Nonmarital births have been common among Americans without a high school diploma for at least thirty years: as the 2010 State of Our Unions reports, in 1982 33 percent of births to women without a high school diploma occurred outside of marriage, compared to 13 percent of births to high-school educated women. But in the past thirty years, nonmarital births to high-school educated women surged: in the late 2000s’, 44 percent of births to high-school educated women occurred outside of marriage. (By comparison, only 6 percent of births to college-educated women were outside of marriage.) It is the behavioral changes of this “moderately educated middle”—the 58 percent of high-school educated Americans—that put the “normal” into “the new normal” that the Times describes.
Furthermore, the “new normal” is not driven primarily by an increase in single mothers, but in the number of cohabiting couples: in 1988, 39 percent of high-school educated Americans had cohabited; in the late 2000’s, 68 percent. According to Child Trends, 52 percent of all nonmarital births took place within a cohabiting relationship. Almost two-thirds (61 percent) of nonmarital births to white women took place in cohabiting unions.
These trends raise important questions. How do working-class young adults think about marriage today? Do they still revere it even while they choose to delay it, or are they jettisoning marriage altogether? If they do revere it, why the increase in cohabiting unions with children?
These are among the questions we have been exploring in more than one hundred interviews with mostly white working-class young adults in southwestern Ohio. Our findings are both sobering and hopeful to friends of marriage.
Hopeful, because in spite of the “new normal,” most of the young adults who spoke to us do aspire to marriage, or at least to what marriage stands for in their minds—mainly love, fidelity, permanence, and happiness. This is consistent with national statistics that find that 76 percent of high-school educated young adults say that marriage is “very important” or “one of the most important things” to them.
But sobering, because even as working class young adults dream of love, commitment, permanence, and family, they inherit a cultural story about love and marriage that frustrates those longings. And while there are other factors—both economic and social—this inadequate philosophy of love and marriage helps to account for the “new normal.”
Let us explain.
First, let’s take a look at how working-class young Americans think about marriage.
Meet Ricky, 27, an unmarried father who has been in “about eighteen” relationships and is in his fourth engagement (though never married). Although he has a wedding date set, he questions the point of marriage: “You’re willing to be with that person and you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with that person, so why sign a contract?”
But Ricky does like “the whole thought of what it’s actually about.” What is the “whole thought” of marriage? “It’s, like, 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,” Ricky says, “You know, just pretty much improving each other’s lives together.” In other words, marriage is about mutual help and companionship.
Ricky also sees marriage as permanent. “When I go into marriage divorce isn’t even on my mind,” he says. “It’s like not even an option.” He looks at his mom’s three divorces and the divorces of his aunts, uncles, and cousins, and asks, “Why’d y’all get married? When I put in what I’m doing I give over one hundred percent. You know, I do what I’m supposed to do, I put pride behind it.”
And like everyone with whom we talked, Ricky believes that marriage is about commitment. Cheating is inexcusable.
In short, while Ricky would be fine with an informal, common-law marriage arrangement, he definitely aspires to at least some of the ideals of marriage—namely, mutual help, fidelity, and permanence.
Missing in Ricky’s discussion of the meaning of marriage is any connection to children. In fact, he specifically mentions that children and marriage are unrelated. “It’s kind of biased if you say you have to be married because you have a kid, you know. ‘Cause I mean, that’s not the point. I mean, that doesn’t matter.” He goes on to say, “Of course a child needs a father figure and of course a child needs a mother figure.” But that “really has nothing to do with the marriage.”
Further, we found that young adults’ belief in marriage as commitment and permanence comes with an asterisk: so long as both spouses are happy and love each other.
For instance, Brandon, 27, who ended his engagement when his fiancée cheated on him, lauds marriage vows as a “beautiful thing” in which two people say, “Hey, I wanna be with you and nobody else.” He laments that those vows aren’t “necessarily taken so serious as maybe what it used to be.” However, he adds, “But … if you’re married and if you don’t feel like it’s working out—you know, if you guys don’t wanna work it out, I don’t really see a problem with getting a divorce. ‘Cause, it’s just like why live your life in misery?”
Or as another cohabiting young man put it, “I think that the people that get divorced and married and divorced and married are stupid, honestly. But I mean, if you’re unhappy, you got to make yourself happy.”
For as much as young adults express hopes of permanence and commitment, those ideals crumble against the specter of unhappiness. What should the unhappily married person do? A common response went something like this: “It probably means that you married the wrong person and were never in love in the first place. You might have married for the wrong reasons—maybe because the person had money, or just because you got the girl pregnant.” As one roofer put it, “Maybe they was never in love at all!”
