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To Most Young Adults, Marriage Is Something You Earn

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New study shows how young adults are approaching marriage...with excruciating care.

Marriage-- young people today are delaying it for longer than ever before, leaving many to worry that marriage is on the skids. But rather than abandoning marriage, the majority of young people just want to approach it slowly and get it right, according to a new study.

For many young adults, finding love and companionship is secondary to getting marriage right, according to Maria Kefalas and coauthors. (Maria and I are embarking on a new project together on how the recession is affecting this generation.)

And getting marriage right means first and foremost being “ready” to get married— that moment when young adults finally feel mature enough, when the major milestones in early adulthood are behind them, and above all, when they are “ready” for a commitment. (As YourTango columns can attest, this marriage mentality seems to occur at a different pace for men and women).

One can grow as an individual, work through all the bumps and hurdles of early adulthood with or without a partner, but it is not until that marriage mentality kicks in that young adults are ready to tie the knot.

In their article “Marriage Is More than Being Together”, in the most recent issue of Journal of Family Issues, Kefalas and her coauthors get inside the heads of young adults and their views on marriage. Drawing on 422 in-depth interviews with a diverse set of young adults from rural and urban America, they group young people into two categories: marriage planners and marriage naturalists.

Marriage planners, the authors find, have the “distinct notion that relationships must develop over time, be tested, and ultimately move to the ‘absolute commitment’ a wedding represents.” They as individuals must be, above all, ready. A first step in getting ready is getting their house in order. Planners–about 80% of those interviewed– are first gaining an education, getting settled in a career, and sowing some wild oats. Once these goals are accomplished, then they’ll turn to marriage–if they feel ready. But until then, the authors argue, marriage is often the last thing on their minds.

The fast pace of life, the high cost of housing, the demands on completing one’s education, the challenges of the labor market, and a social context that makes it relatively easy for young people to enjoy the benefits of marriage without its obligations, make young people in metropolitan areas more cautious concerning the transition to marriage.

Planners often live together first as a test-drive for marriage. And they want to be sure that their partner is “the one.” And, as the authors say, “marriage planners understand commitment as an ongoing effort in which romantic partners come to think of one another as us, rather than simply you and me.”

Rather than just falling into a marriage, for planners, marriage is “something you earn,” said one father of two who was in college, working full-time and raising two children with his girlfriend. As individuals, they must be ready, and as a couple, the pair must be well matched.

Interestingly, the authors find that marriage planners stretch across all racial-ethnic, socioeconomic, and education levels. As they say, “Despite their starkly different backgrounds, marriage planners are united in the fact that getting married requires acquiring the marriage mentality, achieving economic stability and emotional maturity, and having a thoroughly tested relationship.”

In direct contrast to planners are marriage naturalists. Most often living in small-town America, this group sees marriage in more pragmatic terms. It is a decision much less fraught.

"Marriage naturalists, the authors write, "account for 18% of our sample and, at first glance, they seem like they are the young Americans of the 1950s and 1960s in terms of their general pathways to adulthood and their specific views on marriage and family formation. For marriage naturalists, the transition to adulthood happens earlier in the life course, and, for the most part, they achieve the markers of adulthood in sequence."

The majority of the naturalists were from small-town America.  What is important, the authors note, is not the age at which they marry, but how they view it— “as an inevitable outcome of a romantic relationship.”

In contrast to marriage planners, who put the relationship through its paces, marriage naturalists are matter-of-fact about it: why wait? As one 22-year-old man from small-town Iowa put it: “You know. He had a job, I had a job. We both felt, you know, stable with stuff…we felt there’s really, I mean there’s no reason really to wait.”

For this group of traditionalists, marriage is not something to endlessly analyze, strategize about, or fret over. It is also how these young adults show people “they are growing up and . . . they’re not kids anymore,” according to one 26-year-old. And unlike many other young adults, this group tends to marry first rather than striving to get all one’s ducks in a row and only then marrying.

Ultimately, say the authors, the most striking difference between the two groups is that “whereas the naturalists see marriage as a prerequisite for being an adult, planners want to establish themselves as adults before they wed.”

In the end, the authors point out, regardless of their approach to marriage, most young adults they interviewed still intend to marry one day. That’s heartening news for those who lament the decline of marriage. Yet, young adults on the whole are taking much longer to wed. Fifty-six percent of those between ages 25 and 34 were unmarried in 2009, the highest share since records have been kept.

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