The Ties That Bind

According to a new study, sponsored in part by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the average age at which American men and women first marry is rising. The authors of “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” also note that for the first time, the average age at which women marry is now one year older than the average age of women at the birth of their first child. Women in every social class are choosing to delay marriage. According to the researchers, while previous generations viewed marriage as a source of stability that facilitated financial or career pursuits, many young adults now view marriage as a “capstone” experience—that is, they believe that they must meet certain financial, emotional, educational and career goals before they tie the knot. While it is still the case that marriage is almost always in a couple’s economic self-interest, for some women there is one clear economic advantage to waiting: College-educated women who wait until their early 30s to marry can earn approximately $18,000 more each year than their similarly educated peers who marry in their 20s.

Yet for an increasing number of couples, delaying marriage does not mean delaying having children. While most college-educated women give birth to their first child two years after they are wed, nearly 60 percent of middle Americans—a group the study describes as “women who have a high school degree or some college”—have their first child outside of marriage. That is a deeply troubling trend. Practically speaking, children born outside of marriage, even those born to cohabitating couples, “are much more likely to experience family instability, school failure, and emotional problems.” In fact, the children of such couples are three times more likely to see their parents’ relationships end.

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The institution of marriage, of course, is a stabilizing force for children only when the marriage is stable. Studies have also shown that the children of married couples whose relationships are marked by chronic conflict fare worse than those in more stable, single-parent or divorced homes. Still, children have a right to safe and stable homes, and their parents have a duty to provide such homes by making a lifelong commitment. The tragic fact that this ideal family arrangement is sometimes clearly impossible does not mean that it is therefore optional.

While promoting marriage as the social and moral norm, however, both the church and the state should respond in charity to the lived and diverse experiences of contemporary couples. Here are some suggestions:

Encourage commitment. The church provides extensive programming for engaged and married couples. But couples in nontraditional living arrangements—sometimes out of sheer economic necessity—often avoid approaching their pastors and fellow Catholics because they fear they will be judged harshly. The question here is not the church’s teaching but how we should respond to those who are not living in accord with it. We must respond with charity. We should also provide some practical help: The church could offer day-long retreats, for example, for couples who are not engaged or married. This time and space for reflection and prayer might help the couples to grow in their relationship and to discern their futures better. In a context of prayerful support, a couple is also more likely to be open to the beauty and truth of the church’s teaching.

End the remaining financial disincentives to marriage. Some individuals still pay more income tax when they marry than they would if they remained single. President Obama acknowledged this problem in his recent State of the Union address. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, has suggested that the government should simply issue checks to make up the difference.

Create flexible work policies. Policies like paid sick leave, paternity leave, flexible work hours and child care stipends could help couples at every income level to achieve a better work-family balance. In addition, small stipends for child care and health care have been shown to help relieve stresses felt by parents in low-paying jobs; such policies also encourage greater engagement in their children’s school lives.

Make college more affordable. Not being weighed down by mountains of debt would offer 20-somethings the financial freedom they believe is necessary to settle down. In addition, attending college helps young adults realize their potential, introduces them to numerous career options and better prepares them for those careers.

Marriage is not a capstone social project; it is a fundamental social building block, “a partnership of the whole of life” that by its very nature, as the catechism says, is “ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” With the right incentives and encouragement, more couples might come to see marriage not as one more milestone in early adulthood but as a lifelong and life-giving journey.