What is this enduring love that promises perpetual happiness and for which young adults are searching? Brandon’s response was a common one: “Love is a feeling that you just get when you just know, man. I don’t think there’s a word for it. Like, if you like look into that person’s eyes and it’s, like, you just feel it. Maybe just by the kiss, or by the look, or by the touch.”
Or as one woman defined love: “You know when your body lights up when you get that first kiss from a guy and your whole body is like in overload?….When you are still with that person ten years from now, and you still feel the same way.”
Many of the young adults we interviewed emphasized love’s subjective aspects—such as powerful emotions and “the spark”—as love’s essence. While they recognize the objective aspects of love—such as genuine care for the other person, faithfulness, and friendship—they tend to see the subjective aspects as the authentic indicator of marital love.
Discerning whether the “spark” will endure is of the utmost importance, particularly if one is determined to avoid divorce. Maggie, a twenty-year-old whose parents divorced when she was 13, wants to “set up the life of the non-divorced … for my kids and the future. That’s my plan, really, just normal, try to be normal.” Given this goal, Maggie worries about finding the “right person” with whom she will always be happy.
John, 21, whose parents divorced in his early childhood and is now in a cohabiting relationship, struggles with the same uncertainty. When asked how one knows that he has found the right person, he stresses that you have to “know absolutely for certain, with 100 percent of your being” and that the person has to be “somebody who makes you happy.” But evaluating whether or not the person will always make you happy is tricky and time consuming—especially if one believes, as John does, that happiness is essentially outside of one’s control.
The takeaway for most of the young adults we interviewed is that the surest way to test if you’ve found the “right person” is to live together, perhaps for years,before you marry. That’s a view shared nationwide by a majority of young adults, according to a 2001 State of Our Unions nationally representative survey of twenty-somethings: 62 percent of young adults agreed that “living together before marriage is a good way to avoid an eventual divorce.”
Meanwhile, as the search for the right person continues, sex and children happen. While most working class young adults with whom we talked separate children from marriage, they do not necessarily separate sex from children. One twenty-year-old woman told us, “You know that when you’re going to have sex, there could be a consequence. Like, that’s the whole point of sex, is to reproduce.” Many working class young adults are open to children—“if it happens, it happens,” was a phrase we heard over and over.
And when it does happen, children are welcomed. In the words of one young cohabiting woman, having kids is “the biggest point in life. More than falling in love, more than your house, more than your money, more than anything is keeping your family alive. Keeping the world going. Like, that’s what you’re put on this earth to do.”
Which brings us back to the “new normal”: working-class young adults’ reductive understanding of marriage as ultimately about individual happiness—an understanding that includes no essential connection to children—begets an undefined period of trying to find the “right person,” and in many cases, those quasi-experimental relationships beget children. Ironically, the “new normal” may be as much about working-class young adults’ aspirations to marriage—or at least a version of marriage—as it is about a rejection of marriage. For it is not out of disdain for marriage that working-class young adults delay marriage and begin families, but out of reverence for it as something that ought not be broken.
Given the way working-class young adults’ views of love and marriage seem to influence the “new normal,” how can we restore a more comprehensive understanding of marriage as an institution that exists to promote and protect both the lifelong love and the stability for children that working class young adults so desire?
There are no easy answers, but we do have some thoughts about rhetoric. For one, telling young adults to “get married” will not do much good so long as the understanding of marriage is flawed. While many are fighting against the redefinition of marriage, another decisive redefinition has already occurred: marriage as merely individual happiness.
It is not enough to promise health, wealth, and happiness—benefits the social science evidence shows that married couples on average enjoy—to young couples considering marriage. While the social science evidence about the personal benefits of marriage has a place in public debates about marriage, when offered as the primary incentive to marry, it only encourages the narrow notion of marriage as personal fulfillment.
Instead, we should underscore that marriage exists to safeguard what working-class young adults hold dear: love and family. We should also underscore that, whether in the ordinary or extraordinary forms, heroism—and along with it sacrifice and fierce commitment—is needed for marital love to be sturdy enough to become a touchstone for their children and their children’s children.
In other words, along with G. K. Chesterton we should propose that “It is the nature of love to bind itself,” and that marriage merely pays “the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.” We should “respect him as the old Church respected him” —namely, to “write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment.”
Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of this kind of morally muscular message among working-class young adults should consider how so many young adults of the same population join the military and are willing to sacrifice their lives for the country they love. The challenge is to show working-class young adults that marriage is also an invitation to such sacrifice: to devote themselves to their beloved and to their children, and to lay down their lives for their family.
David and Amber Lapp, researchers at the Institute for American Values, are the co-investigators of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, a qualitative inquiry into how working class young adults in one small Ohio town form families. They blog at FamilyScholars.org. This article has been republished from Public Discourse.