First off, and not directly related to the rest of this point, let me reiterate my growing hatred of Facebook. A friend posted a link to the article this blog is actually about. When I went back to comment on the link he posted, I couldn’t find the entry he had made on it. Despite having just clicked on it ten minutes earlier. Grrrrrrrr.
In any event, read this essay
, quickly, in case it disappears too. It’s somewhat of an abstract of several surveys on young adults and marriage. If you don’t have the patience to read the whole article (which you really should if you’re a young adult, related to a young adult, or know a young adult), the upshot of it is that personal happiness is sort of the overriding goal of the respondents. Marriage is desirable inasmuch as it fosters and contributes to their personal happiness. If that happiness begins to tarnish, it’s evidence that the marriage isn’t valid, and that they were probably mistaken in their earlier feelings of love and commitment to their spouse.
My concern with the essay comes from the conclusions it draws. The last five paragraphs attempt to deal with ways that we could make an impact on the ideas of marriage that young adults have. The problem is that none of them deal with the major issue – that marriage has become primarily a mechanism for providing personal happiness, rather than a partnership of give and take where there will be times of greater and lesser happiness and satisfaction that are to be expected and weathered rather than bailed out on.
Their first recommendation is that we stop telling young adults (who are likely cohabitating and are increasingly likely to have children, even though their cohabitating as opposed to marrying is a sign they aren’t yet convinced the other person is the right person to marry) to just get married. Acting as though the legal act of marriage carries any significant weight in terms of behavior modification and expectation modification is flawed logic.
I tend to agree with this at one level. But it begs the question. What is marriage if it is not the sharing of oneself financially, physically, emotionally, and (whether intended or not) procreation? The article highlights that these functions are somehow separated from an idealized concept of marriage, rather than being linked inextricably with it. While acting as though legal marriage will have any sort of real effect on a cohabitating couple with children may be flawed, it may be less flawed if we try to disabuse some of the odd concepts that people have of what marriage actually is. In other words, if we begin linking marriage expectations to objective actions (sexuality & fidelity, procreation) rather than to subjective feelings (happiness), we could go a long way in demonstrating that what is being defined these days as just part of the process of searching for the right spouse (living together, sexual activity & intended or unintended procreation) is actually marriage. Regardless of how we feel about it.
Their next recommendation is to talk about marriage as the way of safeguarding things that young adults truly value and desire – stability, family, love. Much agreed. But only if we are also working to disabuse the notion that love is only an emotion, rather than an act of the will as well. According to case studies the authors themselves cite, young adults feel that if they no longer have the feeling of love (whatever that means), then it’s evidence that they never really were in love to begin with, and therefore they are justified in dissolving the marriage in order to find that love with another person.
Up until the last 40 years or so, the unrealistic portrayals of love in film, books, television, etc. were mitigated to a great extent by actual examples of love. Parents who remained married, bickered and fought without ever rejecting their marriage vows. Congregations filled with people who have been married for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70 years. Living testimonies (and hopefully honest testimonies) to the enduring nature of the commitment of love between two people as opposed to the feeling of love.
Kids don’t have these examples any longer. Many kids don’t have two parents in their home. Many more don’t have the same two parents who conceived them in the same home. Congregations are often devoid of other parental role models – people the age of a child’s parents who serve as another example and testimony of marriage & fidelity. And increasingly, congregations are devoid of the next generation back – a child’s grandparents – who further model that sort of commitment. Kids have fewer friends who have parents who are married and are their actual birth parents (or adoptive parents).
If we don’t have places where the reality of married life is demonstrated against the fantasy of media, are we surprised that younger people have a skewed sense of reality?
Their final recommendation is to emphasize the binding nature of marriage and the importance of personal honor in making that sort of commitment. While I think this is definitely on the right track, it also won’t work well without other groundwork. The reason more young people choose to live together and delay marriage is because they want their vow to stand and last when they finally make it. The problem is that they seem to think that there will be this magical moment when this is the case – when their vow will somehow of it’s own volition stand and last, despite the fact that they are still viewing that vow as a means of personal happiness and fulfillment that they are free to invalidate whenever they don’t feel that the happiness is adequate or the fulfillment as deep as they once measured it.
Young adults do want to be people of their word. But they have to be taught what that means. That living by your word may well require a great deal of unhappiness from time to time. It certainly entails focusing on more than just your own personal happiness, and rather seeing yourself as part of something greater and stronger and more fulfilling – a marriage and perhaps a family of your own.
We need to be able to speak honestly about struggles, rather than strive to pay homage to the Cult of Happiness that demands we sacrifice everyone and everything to some vaguely defined sense of personal happiness. That is something that has to start in the home and be reinforced elsewhere – in the extended family and in congregations and other social institutions. In other words, it’s not just about ‘fixing’ young adults. It’s about taking a good hard look at ourselves.