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Ed Knauf
4 years 7 months ago
Ought it not be noted that, if women are delaying marriage, so are men? Why is it that women and men are not inclined to marry? First of all, in a contraceptive culture that views sex as recreation and completely emptied of its natural procreative intent, marriage is seen as unnecessary. Moreover, I would posit that this trend is indicative of a general self-centeredness that translates to children being seen as a burden rather than a blessing. One's primary meaning in life is no longer even vaguely rooted in one's prospective parenthood for most American women and men, and American Catholics are no different. Rather than to look to liberalized government-based social policies as some sort of panacaea for this situation (as America's editors tend to do), perhaps we need to be preaching a Christian other-centeredness that is the foundation of marriage and parenthood. Liberal governments across the sea are trying such government-based policies to increase their birth rates, to no avail. Meanwhile, they have not addressed the contraceptive, me-based mindset that is at the heart of the problem. But unless the U.S. changes this trend, our nation will follow Russia, China and Europe on the road to demographic meltdown.
G Miller
4 years 7 months ago
Younger people are delaying marriage because of economics, pure and simple. Nothing stops abortions quite like solid, stable, good paying jobs. Until the government deals with income inequality, intelligent people will delay or completely avoid having children.
William Atkinson
4 years 7 months ago
Statistics make for interesting comparisons, how about a comment on the preaching at our local Jesuit parish, out of 52 weeks or sunday preaching 33 were about abortion, a few about sunday sermon, none, I say none were about sacrament or living in a state of marriage, woops I forgot two sunday sermons were about gay marriages. Yes none zero were about love and commitment of couples in marriage. Kinda says a lot about church's commitment to state of marriage, no wonder marriage is becoming more and more delegated to history kinda like the dinosaurs.
Jay Cuasay
4 years 7 months ago
The first two comments split the difference of the basic approaches. First: why seek the panacea in more government support and not more preaching of a less self0centered, Christian message? The second said: WHERE is the Christian message of hope and the beauty and dignity of marriage when there is all this sermonizing on abortion and gay marriage? My personal take is that the "captsone" approach to marriage shows a hard-headed practicality that is indicative of the seriousness with which marriage is viewed and the sense to which partners seeking it feel they need to measure up. Sure, one can look at marriage as bliss and hope and look to parenting and raising children as blessing. But there's nothing wrong with looking at some bottom line figures and wondering "Can I/We really make it together?" I don't think such a view is based on self-centered interest, nor something that sexually active couples eschew because it interferes with their sexual liberalness and use of contraception. It's not as if the divide between "renters" and "home-owners" is based on a difference in morals or shallow self-reflection. Some times it is really about finances or at least the perceived obstacles or disincentives they present to people who are trying their best to make such big decisions. In another decade we may see whether the rising cost in college education similarly puts this "capstone" event beyond the horizon of enough people so that their own practical views of their lives might be more inclined to seek out pathways of blessing and hope--which while requiring much more trust and anxiety, are less plagued with financial calculus. Perhaps such high financial hurdles might level the playing field back to a simpler boy meets girl world that they can afford. Or we may find that financial help along the way isn't really so immoral, but perhaps necessary to keep any hope and promise alive.
ed gleason
4 years 7 months ago
I too think less marriage has financial roots. the posters who want more sermons and government interventions should look more to the huge cultural shift that has men not needing marriage for sexual intimacy and women better educated not needing men for financial security.Also women have better educations than most of the eligible men.[see college statistics by gender.].. What sermon/teaching can address these issues. ?
Chris NUNEZ
4 years 7 months ago
Seems to me that Church teaching is that we each have the right to choose our state of being. And we had lots of men and women of 'marriageable' age choosing to go into convents and monasteries in earlier centuries. Not all men, and not all women are called to marriage. And I must wonder whether our culture and church in past decades pushed both men and women to get married and this social pressure had the effect of putting people into marriages that would not have taken place otherwise. Now, could there be a relationship between pushing a social agenda onto people to 'get married' and the so-called problem of the high divorce rate? I'm just asking. Being single is not a bad thing. Ask Fr. James Martin, SJ how he uses all the energy freed up by virtue of the fact that he's not married. Why should it be less so for those who are not in some religious order? Whose social agenda is being pushed on people?
Anne Chapman
4 years 7 months ago
