WETZSTEIN: Why Americans put off marriage

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Marriage is associated with wealth, health, longevity, happiness and sexual satisfaction, plus myriad benefits for children.

Yet the nation’s marriage rate keeps sliding downward — in 2009, there were 36 marriages per 1,000 single women 15 and older, compared with 75 marriages per 1,000 in the early 1970s, according to the “State of Our Unions 2010” report from the National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values.

As pro-marriage supporters prepare for the second annual “National Marriage Week,” Feb. 7-14, I offer a list of reasons for why young Americans are waiting to marry.

These seven reasons come from a fascinating new book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying,” by sociology professor Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas at Austin and postdoctoral fellow Jeremy Uecker of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Young Americans have “scripts” that say they should wait to marry because:

• They can’t afford it. College is expensive, and couples want each other to be completely finished with school, have stable jobs and be “economically set” before marrying, the researchers wrote. Ironically, such rules do not apply to cohabiting.

• The 20s are a time to “be your own person.” Committing to a marriage looks risky when both people expect to “change” as they find their “true selves.” The resulting script says: Do the self-discovery part first, then involve “other people.”

• “It’s too soon to have children.” The lack of logic here is daunting: Marriage doesn’t cause babies, sex does, and more than half of American singles ages 18 to 23 are in sexually active relationships, Mr. Regnerus and Mr. Uecker found. Moreover, staying single doesn’t mean a birth won’t occur; in fact, four in 10 babies are born out of wedlock.

But, skipping over these facts of life, many young people think if they postpone marriage, they postpone children. As one 22-year-old woman said, “If I don’t want kids, I don’t really need to get married right away.”

• It’s time to travel, not settle down. A desire to travel was a common refrain, but it was “seldom accompanied by references to particular places they wished to go,” the researchers said. “It’s just the idea of it that’s appealing. And the assumption that marriage nixes one’s travel possibilities.”

• Parental objections. Laura, age 19 and in love with her boyfriend, told researchers that talking about marriage would be like “staging a family rebellion.” Parents want their young adult children’s “full attention” on school and career, and are willing to cut off rent, tuition and other benefits to make their point. Optimal age of marriage to many parents? Late 20s or early 30s. (No wonder their children are marrying late, averaging age 26 for women and 28 for men.)

• The quest for “sexual chemistry.” There was a time when romantic “chemistry” meant shared interests in hobbies, religion, politics and vision for the future. Those things still exist, but today’s chemistry focuses on “how complementary” a couple is “in the bedroom.”

Again, the idea of postponing marriage until one finds an ideal lover is counterintuitive — “sustained sexual chemistry actually takes time, and requires conversation,” the researchers wrote.

But the thinking among young American adults is that “good sex should emerge rapidly and silently with the commencement of a sexual relationship,” and if sex is awkward, this means the “chemistry just isn’t there.”

So not only should marriage wait until one finds someone who’s “good in bed,” but any potential spouse should be, uh, experienced. And abstinence until marriage? Don’t even think about it, says the script.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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