Marriage Is Delayed by Doubt, Not Money, among Less Educated Young Adults

by Amber Lapp

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For young adults, wondering, Is he/she “the one?” is an often overlooked reason for delaying marriage.

As I read through the Knot Yet report, my thoughts went to the more than 100 interviews that my husband and I conducted with young adults (ages 19-35) for The Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into high school educated young adults’ views on love, children, and marriage.

As I looked at the charts and graphs, I could see the faces, the tattooed bodies, the tattered jeans, the community college hoodies of the young adults I have come to know through our research over the past two years in our small town in southwestern Ohio. The trends and analysis presented in Knot Yet resonated with my experiences here.

Based on these experiences, there is something I would like to add to the section, “Marriage Delayed: The Why.”

Knot Yet outlines a substantial list of reasons for why young adults are delaying marriage, including poor economic prospects, the increasing necessity of a college degree and the time that takes, women’s desire to establish a career and be financially independent in case of divorce, the emerging adulthood script, the soulmate ideal, and changing beliefs about marriage (marriage is now a “capstone,” not a “cornerstone”).

The story of Stephanie, a 25-year-old cohabiting mother who became a good friend of mine after I interviewed her for our project, suggests that there is at least one other major reason that (Middle American) young adults are delaying marriage. In a world of divorce and eroding social trust, they are struggling to overcome doubts about whether or not they have found the right person to marry.

Stephanie has been proposed to five times in her quarter of a century of life. She said “yes” twice. But she has yet to be married. She now lives with her boyfriend of three years, their toddler daughter, and her 6-year-old son from a previous quasi-relationship.

So why did Stephanie not tie the knot?

“I ended up running away,” she chuckles, before pausing pensively to think about the question. “I don’t know. I seem to [run away from relationships once they get serious] a lot. Especially if I get into a position where I’m really unsure…. It makes me think about, ‘Is this really how I want the rest of my life to be?’”

For Stephanie and other young adults like her, this question can be paralyzing, especially because they see their ability to answer it affirmatively as being essential to their future happiness. The exchange below, between 21-year-old John, his girlfriend, and my husband, illustrates this point.

QUESTION:  How do you think you’ll know that this is the person?

JOHN:  I don’t know, you just feel it and know it in your heart and not have any doubts whatsoever.

GIRLFRIEND:  Yeah, if there’s a doubt, then there’s something wrong.

JOHN:  Right.

GIRLFRIEND:  Doubting isn’t good when you’re talking about forever, [Laughs] you know.

JOHN:  Just know absolutely for certain, with 100 percent of your being.

QUESTION:  And what makes it the right person?

JOHN:  I have no idea! Somebody who just makes you happy.

As my husband and I pointed out in this essay at Public Discourse “evaluating whether or not the person will always make you happy is tricky and time consuming—especially if one believes, as John does, that happiness is essentially outside of one’s control.” And so Middle Americans like Stephanie and John agonize over the question of whether or not they should marry this particular person—whether or not this particular person has what it takes to deliver lifelong happiness.

Answering this question in a way that satisfies their own hearts and minds takes time. For one 29-year-old newlywed I interviewed (whose own mother had been divorced four times) it took a 10-year engagement, three children, and the purchase of a house. Talk about marriage being a capstone, not a cornerstone.

Worries about divorce are part of what makes this question about the right person so crucial for young Middle Americans. Stephanie explains, “I only want to be married once. I don’t want to get married then divorced, remarried then divorced, like my whole family has been. My grandma just got married again, for the fourth time—before me!”

This determination to avoid divorce stems from the fact that she’s seen it so often. Stephanie tells me that my husband and I are one of the only still-married couples she knows—and the only one that seems happy. And Stephanie’s world is not atypical for Middle Americans: according to the 2010 issue of The State of Our Unions, 43% of high-school-educated Americans say that marriage has not worked out for most people they know, compared to just 17% of college educated who say the same. In this context, it is easy to see why Stephanie and other Middle Americans are delaying marriage as they wait for the moment when their confidence will overshadow their doubts about marriage and finding the right person.

For Stephanie, overcoming those doubts is the key issue. One day while we were driving to take her son to his aunt’s house for the weekend so he could spend time with his dad, Stephanie summed up why she thinks her peers are downplaying and delaying marriage. It’s “either a problem with commitment, or they’re not sure that that’s the right person for them,” she said.

I pressed her on other factors, like the desire for financial stability.

“Yeah, I’ve heard people say that,” Stephanie said. “I just think it’s an excuse.”

Her boyfriend has made comments along those lines, but Stephanie has a hunch that there is something more going on in addition to any financial concerns. He cheated on Stephanie several times during her pregnancy with their daughter, and he’s admitted to her that he doesn’t know whether or not he is still in love with his ex-girlfriend. As he expressed in an interview with my husband, he, too, is struggling to gather certainty before “rushing” into marriage.

It’s not that economics is irrelevant. It’s just that for many people financial reasons are not seen as the ultimate reason for delaying marriage, but are more often framed in terms of finding the right person (Can he keep a job? Is she good with managing money?) and avoiding divorce (If we are financially stable, we will be less likely to argue, and therefore less likely to divorce).

And so if finding the right person really is the ultimate quest and question, in the meantime, as young Middle Americans like Stephanie and her boyfriend and John and his girlfriend struggle to “know absolutely for certain, with 100 percent of [their] being” that they’ve ended the quest and settled the question, marriage is delayed.

Amber is the co-investigator of  the Love and Marriage in Middle America project at the Institute for American Values. She blogs at FamilyScholars.org.