From the June, 2008 issue of Touchstone

Unmarried, Still Children by Joan Frawley Desmond

Unmarried, Still Children

Joan Frawley Desmond on Children Who’ve Been Raised for Everything but Marriage

Recently, a friend described an exchange between a mother and her son, a senior at a top university. He wanted to marry his long-time girlfriend. His mother retorted that she was more ambitious for him than his girlfriend was; she advised him to avoid an “early” marriage that might limit his options.

Another friend confided to me that he had counseled his high-school-age daughter to establish a decade’s worth of graduate school and career development before marrying. Marriage would complicate the task of achieving financial independence. And he just wasn’t sure that men could be trusted.

Without a Script

Many young people now earn parental approbation without achieving one traditional benchmark for adulthood: securing the love, commitment, and respect of a spouse. Such parental sentiments appear to be growing, and they have helped to extend and justify the footloose patterns of college life well past graduation day.

“Being 35 today is much like being 35 a generation ago. Adults’ lives are still framed by careers, marriage, children, and civic ties. But being 25 today is very different,” asserted William Galston, speaking at the Forum on Being 20-Something in the 21st Century, part of the Brookings Institution’s Responsible Parenting Project.

“Most young people in their 20s are living outside of institutions and without the structure and norms institutions provide,” continued Galston, author of a recent Brookings report, The Changing 20s. “Many feel that they are living without a script, making up their lives as they go.”

In 1970, only 21 percent of 25-year-olds had never married. In 2005, 60 percent had yet to wed. Asked to identify the key events marking the passage into adulthood, 96 percent of the young adults in one recent survey identified a full-time job. About half that number mentioned marriage.

In Jeffrey Arnett’s research for his book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties, he found marriage and children to be at the bottom of a list of events perceived as conferring adult status. While most young people believed that “accept[ing] responsibility for the consequences of your actions” and choosing “personal beliefs and values independently of parents or other influences” were crucial, only 15 percent thought marriage was.

Amorphous Milestones

Given our increased longevity, the rising demand for graduate degrees, the specter of divorce, the unstable and unpredictable job market, and the relative immaturity of today’s youth, it is easy to see why many middle-class parents think of “early” marriage as an albatross.

Their children are deemed incapable of bearing the weight of marriage. Everything must be in place before they can contemplate such a momentous—potentially “destabilizing”—step. But this idea of the post-college period as a brief but essential chapter in a long and fruitful life, one quickly succeeded by traditional commitments like family, ignores the thinking and behavior that have come to define those years for many.

Significantly, for example, Arnett’s research suggests that the milestones associated with the advent of adulthood are amorphous states of mind (“accept[ing] responsibility for the consequences of your actions”) that have no objective legal or social status. The individual does not submit to an established framework that clarifies his intentions.

Work bears no clear organic relationship to familial service and responsibility. And when work is everything, social relationships must be improvised. This explains the increasing popularity of cohabitation, a domestic partnership that circumvents fixed commitments and avoids transparent intentions. She may think they’re on the road to marriage, but he’s simply enjoying the comforts of home before graduate school. The only rule of engagement is that future plans be kept necessarily vague.

Today, of course, the roles may well be reversed. Better-credentialed young women, primed to view marriage as a trap, expect to navigate the path of “serial monogamy” well into their thirties. Multiple live-in relationships allow them to test-drive potential partners. Arnett reports that 65 percent of young Americans have cohabited at least once prior to marriage.

Thus, when a mother badgers her son to “keep his options open,” she isn’t thinking about his girlfriend’s broken heart. Nor is mom worrying about the other women who will dally with her son before he takes the plunge. They are forgotten, as they must be, if he is to go on with a clear conscience and if her heart can swell with maternal pride for his accomplishments.

The trouble is that mom and dad still can’t be sure that junior will come out ahead. The research suggests that when marital commitments no longer direct our path in the world, the purpose and meaning of work also shifts.

For some, the weakened relationship between personal achievement and family needs leads to careerism. Others soon have trouble signing up to anything that requires sacrifice: Only 25 percent of respondents in Arnett’s survey agreed that “full-time employment” had something to do with adulthood. Indeed, decades of social research confirm that married men who work earn more than single men, despite the former’s increased responsibilities.

Public Anchor

In marriage, particularly a sacramental union, the husband and wife publicly anchor their relationship in three vows: of permanence, of faithfulness, and of fruitfulness. Though most young people enter marriage without fully understanding what is ahead, the vows guide them in developing necessary virtues: perseverance, temperance, courage, justice, and humility. The challenges keep coming—sickness, financial difficulties, family crises—and the vows help to lift the spouses over each hurdle.

