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Julie Baumgardner

At the 2019 National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education Summit in Nashville, Dr. Scott Stanley gave an update on the latest marriage and cohabitation research and what people really think about marriage today.

You may have very specific ideas about the significance of marriage, but you may be surprised to learn what others believe.

While you have probably heard that married couples have a 50% chance of eventually divorcing, this statement pertains specifically to Baby Boomers — the most divorcing generation ever in U.S. history. Those marrying today have around a 38% lifetime risk for divorce.

Before you get too excited about the divorce rate decrease, it would be important to know that the marriage rate has also decreased.

According to Stanley, demographers and sociologists wonder whether people are marrying later or if a historic number of younger people just won't marry. Some think marriage will bounce back, while others think people in the younger generation are afraid of or disinterested in marriage.

This is quite perplexing when research, including the U.S. General Social Survey, indicates that around 95% of people say they are "pretty happy" or "very happy" in their marriage. Stanley portends that it's possible that people are happy, but when things go south, they may do so very quickly.

Since the average age of first marriage is currently 30 for men and 28 for women, many who have young adult children or grandchildren are often perplexed by the delay in marriage. Boomers and Gen Xers reflect on their own young adulthood and realize that not only were they married in their early to mid-20s, but they also had children and jobs.


So what's up with the delay?

Stanley likens it to people milling around the airport who aren't all there for the same reason. Some are there seeking "the one" person. They are looking for their plane and tend to think there is one perfect person who will be perfectly attuned to them. Stanley cautions these seekers to examine if they are seeking perfection from someone when they aren't perfect themselves.

Others at the airport might eventually be seeking "the one," but are uninterested in finding them now. They are the determined delayers who say they want to get married, but think that is probably five years away. They don't actually want to find the right person now because they are either enjoying trying out several relationships or are enjoying not being in any relationship at all.

Then there are the wanderers. They aren't looking for a relationship or preventing one either. If they get into a relationship and it works, they could easily end up married.

When a seeker starts dating a determined delayer and doesn't know it, things can get complicated.

"Ambiguity is the flavor of the day," Stanley says. "There is nothing in the whole system today that forces any clarity in the dating relationship. It means there is a lot of room to believe someone is more interested in marriage than they actually are."

According to Stanley, the No. 1 competitor to commitment in a relationship is how good your alternatives are and your awareness of them. People who carry a lot of relationship experience into marriage tend to think, "I hope this works, but if it doesn't, there are other fish in the sea."

"Marriage for many people has moved from being a cornerstone to your life to a capstone," Stanley shares. "Instead of being foundational, it is a major achievement as a status symbol."

Yet, the 2018 American Family Survey indicates that 64% of us believe that marriage makes families and children better off financially. A large majority believes that marriage is needed to create strong families and that society is better off when more people are married. The percentage of people who believe marriage is old-fashioned and outdated hovers in the mid-teens.


What are the important takeaways for us to consider?

First, if there is a benefit in delaying marriage, Stanley believes that perhaps people are self-insuring. However, the downside of that means they are doubling down on individualism versus interdependence.

Second, friends used to be the intermediaries between who their friends married, but the data show that more people are meeting online. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because people can use online systems to look for someone who is a better fit instead of being limited to only the people in their community. We need to figure out ways to help people use these systems wisely.

In other words, Stanley says people need to think about what they are looking for and intentionally surround themselves with more people who share their values.

Finally, a whole lot of people are wrestling with the idea of marriage for various reasons. When the American Family Survey asked what was essential to living a fulfilled life, marriage was the lowest thing on the list. A good living, education and a rewarding job were at the top. Some could surmise that people are thinking if they have those three things, their chances of making marriage work are greater, but no one knows for sure.

In "The Atlantic" piece, "What Do You Lose When You Gain a Spouse?" Mandy Len Catron contends that marriage is socially isolating, marriage is no longer what many want, there is too much emphasis on marriage and commitment is really the main thing, not marriage.

Stanley and others note that research indicates singles are more socially connected than marrieds and they tend to have a broader community. The reality is, when people marry, they do tend to invest their time and energy into their marriage versus externally. However, knowing that marriage could become socially isolating, couples can be intentional about working against that happening.

For those who align with Mandy Len Catron, Stanley offers three questions that are important when seeking to clarify commitment in a relationship outside of marriage.

* Have you both agreed to a lifetime of commitment to each other?

* Have you publicly declared the depth of your commitment to those who matter most in your lives?

* Have you agreed to be faithful to each other for the rest of your lives?

The answers to these questions can help determine the trajectory of the relationship, for better or for worse.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at