Wising Up on Marriage

According to the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, there are 104 million unmarried Americans -- nearly half of the adult population. A 2010 Pew Research survey found that 52 percent of millennials say being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life, but just 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage. Interestingly, this corresponds to a drop in the divorce rate: In 2005, there were 16.7 divorces per 1,000 couples compared with 22.8 in 1979.

It turns out that the youngest adults in America, while not abandoning marriage altogether, are certainly committed to transforming it. As a generation already in debt, we're savvy about the pernicious and predatory ways of the wedding industry -- overhyping one big event to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. We've weathered the divorces of family and witnessed friends try marriage on for size and find it ill-fitting (called "the starter marriage" by Pamela Paul). We've had serious, long-term relationships ourselves and lived with significant others, loved them, and lost them (called "a little bit married" by Hannah Seligson). We know how painful it is to disentangle oneself from shared families, shared apartments, and shared dreams for the future -- marriage license or not.

Our nuanced views on matrimony are directly related to our delayed decision to get into it; according to the "Women in America" report recently released by the Obama administration, both men and women are waiting longer to marry. We've learned a lot more about the world, and ourselves, than our parents did when they took the plunge. My mom, for example, was 20 years old when she married my father. She'd never owned property of her own, worked a professional job, or had a major heartbreak. At 31, I've had all of the above and then some. My decision about whom and when to marry, if at all, is based on a much more complicated set of data than my starry-eyed mom's ever was.

Part of our marital sobriety comes from our past experiences and observations. We are looking back at the marriages of our mothers and fathers, the ones we saw play out in our neighborhoods and extended families, with discerning hindsight. According to a study done by Dr. Kathleen Gerson, author of The Unfinished Revolution: How a Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America, while a slight majority of those who lived in a single-parent home wish their biological parents had stayed together, a significant minority believe a parental separation, while not ideal, provided a better option than the alternative. Even more surprising, while most of those who lived with both biological parents agree that this was the best arrangement, about four out of 10 feel their parents might have been better off apart.

You won't see many rose-colored glasses perched on the noses of this generation. Even those of us whose parents have stayed together have watched compromises and struggles alongside love and grace. We know that marriage is one of our society's last expressions of real, ritualized commitment and that it can be the backbone of a beautiful, messy family life, but we also know that it's one of the hardest things in the world to get right, to stay in, to make last.

The point is not that we are abandoning marriage as a potentially viable, if radically reclaimed, institution. It's that, more and more, we are choosing it consciously, aiming to transform it into something more equal and less embittering. As Jill Filipovic writes in the Guardian, "Marriage, more than ever, is something that more people feel the right to opt out of, which means that those of us who do marry (except those who are shamefully barred from marriage because of their sexual orientation) are opting in, and doing so increasingly because we want to, not because of social obligations."

Of course, conservatives see all this shifting as a sign that the world is coming to an end. In Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys, Kay Hymowitz writes, "On the one hand, the well-raised, middle-class young man learns that marriage should be a partnership of equals. He will share the cooking, cleaning, feeding, and driving so that his wife can make partner or meet her book deadline too. But he learns something else as well, something that doesn't square with that first message. He learns he is dispensable and possibly even a drag on family life."

Hymowitz, like many of her ilk, is mistaking cultural imagination for societal disintegration. Just because men are no longer slotted into being traditional breadwinners and women are no longer slotted into being care-taking homemakers does not mean that families are no longer important to young people. In fact, we are just as committed to experiencing the miracle of birth and the power of parenthood as generations past, we're just not going about it along the same restrictive time line. We want parenthood and passion, interdependence and independence -- conscious, constantly evolving partnerships that reflect who we truly are, not who we were told we were supposed to be by wedding planners, priests, or conservative radio hosts.

Liberating ourselves from the traditional strictures of marriage altogether, and/or transforming those strictures to include all of us -- gay, feminist, career-focused, baby crazy, monogamous, non-monogamous, skeptical, romantic, and everyone in between -- is the challenge facing this generation. As we consciously opt out or creatively reimagine marriage one loving couple at a time, we'll be able to shift societal expectations wholesale, freeing younger generations from some of the antiquated assumptions we've faced (that women always want to get married and men always shy away from commitment, that gender parity somehow disempowers men, that turning 30 makes an unmarried woman into an old maid).

In Stephanie Coontz's recent book, A Strange Stirring, in which she examines the effects of Betty Friedan's groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, she writes, "Who knows what possibilities may exist for love, Friedan asked, when men and women 'can finally see each other as they are' and when they can share 'not only children, home, and garden -- but the responsibilities and passions' of creative work?"

Almost 50 years later, we still don't know, but we're committed to finding out.