Chris, you touch on a very important point - essentially for the first time in history, women (in the west and increasingly in Asia) have a choice about how to live their lives. The earliest orders of women religious were very attractive to some women of the era because it gave them a respectable way to refuse an arranged marriage. They were property - first of fathers, then of husbands and essentially they fulfilled a servant role for both. Joining a religious order was an excellent alternative for many. The advantages of religious life continued to appeal to some women all the way to the mid-20th century. One of the women religious I had as college professors told me (after she had left the order in mid-life) that she wanted to teach at the university level, and women had few options for that except in the colleges run by women religious orders. Most other colleges and universities had their faculty lounge doors firmly barred against women, just as rectory doors are now in the Catholic church. She commented that after the 60s and 70s, she no longer 'needed" to be a member of a religious order to get a university teaching job and made the decision to leave the order (as did tens of thousands of other women religious around the same time. And as did tens of thousands of priests, who may also have entered the priesthood due to family and the Catholic cultural pressure found in many ethnic parishes in the 40s and 50s.) This is a one individual case, but the same thing became true for other religious women (who now had higher level education in medicine, social work, education etc) and for non-religious women in the US and Europe after WWII. During the war many went to work while their husbands were in the military. In the 50s, they went "home" again and many realized that they had enjoyed the challenges of the workplace and would like to return. The 60s came and with it upheaval in many parts of the culture. Access to higher education for women opened up in ways not seen in earlier generations, the feminist movement forced the government to pass laws making job discrimination based exclusively on gender illegal (except in the RCC of course) which slowly opened doors to careers that had few women up to that time (today's law and medical school classes are evenly divided now). Women could get good jobs and they could finally earn enough on their own to support themselves and their children if necessary without a husband in the home. No-fault divorce laws freed women from being forced to stay in abusive marriages - not just physical abuse (which was grounds for divorce) but emotional abuse or even just emotionally draining (and depressing) marriages - and now they weren't forced by economic circumstances to stay in soul-killing marriages. The divorce rate skyrocketed in the first decade or so after no-fault divorce. But then it settled down a bit, once the "pent-up" demand was met. Still too high, but not as high as in the 70s and 80s. During the last 50 years, young women have seized educational opportunities available in greater numbers than young men have done, earning not only more Bachelors degrees than men, but also more advanced degrees than men in most fields (some, like physics and some of the tech fields are still dominated by men). Is it surprising that they now might choose to delay marriage until they believe that marriage is a better alternative for their personal, emotional and - yes - spiritual growth than remaining single does? Is this truly "self-centered"? Why? Unless one believes (as did Aquinas) that women's only raison d'etre was to incubate and raise the next generation while "taking care" of the male head of household, one really cannot say that women have no right to choose whether or not to marry and have children. The reduction in social pressure also impacts men and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The data show that divorce rates are highest among those who marry young and with the least education. The divorce rate among those who marry later with more education is much lower than for those who marry young. In the last few years I have seen this play out with my own childrens' generation - they are beginning to marry now, in their late 20s and early 30s. They are marrying after great thought and after attaining some maturity. The young women no longer go to college to get an Mrs. instead of a BS or BA. The men no longer rush into marriage so they can have sex (yes - there may be at least a small silver lining to the sexual revolution also). It's a different world and it remains to be seen what will happen. The biggest danger in all this seems to be the class divide - the women who are having children out of wedlock are disproprortionately members of the demographic that does not have a college education and thus may find raising children on their own more of a financial challenge than it would be otherwise. I firmly believe that people should get married before having children, and those at the higher end of the demographic scale are doing that. Those most at risk are not. That is the problem that must be addressed as that is where much of the dysfunction that contributes to the problems of children of single mothers comes in - those who grow up in poverty or near poverty are at highest risk.
Beth Cioffoletti
4 years 7 months ago
Maybe people will start waiting until old age - say 55 and up - to enter into the state of Holy Matrimony. Having a mate during all that sickness and aging is really a blessing.
Vince Killoran
4 years 7 months ago
Young, middle class people can expect to live into their 90s. Why get married in your early 20s?
Vince Killoran
4 years 7 months ago
Sociologist Michael Kimmel has conducted interviews with hundreds of 20-something young men. They report that they expect to live int their 90s and find no reason to get married in their 20s.
Craig McKee
4 years 7 months ago
"Studies have also shown that the children of married couples whose relationships are marked by chronic conflict fare worse than those in more stable, single-parent or divorced homes." Please send me the name of the philanthropist or organization that FUNDED that research...

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