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What is romance without marriage in view? Jane Austen would say it is nothing at all, and yet for young adults around the world confronted with another Valentine's Day, marriage is disappearing over the horizon.

The average age of marriage in America is now 28 for women and 30 for men, and an increasing number are not marrying at all. In an article packed with data, a famous demographer and former director of the UN Population Division argues that women are better off single, with a nice dog for company.

In a Pew survey conducted in the middle of last year, young adults were particularly accepting of cohabitation: 55 percent of those aged 18 to 29 agreed that society is just as well off if couples who want to stay together long-term do not get married.

However, the results could have been different if they were asked about their own aspirations – as happens with their elders.

New research by Collette Allred of Bowling Green State University using US Census Bureau figures (2017) shows that at least three-quarters of high school seniors say they expect to marry in the future. Only 5 percent say they do not – and 19 percent say they have “no idea”. These figures have varied only slightly since 1976. The high point for marriage aspirations the last four decades was 81 percent – in 2006, before the global financial crash.

No doubt financial circumstances such as student debt and house prices work against youthful aspirations for marriage. But they are not the whole story.

Millennials and 'the great delay’

My Twitter feed a few days ago led me to @simonsarris, a software developer and philosopher (into beauty and “sacred things”) with over 3000 followers. The New Hampshire Millennial had something to say about delaying marriage that struck a chord with a few people. In a thread about delayed marriage he says:

He continues:

“*If* you get it right! It's like leverage. But I people reason about this part very oddly. Most accept the plusses but then seem to think “Well I shouldn't aim for that any time soon, or at all when I'm young, since if it goes wrong…” So they put it off for a decade plus

“But that's crazy. If you identified something that FOR SURE impacted your future happiness, your ability to set long term goals, your finances, WHY would your response be “gee, better put that on the back-burner for another decade or two at least.”

Sarris links to @webdevMason who says, among other things:

She continues:

“Part of the problem is that people don't know what do with each other. They're not supposed to be “codependent,” whatever that means, and kids are no longer a given; a lot of couples just don't really know their *why,* beyond abating the loneliness”

Deciding, not sliding

It's possible that more young adults are thinking more deeply about love and marriage than the previous generation or two. And they need to. The trend towards “sliding” into rather than “deciding” on a romantic partnership brings risks of unhappiness, breakdown of the relationship, no kids and loss of joint property.

In a lecture at the University of Virginia earlier this week, “Before and After ‘I do’: How to Forge a Strong and Stable Marriage in a Commitment-Phobic World”, family scholar Dr Scott Stanley (DecideOrSlide) gave as clear a description of the current dating and marriage scene as you are likely to find. The following summary is adapted from Dr Brad Wilcox’s Twitter thread on the presentation.

Today is the age of ambiguity in relationships. Confusion is problematic because it inhibits commitments and secure attachments.

Fifty years ago, “steps and stages” in dating were more clearly defined around public commitments. These gave people a better sense of whether they were in or out of a relationship. Today, there are fewer common rituals to publicly signal commitment. 

From economics we know about the problem of asymmetrical information in markets, and this applies to mating markets and processes. We need to address this by re-establishing commitment signals.

Meanwhile, in the time of The Big Delay, we tend to find three types of people:

‘It happens when it happens’
Seekers of The One
Determined delayers

When they meet someone, asymmetries in information make it hard to figure out if the other person is on the same page – a seeker of the one, for example, or a chronic delayer. Yet they may slide into an asymmetrical relationship where the two are not equally committed. Such relationships are common but problematic, bringing:

* Lower relationship quality and more aggression

* Attachment issues: avoidant and anxious

* Lower odds of having mutual plans for marrying

* Greater likelihood of cohabiting

* Persistence: the problems do not abate once married

These risks may help explain why premarital cohabitation is linked to worse marital outcomes:

* Greater odds of divorce, except in first year of marriage

* Low joint commitment

* Constraints increase but not dedication

* Lower relationship quality in marriage results

Most young people still aspire to marriage, but they have no clear path to realising this hope. It seems cruel to woo them with romance on Valentine's Day and then fob them off with rubbish like The Bachelorette and Married at First Sight for the rest of the year – or with clever articles about how (heterosexual) marriage has had its day.

We need to offer them a robust and attractive idea of marriage, and publicly encourage those “steps and stages” towards a commitment that is truly mutual and can withstand the pressures and disappointments of life. 

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she realised that the latter is even more work than teaching Shakespeare to 15-year-olds and the pay is generally less. Being a reluctant geek, she has never quite got over the surprise of finding herself the deputy editor of an online magazine -- a pleasant sensation for the most part. She once wrote a book -- the history of New Zealand’s own anti-porn movement in its heyday -- for which she got mixed reviews and no awards. She lives in the country’s largest city, Auckland, which is three hours by plane from Sydney -- the hub of MercatorNet -- and too far for comfort from anywhere else of importance. Still, it is a very nice vantage point from which to meddle in the affairs of the world.