by Seth Eisenberg
A reporter called recently to discuss the growing number of couples who are opting for committed cohabitation over marriage and the consequences for society.
Surveys continue to reveal that teens and young adults in particular are less enthusiastic about marriage than previous generations. Studies have shown these groups less likely to embrace marriage as a key goal for their lives than they were just five and ten years ago. Those who are marrying are waiting, with the average age of first marriages fast approaching 30.
Before our phone appointment, I checked in with my sons, Alex, 21, and Michael, 18, for their thoughts and to ask what they were noticing among their college friends when it came to talk about marriage.
“What do you think about marriage,” Alex asked before offering his own opinions.
“I think marriage is the glue that holds couples together as they grow-up,” I said.
“If marriage is glue, committed cohabitation,” Alex said, “is more like velcro.” He went on to share insights into why younger generations are more likely to see intimate relationships from a velcro perspective.
Like many of their peers, Alex and Michael grew up as children of divorce. While I’d promised myself many times that I’d never put my children through what I went through as a child of divorce myself, by my early thirties, I realized good intentions and promises wouldn’t be enough. Although I’d grown up very much around the field of marriage education, the seeds planted from those early experiences made sense only many years later. As a teen I was much more influenced by what I saw of relationships than the words I often heard.
When it came to keeping my marriage to their mother together, I failed. But when it came to ensuring they didn’t have the experience with divorce that long left me feeling angry, sad, distrustful and doubting my own self-worth, their childhood couldn’t have been more different than my own. I realized that although I couldn’t provide the marriage I’d always wanted for my sons, I could be a very different parent than what I experienced from mine after their break-up.
As the third generation in a row to get divorced in my family, I have plenty of reasons to doubt the value of marriage. Yet more than ever, I have become a passionate advocate. Not an advocate who believes marriage should be inflicted on others, a choice that fits for everyone, or that anyone should stay in an abusive relationship, but as someone who has seen the price communities, and children in particular, pay for marital and family breakdown. I’ve also become well aware of the unique opportunities marriage offers for happiness, fulfillment, health, success, and the chance to profoundly experience life’s most cherished moments.
As I shared with Alex and the reporter, at 49, I believe marriage is incredibly important to society and families as the foundation of our communities.
Marriage is a people-growing machine. While many embrace the spiritual union represented by shared vows of matrimony for religious reasons, to me marriage is equally important as the best way to create a life in which people get their needs for bonding met. By bonding, I mean the powerful combination of emotional openness and physical closeness with another person that is at the heart of great relationships.
For generations who struggled through baneful discrimination, wars, pogroms, holocaust, and immigration that often meant leaving everything behind for the hope of freedom, the basis of marriage was long about security, stability and raising children. Families were struggling just to survive. Happiness was about food on the table, shelter, and making it through another year.
Over much of the past century, along with economic advancement and greater freedoms for men and women of all ethnicities, the basis of marriage shifted to meeting each other’s needs for love and intimacy.
Marriage didn’t get worse when that happened; it got better. The rules for marriage had changed, yet no one told anyone.
The reason we’ve continued to see escalating rates of family and marital breakdown isn’t because marriage is broken, it’s because too few young people grew up with a chance to learn from examples of parents who sustained relationships based on love and intimacy. Skills for confiding, listening with empathy, understanding emotions in ourselves and others, and working through differences in ways that led to greater closeness, compassion and empathy weren’t taught in the school curriculum that narrowly focused on the three R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Today, many young adults whose parents divorced feel like they did okay. And many others who grew up with parents who stayed together bitterly, angrily, separating their lives and homes into quiet demilitarized zones may not be feeling that what they saw of marriage is what they want for their own lives. As Alex shared, his parents divorced when he was young and he’s doing great. So maybe relationships, even our closest relationships, are meant to be more like velcro than glue. Based on his own experiences and those of many of his peers, I understand those thoughts. More than anything, changing attitudes about marriage requires more youngsters growing up with examples of great marriages they’ll want for their own lives.
The new tools of social media that are ubiquitous within the lives of young adults and teenagers make the allure of velcro relationships even greater. With Americans collectively spending more than ten million hours a year on Facebook, many are more influenced by the nine status choices the social media giant offers up for relationships than the aspirations of previous generations. Marriage is one of those nine options followed by “it’s complicated” and “open relationship.”
Marriage is complicated too. Like life, it’s not always easy. And like life, there are ups and downs. We’re all works in progress, growing, learning, searching, discovering – that means good days and bad ones, sometimes good months and bad ones. Sometimes even longer.
It means along the way, people also make mistakes. Not mistakes that say people are less than amazing, but mistakes like all the baskets LeBron James missed on his way to becoming a superstar. I won’t mention Tiger Woods.
The glue of marriage, for those who accept the meaning of their vows to one another, helps couples discover levels of intimacy beyond what many ever experience. The intimacy that comes from fully knowing and embracing each other – not as an illusion, but as the miracle of a human being with struggles, flaws, and some amazing qualities too – is life’s greatest gift.
The answer to changing attitudes about marriage isn’t to make marriage or divorce easier or harder. It’s about making sure young people grow up with skills to create and sustain relationships based on love and intimacy.
As I head upstairs to check-in on my third son, Zachary, who will soon celebrate his first birthday, those are lessons my wife and I hold dear.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.