Late Have I Loved You – On the Delay of Marriage in Our Culture and the Flawed Notions That Underlie It
In football, if the offense takes more than thirty seconds between plays, they are penalized for “delay of game.” The result is lost yardage; they are now farther away from the goal line. The delay thus brings loss; progress toward the goal is hindered; victory becomes less likely, not more. I’m sure the offense would always like a little more time in the huddle in order to ensure that everyone knows exactly what to do. But there comes a moment when they must break out of the huddle and execute the play even if more time would have been ideal.
This also happens in “real life.” Deliberations have their place, but delay can be costly and can actually set us back from our goals. Life keeps moving forward even when we don’t feel prepared or completely certain of the outcome.
Related to this is an old saying, “If something is worth doing well, it’s worth doing poorly.” The point is not that we should plan to do something poorly, but rather that if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing, even if we wish we could have more time to plan/control better. One might have envisioned a nice cookout with steaks on the grill, but due to time constraints and limited funds it ends up being hot dogs and hamburgers. But it was still worth doing, and a nice time was had by all.
With this in mind, I’d like to discuss an increasingly large problem in our culture: the delay of marriage by young people. Many today are in their thirties by the time they marry. There are many reasons for this that are beyond the young adults themselves, but the bottom line is that delayed marriage is not indicative of a healthy culture. Marriage and family are the foundation of a healthy culture, and the lack of this anchor causes many to drift into unhealthy and counterproductive attitudes and behaviors. This “delay of game” brings penalties, both personal and societal, that cause us to “lose yardage” and make victory less likely.
Marrying and raising children within a family is demonstrably better for men and women than remaining single. Those in traditional marriages are on average healthier, happier, more affluent, and mature more quickly. It is also better for the culture when young people get married. Getting married and having children help men and women to become more responsible, more mature, and to make better decisions that are less wasteful and selfish. It helps them to think of others, and to learn to settle down into more stable, frugal, generous lives. All of this is good for culture and society.
A recent article by Dennis Prager in National Review speaks to the flawed thinking that has given rise to the delay of marriage. He does not deny, nor do I, that young adults today face many personal and cultural obstacles. But he also thinks that the obstacles are often overstated, and that it is time for all of us to work more at facilitating earlier marriages by encouraging young adults to be more intent on this goal.
I have presented Prager’s remarks in bold, black italics; my remarks are in plain, red text.
The statement “I’m not ready to get married” … said by more and more Americans between the ages of 21 and 40 (and some who are older than that) … usually qualifies as both meaningless and untrue. … So, here’s a truth that young Americans need to hear: Most people become “ready to get married” when they get married. Throughout history most people got married at a much younger age than people today. They were hardly “ready.” They got married because society and/or their religion expected them to. And then, once married, they tended to rise to the occasion.
Here is the opening salvo: it is always be possible to be more ready to do something. But the trap is that when you can always be more ready, you’re never quite ready enough.
For me, there is nothing like a deadline to help me accomplish a task. But the expectation in our culture today that young people should marry is so weak that few sense any urgency or “deadline” until they are well into their thirties. And it’s usually more the women than the men feel it. The biological starts to loom large for a woman when she hits her mid-thirties, but for a man it doesn’t. Thus there is little to no expectation that binds men and women equally to set about the task of looking for a spouse and getting married.
At one time we thought it was the most natural thing in the world for men and women to want to marry each other; apparently that is no longer the case.
A promiscuous culture has taken away one very central lure of marriage: approved access to sexual intimacy. Further, there is the notion that a marriage is supposed to be a perfect union and that the ideal mate must be found. Add to this the ordinary fear that getting married has always provoked.
I remember as a boy being up on the high diving board at the local pool. Standing up there on my own looking down at the water so far below caused me to freeze up. A few things “unfroze” me: someone coming up the ladder behind me, my friends down below encouraging me, and everyone else expecting me to go ahead and make the dive and chiding me for my delay. I felt unprepared, but off the board I went. I “got ready” by just doing it.
… at least two bad things happen the longer you wait to get “ready” to be married. One is that, if you are a woman, the number of quality single men declines. … as Susan Patton, a Princeton graduate, wrote … “Find a husband on campus before you graduate … You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”
In a big pool there are lots of fish; in a smaller pool, fewer fish.
The other bad thing that happens when people wait until they are “ready” to get married is that they often end up waiting longer and longer. After a certain point, being single becomes the norm and the thought of marrying becomes less, not more, appealing. So over time you can actually become less “ready” to get married.
Yes, we are very invested in the familiar, even if it has hardships. Further, it gets harder to change as we age. Those who are older are less willing and able to adjust to the changes that marriage brings.
