Why are Middle Americans delaying marriage?
I come at this question as a person who, along with my wife, Amber Lapp, has been interviewing high school-educated and college-educated young adults, ages 19-35, about marriage and forming families in one Ohio town, as part of the Love and Marriage in Middle Americaproject at the Institute for American Values. We talked to over 100 young adults, about two-thirds of whom were Middle Americans. We’re now writing our findings in a book, tentatively titled Love Like Crazy: Looking for Marriage in Middle America.
I’d like to reflect on this question, “Why are Middle Americans delaying marriage?” by reflecting on the story of a 27 year-old young man I met, Ricky.
Economic obstacles are one reason frequently discussed for why Middle Americans are delaying marriage. And we certainly see that with Ricky, who was unemployed when I met him. In the past, he was a manager at Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s. He was a motorcycle mechanic; a farm equipment mechanic. He worked several jobs in construction. Most of these jobs were low-wage jobs.
But there was a time, about a year before I met him, in which Ricky had what he described as a job that he “really liked.” He was working as an internet technical support advisor, starting at $12.50/ hour. Unfortunately, however, he lost it because he had a DUI and a hit and run incident, and served a couple months in jail.
So Ricky’s story points to something the Knot Yet report notes: 46 percent of single men and 41 percent of cohabiting men report frequent drunkenness – which can lead to getting fired from your job, and getting into trouble with the law.
In other words, alcohol abuse, as well as drug abuse, is another obstacle to marriage.
Despite these obstacles, when I met Ricky, he was engaged to be married – for the fourth time in his life. But he had never been married.
From his second engagement, he has one son, who he tries to see as often as he can, but who lives with his mother in another state.
His third engagement began in a bathroom stall at Pizza Hut with a woman who was three months pregnant. That encounter turned into something more, and Ricky was in the delivery room during the birth of her daughter. They set up a nursery at Ricky’s house, and he helped raise the child until she was two years old.
That is one thing you should know about Ricky: he loves kids. “I usually think about kids before anything,” he says. As he talks about past relationships, he finds himself talking about his ex-fiancée’s children, and how much he misses them.
However, his child-centeredness does not affect the way he thinks about marriage. In fact, he talks about how “it’s biased” to say that you should be married if you have kids. Futhermore, he considers having a child to be a wrong reason to get married. Talking about the timing of his engagement to the mother of his son, he says that he specifically waited for a while until after the birth of their son. “It wasn’t right when she got pregnant or anything like that, because I didn’t want to feel like I was obligated to marry her just because she was pregnant,” he says.
In other words, what used to be a reason to get married – starting a family — is no longer a reason. This also helps us to understand why Middle Americans are delaying marriage even as they are having kids.
Ricky met Hailey, who would become his fourth fiancée, online. When I met them, they had a date and a venue (the local Moose Lodge) for their wedding.
They were going to get married even though Ricky says that he doesn’t see a point with marriage. He wonders why “you have to put it in paper” if you love someone and if you know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with them. It’s too much like a contract, he says. As he says, “What good ever comes from contracts really? You end up getting screwed in the long run.”
Ricky has good reasons to be skeptical of marriage. As a child, he watched his dad, a factory surpervisor, in a drunken stupor beat his mom. His parents divorced when he was nine. His mom got remarried then divorced, then remarried.
Furthermore, Ricky doesn’t know anyone within his circle of friends or extended family – except his great-grandparents and grandparents – who have stayed married for a long time.
However, despite his skepticism about the institution of marriage, Ricky was still planning on getting married. Why?
He admits that it “doesn’t really make sense.” But, he says, he does like the “whole thought about what it’s actually about.”
What is the whole thought of marriage?
“It’s being there for the other person and helping them when they’re down, helping them get through tough times, cheering them up when they’re sad. Just pretty much improving each other’s lives together.”
He also thinks marriage is different from living together. In living together, he says, “you could pretty much pull out any time, just up and leave.” But marriage – “it’s more of a bond.”
While it is important to recognize that Ricky appreciates the idea of marriage, it is likewise important to recognize that he is disillusioned about at least some aspects of the institution of marriage. In other words, it is not just that Ricky aspires to marriage and there are obstacles standing in the way. He has a conflicted view of marriage: with few positive marriage models, he’s skeptical — but he likes the idea.
So what happened with Ricky and Hailey’s engagement? A year and a half later, I caught up with Ricky. They had not gotten married. They broke up.
Four engagements later, Ricky has completely given up marriage and lifelong love. He describes marriage as a “letdown.” “I’m not lookin’ to fall in love,” he says, “I feel like it’s for suckers.” He says he is not looking for anything more than a companion with whom he can have sex when he wants.
How is this tough, tattooed working class guy dealing with all this? He writes about his pain in poems that he posts on Facebook.
“With those I’ve trusted I’m disgusted/It feels like my heart is broke and rusted/…Why does my heart always have to get broke/Is love some kind of joke.”
Why is Ricky delaying marriage?
In addition to the reasons stated above, there is a hidden part of the story about why Middle Americans are delaying marriage – a side of the story that you see when you read his poems. There, you see an emotional drama that is playing out in a human heart; a crisis of trust. Many of his engagements and break-ups ended because of cheating – in fact, Hailey was cheating on him with her daughter’s father. After the break up of his fourth engagement, he can no longer trust anyone. Marriage is a “letdown.”
Now, Ricky never got married – but he might as well have gone through several divorces. His emotional state is the same, and the children in his life have seen a man they began to think of as “daddy” disappear.
That is one of the dangers of the delayed marriage script in non-college-educated Americaas it is playing out. As the Knot Yet report points out, non-college-educated Americans are postponing marriage – but they are doing everything but getting married. In fact, many of the cohabiting couples whom Amber and I interview often refer to themselves as “basically married.” So while the divorce rate is lower overall, in part because people are not getting married as young, there are many invisible divorces. And it is taking a profound emotional toll on the men, women, and children who experience these invisible divorces.
We owe it to these 20-somethings to listen. And we owe it to the next generation of 20-somethings to empower them to write a better script.
But can we really do anything meaningful to help the next generation of 20-somethings to write a better script?
Let me suggest three principles that should guide a discussion of strengthening marriage in poor and working classAmerica.
Realism. We cannot afford to be Pollyanish about the crisis of marriage in non-college-educatedAmerica. The problem is deep and complex, with no one single factor or solution. Even those who aspire to marriage may dismiss the importance of marriage.
But we also should not be needlessly pessimistic. Because for all the divorce and bleak economic prospects that confront young non-college-educated adults, most 20-somethings are not as cynical about marriage as Ricky was when I last talked to him: as the Knot Yet report shows, about 80 percent of young adults still want to get married. Indeed, the real surprise is that, for all the emotional turmoil and poor economic prospects, most non-college-educated young adults still express aspirations for marriage.
Being realistic means acknowledging both young adults’ aspirations for and anxiety about marriage.
Hope. Poverty is a persistent problem inAmerica, despite the billions of dollars that policymakers spend to alleviate it. Yet no responsible public leader inAmerica will say “The problem is too complex – we just have to live with inequality.” Why not demonstrate the same hope when it comes to helping the next generation of non-college-educated young adults to achieve their aspirations for a stable family and good marriage?
Solidarity. At the end of the day, “poor and working class Americans” are not statistics, nor are they pawns in an ideological debate. They are our family, neighbors, co-workers, friends, and parishioners. Empowering the next generation of 20-somethings to write a better script is not about one class of people exporting their bourgeois aspirations onto another class; it is about supporting young adults in their own very human search for love and family and marriage.
How can we look the other way when so many young adults are themselves striving – struggling yes, but still striving – for the same things that most of us eventually want: a loving, lifelong marriage and a thriving family?
Cross posted at KnotYet.org.
This essay is adapted from David Lapp’s comments at the Brookings Institution on March 20, 2013.