Impaired Couples

For Success in Marriage, a Paradigm Shift Is Needed

Career coach Angelina Darrisaw says the most common message she hears from millennials could be summed up as, "I'm not sure what I want." She's talking primarily about young professionals who have not only graduated from college, but have landed good jobs with promising long-term prospects. Yet when they open up, she says, this is what she hears: "Tell me the answer. Tell me what I want or what to do next." If any one word could capture the aura of this demographic, I think it would be bewilderment.

Case in point: social researchers Brian Willoughby and Spencer James set out to explore emerging adults' thoughts and feelings on marriage, as part of Oxford University Press's Emerging Adulthood series. They named their report The Marriage Paradox: Why Emerging Adults Love Marriage Yet Push It Aside. The paradox they refer to is captured in the subtitle. Emerging adults (ages 18-30) say they value and aspire to marriage, yet in their actions they devalue and delay it. "Marriage is important," they say; "it is a goal. Just not right now."

There were other paradoxes that came through as well. There appears to be a stark disconnect regarding religion. While a majority (60 percent) said it was important in their everyday lives, fewer than one in five frequent religious services. And the traits they look for in a dating relationship are often different from those they look for in a potential spouse. For dating, they tend to seek someone fun and sexy, but for marriage, they want someone who shares their outlook, values, and life goals. While those traits don't have to be mutually exclusive, if marriage were as important as they say it is, they might take a longer view and date accordingly. This disconnect jibes with the findings of other studies that have documented different preferences regarding sexual histories. For dating, respondents preferred partners with more sexual experience, but for marrying, they prefer someone, well, more virginal. (Marriage-minded millennials would do well to reflect on that one long and hard.)

The Wrong Holy Grail

In general, young adults ranked marriage as important, not only to them personally, but also overall. But they struggled to give much of a reason why, beyond—maybe—the well-being of children. "I don't know if it ever was a needed institution," a respondent named Lindsay said. "I don't know when marriage started. But since it is one . . . we kind of have to just accept that it is."

A composite picture emerges as you read through the data, which sheds light on this phenomenon of marriage bewilderment. Here are three elements of that picture:

• A secularized picture of marriage. Note that Lindsay had no idea about the history of marriage, that it traces back to the very root of Judeo-Christian religion and is an institution with deep theological import. The Bible opens and closes with a marriage. God himself performed the first one, and you could say he serves multiple roles in the latter. There's a reason weddings have traditionally taken place in church and why vows have been made "before God and these witnesses." Marriage belongs to the sacred; it was God's idea in the first place. But the significance of this is largely lost on secularized America. Now it's just something people do for their own reasons.

• An individualized approach to marriage. Really, their own reasons. As the young adults talked about their hopes for and expectations of marriage, their desires primarily centered on personal benefits—basically, how marriage would make their lives better. They want someone to share life with, a relationship that will bring stability and provide a respite from the vicissitudes of the world. Marriage can lead to those benefits, but in too many cases, singles seem merely to be looking for a suitable companion to fit in with their individualized life plan.

"For many modern emerging adults, finding a romantic partner and eventual spouse is about finding someone who will cause the least disruption in their daily lives," Willoughby and Spencer write. "They not only hope to find a partner to whom they are physically attracted and who has similar values but also seek a partner who will allow them to maintain their own goals, hobbies, and interests." Not only are these expectations unrealistically high, but taken together with the long and equally self-oriented list of qualifications young adults seek in a partner, they comprise a me-centered approach that is antithetical to the very nature of love.

• The wrong definition of love. For all but the most cynical of respondents, marriage is about love. This is well and good, too, except that many of them appear to have a cripplingly shallow understanding of what love is. Decades of media-stylized sentiment—from Disney princess stories to formulaic romantic comedies to the dramatic 2001 Moulin Rouge, in which the central character, Christian, declares, "Love is like oxygen, love is a many-splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong! All you need is love!"—have substituted the flowery, butterflies-in-your stomach feelings of being swept away for the deeper, life-giving, marriage-sustaining meaning of love as a volitional disposition that guides one's actions, regardless of feelings.

Love can be a many-splendored thing, but at some point, "love conquers all," combined with "marriage is the highest love," turns marriage into a magical, mystical unicorn of a relationship that can never meet the demands people place on it. Marriage is the wrong holy grail.

Exchanging the Paradox

For the most part, the young adults surveyed didn't seem to recognize their own cognitive disconnects, but that's not totally their fault. So many of them have grown up in painful homes with running undercurrents of instability. They're hesitant to trust, in many cases for good reason, and their fear of divorce is palpable. Given this background, we should commend them for still aspiring to lifelong love. Moreover, we should help them move toward their goal when we can, because a good marriage can foster the benefits they crave when they have the right picture and expectations of marriage.

Last fall, Andy Stanley of Atlanta's North Point Community Church preached a series called "What Happy Couples Know." Each point he made was a stark counter to the secular, individualized approach.

First, he said, happy couples know that they owe everything and are owed nothing. Yes, this, too, is a paradox, but it is the foundational paradox of Christianity. We owe God everything, yet God in Christ condescended to the point of death for our well-being. Now we owe him everything, yet he releases us from all obligation.

Second, happy couples know that marriage is a race to the back of the line. As Stanley whimsically put it, it's a submission competition. In other words, happy couples renounce all me-first thinking. All of it.

Third, happy couples know that "sometimes you have to throw things." But don't pick up that lamp just yet. What he means is that, to become part of a happy couple, you will have to learn to take your disappointments and difficult emotions to God first. Forget polite prayers. Cast your hurts and anxieties on God in prayer before (if not in lieu of) taking them up with your spouse.

To the non-Christian reader, this may sound like replacing one set of paradoxes with another. And, truth be told, it is. But for marriage-minded adults looking to chart a way out of the wilderness, it will be a beneficial swap. A majority of the young adults said they expected to find fulfillment in marriage, but fewer than one in ten expect to find fulfillment from religion or God. They've got it backwards. For the best start in marriage, we must consult the Maker. And he's the better bet for getting all those other needs met, too.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #44, Spring 2018 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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