essay was originally published in.
Many of them witnessed the separation or divorce of their parents as children, or barely knew their dad or mom. Others saw their parents stay in marriages marked by abuse, drinking, drugs, or misery. Others admired their parents’ marriage but were shaken by the divorces of relatives or friends, or by hearsay about high divorce rates.
The legacy of the divorce culture is trauma and a crisis of trust. A study conducted in the mid-2000s found that of 122 working–and middle-class young people in cohabiting relationships, more than two-thirds expressed concerns about divorce that were related to their views about marriage. Many respondents said that they were reluctant to marry because they wanted to “do it right,” by which they meant marrying only once.
That legacy of divorce is reinforced by the cultural deregulation of sex and dating. As divorce-weary young people form their own romantic relationships, they hear from the culture that “sex is sex, regardless of who it’s with,” love should be “effortless,” and “you got one life to live, and you got to live it the way you want to live it.”
Those messages undermine their pursuit of a trusting and resilient lifelong relationship.
As a result, many young Americans are left on the outside looking in, admiring marriage but paralyzed with anxiety about becoming another divorce statistic or worried that their boyfriend or girlfriend is not trustworthy. Thus, more Americans are delaying marriage longer, and more (though still the minority) are forgoing marriage altogether.
In other words, the declining marriage rate is not so much a reflection that marriage is no longer desired, but that, in a culture of distrust and divorce, it is fragile.
The bad news is that young Americans have less confidence in marriage than their grandparents did and are carrying profound wounds. The good news is that, as one adult child of divorce said of his peers from fragmented families, “They lived it and they want a change.”
As another adult child of divorce told us, “I think my home life as a kid made me more driven to be like, ‘I’m not gonna have a broken home.’”
Many young people are afraid of marriage, but that does not mean they are giving up on it. If anything, they possess a hard-earned understanding about the suffering wrought by family fragmentation. They want a better life for their own children, and they deserve the support of everyone from cultural leaders to policymakers to business leaders as they seek that better way.
This essay is from The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity.