In “Promises I Can Keep,” Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas find that among the poor single mothers they interviewed, “Nearly everyone has a morality tale to tell of two fools who rushed into marriage only to divorce.”
And, “The harshest condemnation is reserved for those who marry because of pregnancy. Such marriages, they believe, are almost certain to end in divorce, and thus benefit neither the couple nor the child.”
My wife, Amber, and I are finding the same thing in our research with white, high-school-educated young adults in one small Ohio town. The young adults we interviewed are generally very reluctant to give advice to others about relationships. But on this point they are not shy.
For instance, one mother, Erica, says she felt pressure from her grandma to get married to her high school sweetheart when she got pregnant with her second child, only to separate soon after getting married. She now advises people, “Don’t get married because you have a kid with somebody. I have a new thing: if you have a kid with somebody, don’t just keep trying to make the relationship work out…. Because it’s not healthy for the kid, it’s not healthy for anything.”
After hearing this sentiment repeatedly, Amber and I are beginning to wonder: For an unmarried couple, could the news of pregnancy act as a reason not to get married—even if the couple might be otherwise thinking about marriage?
Even if there is still a social expectation among one’s grandparents and great-aunts that an unmarried couple who gets pregnant should “do the right thing” and get married, might there be a social stigma among young adults—among one’s peers—about getting married because of the kids?
From our interviews, we have reasons to think that this may be true.
For instance, Myron, 23 (whom I wrote about previously at FamilyScholars.org), did get married to his high school sweetheart when he found that she was pregnant. Even though he says he had every intention of breaking off their engagement because of what he describes as her “mean” treatment of him, the news that she was pregnant with his child changed his mind.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna marry her, and it’s my kid. That’s awesome. That’s my kid.’” However, a few months into marriage, she admitted that she was cheating on him, and he filed for divorce.
Looking back, he describes his first journey into marriage as “not the right way to do this.” Instead of marrying her because he loved her, he listened to people like his grandpa, who warned him that “you’ve gotta marry her or she’s gonna get you for child support the rest of your life.”
When I interviewed Myron, he was engaged to Christa, who was pregnant with their child. This time around, Myron was explicit that he was not getting married because they were having a child.
“We don’t wanna rush into anything,” he says. “I don’t want Christa to feel like we’re getting married because we’re having a baby.”
He then took pains to note that although he proposed after they found out they were having a baby, “I had already picked out the ring, had already taken her ring shopping. I already planned on getting married.” In fact, he says that his plan was to wait until after the baby was born to propose. But eventually, “I couldn’t hold it no longer.”
But, he is careful to say, “I want to be married to her, but I want her to have her wedding. I want her to have what she wants on her terms, not because of anything else.”
As the “Knot Yet” report points out, “Marriage has shifted from being the cornerstone to the capstone of adult life.” And the capstone model does not think about marriage and children as a package deal. Marriage is primarily about love between two adults. To the extent that it is about children, it’s the “glue” (as one working class woman whom we interviewed described it) that brings all the children from different parents together into one family.
This shift in the meaning of marriage may help to explain why some young adults are putting off marriage even as they are starting a family—traditionally one of the reasons to get married. If there are more stories like that of Myron, it would mean that some young adults may be delaying marriage—at least for a time—precisely because they want to avoid the appearance of getting married “just because” they are having a child.
Of course, the first time Myron got married, he did not delay marriage precisely because he was having a child. And just as his first failed marriage was a morality tale for him about how not to do things, now that we have had at least a couple generations of “shotgun-wedding-then-quick-divorce,” I wonder if we have reached a turning point where young adults coming of age today are adapting to the failed shotgun marriages they have seen and heard about: marriage is not about children; marriage and children are two completely separate things. And the “right” thing to do, they think, is to get married because you love the person—and for that reason only.
Although the dichotomy that many young adults erect in their minds about marriage between children and love is understandable—particularly because of the loveless shotgun marriages they have witnessed—I think it is unfortunate. Because it is true that one of the most important purposes of marriage is to unite a child to his mother and father. However, young adults are not entirely wrong, I think, in their moral intuition that a marriage must come into being for the sake of love. Without love, a marriage is just a prosaic institution, not a personal relationship. And who wants to live in a prosaic institution?
Building a thriving marriage culture that breaks through class lines will mean inviting young adults to appreciate that marriage is both/and: both about love and children. In fact, because marriage is about love, marriage is also about children: as a couple’s love and trust matures, so does their desire to share themselves completely with each other, to the point that they wish to have a mutual share in a new person, and to found a new family.
Now, there’s a good reason to get married!
Cross-posted at KnotYet.org