And one more thing: If you’re 25 and not ready … [saying] “I’m not ready to get married” means “I’m not ready to stop being preoccupied with myself,” or, to put it as directly as possible, “I’m not ready to grow up.”
You may think Prager unkind here. And perhaps he generalizes a bit too much. But let’s admit that we live in a narcissistic culture, one in which most people take a long time to grow up and some never do.
I would argue that our whole culture is fixated on teenage issues. We are titillated by and immature about sex; we demand rights but refuse responsibility; we rebel against authority; we act like “know-it-alls”; we are forever crying about how unfair things are and how mean some people can be. This is teenage stuff, but our culture seems stuck in this mode.
Having been brought up on a steady diet of this sort, young adults (understandably) are going to have a harder time breaking free of narcissism and immaturity. But recognizing the problems is a first step toward getting better and getting ready.
People didn’t marry in the past only because they fell in love. And people can fall in love and don’t marry—as happens frequently today. People married because it was a primary societal value. People understood that it was better for society and for the vast majority of its members that as many individuals as possible commit to someone and take care of that person.
I would only add here that in the past people married in order to survive. They had children to survive. There was no Social Security and no retirement plans. Your children were your Social Security.
I do not argue for a dismantling of the whole Social Security system or of retirement plans, but I do argue that they have had unintended effects: the government has increasingly taken on a role that families once filled. People used to take care of those in their family, and this respected the principle of subsidiarity. Today, this has responsibility has been shifted to an impersonal government body. The “welfare system” (personal and corporate) has created an unhealthy dependence on government. This has the dual effect of reducing the perceived need for family ties and interfering with them when they do exist.
The argument [is invalid] that the older people are when they marry, the less likely they are to divorce. … The latest data are that those who marry in their early thirties are more likely to divorce than those who marry in their late twenties.
People may be more mature in their thirties but they are also more settled in their ways and more accustomed to the single life.
And then there is the economic argument. Many single men, for example, say they are not ready to get married because they don’t have the income … In fact, marriage may be the best way to increase one’s income. Men’s income rises after marriage. They have less time to waste, and someone to help support—two spurs to hard work and ambition, not to mention that most employers prefer men who are married. And can’t two people live on less money than they would need if they lived each on his or her own, paying for two apartments?
Frankly there is just more to work for when one is married. And combined resources, financial and otherwise, lead to a more “diversified portfolio.”
In addition to economic benefits, the vast majority of human beings do better when they have someone to come home to, someone to care for, and someone to care for them. And, no matter how much feminists and other progressives deny it, children do best when raised by a married couple.
This is just plain common sense.
Throughout history, and in every society, people married not when they were “ready” to marry but when they reached marriageable age and were expected to assume adult responsibilities.
Yep! And we err by not insisting on these things. People at every stage of life need a little pressure to encourage them to make beneficial moves.
The “greatest generation,” which lived through the depression and fought in WWII, did indeed make enormous sacrifices. But it would seem that they failed to pass on to their children the notion of duty and sacrifice. The baby boom generation thus ended up self-absorbed and under-disciplined. They threw a miserable revolution in the late 1960s. The tsunami-like devastation wrought by this revolution afflicts us to this day and has a lot to do with the demise of marriage, family, and (healthy) disciplined sexuality in the culture.
Finally, this [situation] reflects another negative trend in society—that of people being guided by feelings rather than by standards or obligations. In life, behavior shapes feelings. Act happy, you’ll become happy. Act like you’re single, you’ll remain single. Act like you’re ready for marriage, you’ll become ready for marriage. Do it, in other words. Then you’ll be “ready.”
Yes, other things being equal, this is true. Now please, don’t treat this as an absolute and consequently reject it. Understand that it is a general principle. There are times when other factors are involved; the correlation is not 100%. But I know (as I think you do) that when I do right and I do good, I “feel” better.
Finally, a disclaimer: I have written a lot on this blog about issues related to the delay of marriage, to the vocation, and so forth. And whenever I do, I find that some readers take articles like this one very personally and get offended. This piece is a commentary on cultural trends, not on your personal life. There are always going to be specific, individual factors that affect the outcome in a particular situation; those cannot reasonably be included in wide-ranging column addressed to thousands. If you are in your thirties and unmarried, there may be good reason for that. But this article is not about you; it is about an overall trend that is not healthy for a culture. Young adults today are not wholly to blame for marrying later in life. The adults in their lives, and institutions like schools and the Church, also bear some responsibility. These negative effects flowed from what we have done and what we have failed to do, individually and collectively. This is about all of us. I pray that this disclaimer will avoid the posting of angry and bitter responses in the comments section that bespeak readers who take personally what is not meant personally.