How Delayed Marriage (but not sex) Came to be the New Norm

Cultural Critics Call For Widespread Cultural Adjustment

Marriage is on the decline, and those who do plan to get married are now routinely putting it off until their 30’s, sometimes 40’s.

But putting off marriage is not the same as putting off sex. This was impressed upon me when I was talking to a Syrian refugee, a teenager named Abdul, who had just graduated from high school. He had immigrated to the United States with his parents four years earlier. When I asked Abdul what he thought of America, he answered, “These American women are amazing – they’ll just give you anything you ask. After our school's homecoming, there were four or five who wanted to go back with me and have sex.” Then with no hint of embarrassment, he declared, “I’m really enjoying my time in America.”

Intrigued, I asked Abdul if he ever planned to get married. He replied, “After I’ve finished enjoying myself with the American girls, maybe in about ten years, then I’ll send back to Syria for a virgin. Then I’ll settle down and have a family.”

Though Abdul’s view of the world (and women) is colored by the assumptions of Islamic culture, his basic approach has become the default modus operandi of Generation Z. Delay marriage, but not sex. For those who don’t share Abdul’s sex appeal, an endless array of porn and sexual technologies offer promising, if ultimately empty, substitutes.

Societal pressures have contributed to normalizing the delay in marrying, especially for those who want to enter professional life. Gone are the days when a college degree was an automatic ticket to the middle class; now it often takes a young person a decade or more to achieve the competitive edge for a successful professional career. This eats up the years of early adulthood that would normally be devoted to raising a young family.

Christian culture has their own version of this. We don’t’ tell people to delay marriage so they have time to play around, nor do we encourage them to make an idol out of their career. Instead we have more pious-sounding ways of urging delay. “Make sure you don’t get married until you are completely ready.” “Do you really feel mature enough to have a family?” “Don’t you know how many marriages end in divorce because one person wasn’t ready?”  But what if waiting until you are mature is actually perpetuating immaturity?

Randall Smith, a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, believes insight on this question can be gleaned from looking at the practice of wise cultures from the past. In an article last November for “The Catholic Thing,” Dr. Smith made the following observation:

The biological reality is that young men and women become capable of reproducing the species at roughly thirteen or fourteen years of age for young women, and several years later for young men. And they are often fitted out with all the hormones to cause them to want to do just that. Thus, wise cultures keep children child-like and innocent up to the age of twelve or thirteen, and at that point, they make them undergo some ritual of adulthood (bar mitzvah, for example) after which they spend all their time with adults preparing for adulthood. Because wise cultures understand that once young people are biologically adult, you must in fairly short order make them socially ready for adulthood or suffer the consequences.

What are these consequences? Dr. Smith continues:

In modern developed countries, we suffer the consequences.  Because we take entry into a social class as seriously as did the Victorians, and because access to the upper classes is taken to be through education (or at least time spent at a prestigious educational institution), we make young people wait.  It was hard enough in the mid-twentieth century to get them to wait until they were finished with high school. But now we insist they wait until they are finished with college (which merely extends adolescence), then graduate school, then residency or first job.  Get your career first, then family. . .maybe.

The problem is, no one really expects young people to wait – not for sex, at least.  For marriage, absolutely. One must find just the “right” spouse, one’s “soul mate” who will help foster all one’s self-creating potential.  But wait, years and years, for sex – until thirty?  For some, perhaps most, it’s simply unimaginable.  And here’s the thing: perhaps they’re on to something.  Perhaps only a foolish culture would expect young humans to have all the potential and all the hormonal energy, and then not actualize it.

A similar point was made by another cultural critic, Frederica Mathewes-Green, in a 2002 article for The National Review, provocatively titled, “Let’s Have More Teen Pregnancy.” The cultural pressure to delay marriage (fortified by the pseudo-morality that has made a bugbear out of “teen pregnancy”), Mathewes-Green argued, has simply resulted in making indefinitely delayed sex unattainable for many.

“As we know too well, a social pattern of delayed marriage doesn’t mean delayed sex. In 1950, there were 14 births per thousand unmarried women; in 1998, the rate had leapt to 44. Even that astounding increase doesn’t tell the whole story. In 1950 the numbers of births generally corresponded to the numbers of pregnancies, but by 1998 we must add in many more unwed pregnancies that didn’t come to birth, but ended in abortion, as roughly one in four of all pregnancies do. My home city of Baltimore wins the blue ribbon for out-of-wedlock childbearing: in 2001, 77 percent of all births were to unwed mothers.

There are a number of interlocking reasons for this rise in unwed childbearing, but one factor must surely be that when the requirements presumed necessary for marriage rise too high, some people simply parachute out. It’s one thing to ask fidgety kids to abstain until they finish high school at 18. When the expectation instead is to wait until 25 or 27, many will decline to wait at all.

For the solution, we toggle back to Randall Smith’s article. We need a widespread cultural adjustment in how we think about family:

What is needed?  May I suggest a cultural adjustment, one that emphasizes the importance of the domestic life of the family to human flourishing as much as we now emphasize a person’s career; one that once again understands “dating” as “courtship” on the way to marriage and not “test driving” different models to find one that fits; and one that understands that the modern creation of “adolescence,” a period in which young people have all the freedoms of adulthood and none of the responsibilities, has been a disaster.

When young people become biologically capable of reproducing the species, you either make them socially adult and capable of actualizing their potential or you suffer the dire consequences.

I think Smith is onto something. When marriage is no longer on an adolescent’s radar, they start looking for sexual partners based on “exciting” qualities, not marriageable qualities. It isn’t until a person is ready to finally settle down that they start thinking about the sort of partner suited for them. But by then it’s often too late: the person has already been around the block so many times that their tastes, expectations, and assumptions have already been formed without any reference to marriage.

Further Reading

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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