- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

One of my favorite research groups, Mathematica Policy Research Inc., has released a comprehensive review of where American teens and young adults stand on dating, cohabiting and marriage.

My fascination with reports like this is simple. Families are the bedrock of a nation. The way a nation’s young people handle their family matters shapes the nation for decades to come.

The purpose of this study, was to get “a good sense” of teens’ views and experiences with romantic relationships, said project director Robert G. Wood.

The federal government is funding programs to promote healthy relationships among adolescents, so it’s good to know what teens are thinking, Mr. Wood said. Also, “there are all these big changes in patterns of marriage,” he said, and teenagers are the natural harbingers for family trends.

The major findings of Mathematica’s new report, “Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations and Relationship Patterns,” are familiar.

Teens are dating less and postponing sexual intercourse until late in high school (or after graduation).

Most high school seniors have favorable views toward cohabiting (64 percent approval in 2006), and 39 percent of young people aged 21 to 24 have actually cohabited.

In contrast, marriage is rare for young adults only 18 percent of the 21 to 24 age group have married.

These are the highlights, but I’m sure they don’t quite answer the pressing question that many middle-aged mothers (and fathers) have, which is “When will I become a grandparent?”

What does the data say about when beautiful, educated daughters finally get engaged? When do good-hearted, employed twentysomething sons find a wife?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. First some good news: 91 percent of high school seniors believe having “a good marriage and family life” is extremely or quite important in life. More than 80 percent say they expect to marry.

Moreover, American youth overwhelmingly want their marriages to be life-long. When the 12th-graders who said they expect to marry were asked if they “expect to stay married to the same person for life,” 90 percent said yes.

This reflects a strong ideal and strong expectations for marriage, Mr. Wood said.

Now some caveats.

Young people are generally open to living with a romantic partner, but not walking down the aisle with one. In fact, almost half (47 percent) of high school seniors see themselves waiting at least five years to marry. That’s about age 23.

I personally think this “delay” stems from a lease-to-own mentality, i.e., “try it, you might like it. If it doesn’t work, no big whoop.”

Sadly, research suggests that if a cohabiting couple’s romantic “lease” doesn’t convert fairly quickly (say, in a year) to a wedding date, someone is going to break the lease.

Another factor in the when-will-they-marry conversation is “family structure.”

“The family is the first environment in which youth experience adult relationships,” the Mathematica study says. “Family composition and adult behaviors … have long-lasting consequences for youth.”

Family structure isn’t predestination, but research finds that young adults are likely to emulate what they saw growing up. If their parents divorced, they are more likely to divorce.

Since 50 percent of the Mathematica study’s youth grew up with their own married parents, we can expect to see more of the same kind of these marriages.

But if this study has a core message, it’s that there are myriad good reasons for parents to fight hard to improve and protect their marriages and create stable, happy homes for their children.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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