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.
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.