The vows establish the form for marriage as a social institution. They send the message that marriage is not something we invent; it is a state of life that preexists us. “And so a man will leave his family and cleave unto his wife and the two will become one flesh.”

Marital vows guide human desire toward “loving” instead of “using,” as Pope John Paul II has noted. Without the vows, couples are under no compulsion to back up their feelings with actions. They can invent their own set of expectations in which selfishness is normalized and tests of character are repelled with few consequences.

Thus, it is not surprising that even cohabitating couples with children are much more likely to break up than married couples. Meanwhile, those who glide through a decade or more alone, answerable to no one but their boss, can find it hard to change the pattern of solitary living.

A century ago, parents and the larger culture enforced a very different approach to marriage and courtship, one that arose from a profound Christian realism: the understanding that the human propensity to sin easily undermined good intentions and wrought its destructive power in the lives of innocents and evildoers alike. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero warns his daughter’s fiancé, Prince Ferdinand, to temper his desire and wait for marriage:

If thou doest break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate . . .

Traditional European courtship practices sought to clarify intentions rather than pander to wishful thinking. The purpose, observed one social researcher, was “to translate the subjective state of being in love into objective expressions of commitment.”

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet is attracted, in turn, to Mr. Wickham, a dashing officer with flattering manners, and Mr. Darcy, a proud, rich, and reserved man who initially rejects her as unworthy of his notice. Wickham quickly captures her sympathy and trust, while Darcy initially earns her enmity. But as the two men’s actions reveal the truth about their fundamental character, Elizabeth is forced to acknowledge her faulty judgment born from her “prejudice.”

Elizabeth must overcome her character flaws without the aid of wise parental counsel. Her mother, foolish and vulgar, lacks good judgment. Her father, bitter and fatalistic, resists effective action. In the end, two Bennet sisters secure happy unions with honorable men, but a third sister marries the scoundrel, Mr. Wickham, with her mother’s blessings.

Peter Pans & Wendys

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s behavior would have sent tongues wagging in nineteenth-century England. At that time, polite society conspired to encourage behavior that helped—even forced—women and men to grow up through a process of accommodation to external realities. This pattern continued into the next century, although, as Beth Bailey notes in From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America, industrialization slowly pushed back parental supervision and encouraged the new pastime of “dating” rather than “calling.”

Today, parents have a tough time understanding their proper role. Not only has the culture embraced the good of individual autonomy—as opposed to parental authority and familial responsibility—but radical social change has bred confusion about what constitutes the proper goal of adulthood.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom explains, for example, what the sexual revolution blindly repudiated:

Female modesty extends sexual differentiation from the sexual act to the whole of life. . . . As long as modesty operates, men and women together are never just lawyers and pilots together. They have something else, always potentially important, in common—ultimate ends, or as they say, “life goals.” Is winning this case or landing this plane what is most important, or is it love and family?

A decade’s worth of cohabitation or serial monogamy, then, is the ideal incubator for Peter Pans and Wendys. Cohabitation “is not the functional equivalent of marriage,” because “adults who live together are more similar to singles than to married couples,” explains Why Marriage Matters, a report authored by family experts, including William J. Doherty, professor of family social science and the director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota.

This might explain why young Americans have begun to equate same-sex partnerships with heterosexual relationships. It also explains why out-of-wedlock births have climbed dramatically among cohabitating couples in all socio-economic groups. Even when children arrive, many opt to remain single.

When pondering the declining fortunes of matrimony since the 1960s, one must consider this explanation: The preoccupation with careerism masks a deeper problem. Many in this generation of parents cannot bring themselves to conduct an honest accounting of their own early adulthood, when the shattering of taboos caused them to doubt their own capacity for love or for living the truth.

Their example and teaching led many of their children to make work their central vocation, and treat marriage as peripheral. Thus, a slew of successful young women complained to Barbara Defoe Whitehead in Why There Are No Good Men Left that their parents prepared them for every goal but marriage.

Individually, many parents may have atoned for past misdeeds. But as a group they have yet to repudiate the damage they wreaked, or at least tolerated. But lack of courage does not entirely explain the silence. Attachment to vice—lust, greed, and pride, mostly—make it hard to rethink the past.

Improvised Relationships

A dose of Christian realism regarding the wages of sin could help considerably. My generation’s rejection of fundamental truths resonates in the choices made by today’s adults-in-training. Judging from current research, an increasing number of young people will improvise their relationships, rather than subject themselves to the daunting obligations of married love.

Delay the wedding date, ignore the broken hearts along the way, center your hopes and goals in yourself or your job rather than the man or woman in your bed, always leave yourself an out, get on with your career. In other words, keep love at arm’s length, and pay the price.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is a recent graduate of the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family.

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