Still reflecting on my wedding anniversary this week, I was interested to read an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald today, in which American researcher Mark Regnerus implores young people to “take the plunge” because “deferring marriage is un-healthy and unwealthy”.
I do see Regneruses point of view. He reports that his research on young adults’ relationships found that “many women report feeling peer pressure against seriously thinking of marriage until they are at least in their late 20s.” This is certainly the case for many people I know (women and men). When I look around at friends in their late 20s like me, it is only in the last year or two that some of us have started tying the knot; having kids is even rarer. And he hits the nail on the head when he argues that parental pressure to complete our education, to launch our careers and become financially independent before even contemplating marriage is a driving factor behind the increased average marriage age. Most people I know have certainly been given that advice.
But far from the picture that Regnerus paints of young people driven (by their parents or otherwise) to achieve experience, control and power in their lives before ‘settling down’ is another factor. Not once did his article mention the increase in divorce rates (which reached a peak in Australia in 2001) that my generation lived through. As a child of parents who divorced when I was 20 years old, I can testify to the devastating effect that divorce has on the kids’ sense of caution when it comes to signing themselves up to that life-long treaty which has the potential to end in the most bitter and destructive process imaginable. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the increased caution leading up to marriage these days actually accounted for the decrease we are now seeing in divorce rates compared to the last two decades!
When I say that young people have an increased sense of ‘caution‘, however, I don’t just mean that we are worrying ourselves about choosing ‘the right one‘ – although for some who have seen the effects of choosing ‘the wrong one’, this no doubt remains a concern. Even if your parents aren’t divorced, these days the chances are that someone close to you has gone through the experience. Throughout high school I was acutely aware of the effects that divorce had on my closest friends. Everyone had their go – of seeing the counsellor, of acting out a little, of milking teachers for sympathy concessions…and of grieving. My feeling is that our generation is mostly cautious about being able to get their marriage off to ‘the right start‘, as a way of honouring their own marriage and distinguishing their marriage as one built on well-established trust and resilience. We feel we owe that to our future kids.
What Regnerus also fails to mention are the many couples who live in de facto relationships – who consider themselves as ‘married’ in the sense that they are emotionally, financially and even legally joined, permanently, but who for whatever reason haven’t been through the wedding process. Speaking from my own experience, although I do admit feeling a bit ‘different’ since being married, there were many years before the wedding that we considered ourselves married in every way bar officially, and yet the only categories of relationship listed by Regnerus besides ‘married’ were ‘single’ or ‘cohabitors’. A real de facto relationship is about much more than living together, or ‘cohabiting’, and in today’s increasingly secular society it is the real start of a ‘permanent’ relationship – the wedding is more of a celebration of it.
Which leads me to another factor that wasn’t accounted for in Regneruses article: the cost of a wedding, and the effect of the contemporary trend of couples paying for all or part of their own wedding. Maybe it is because our generation is marrying later, which makes them feel a bit silly as independent, wealth earning adults to ask thier parents to foot the bill. It is logical that young people need more time these days to save up for their wedding, especially given the pressure to engage in that other costly endeavour – entering the property market.
I must say I was a bit insulted by the last paragraph of the article, in which Regnerus praised a 23 year old student on her decision to get married, contrasting her to the “many young people [who] mark their days by hitting the clubs, incessantly checking Facebook, and obsessing about their poor job prospects”. This comment is a slap in the face to young people trying to relieve stress and maintain personal relationships to balance the extended education and training needed in this increasingly credentialised society, who now rightly worry about their job security in a declining global economy. It also wrongly (and somewhat disrespectfully) positions marriage as a kind of panacea to the ills of a misspent youth.
People are full of advice when it comes to what young people should do to have a better life. This is understandable; welcome and useful, even. But we do ask that you give us some credit, and don’t try to oversimplify the problems of this generation. It is not that we are so cynical and unromantic that we won’t settle for anything other than a “recipe for success”. I love my husband, and we knew we were meant for each other from a very young age. We took our time getting married because we were in no rush, plain and simple. I think that’s pretty ‘healthy’, really.