Recent marriage research offers important insights for spouses and for “remote marriage preparation” for our children. In The Marriage Paradox: Why Emerging Adults Love Marriage Yet Push It Aside, researchers Brian Willoughby and Spencer James of Brigham Young University observe that although most millennials aspire to marriage, they are the least marrying generation to date. The problem? Unrealistic expectations. They expect a soul mate but postpone searching for one until they finish school and climb the career ladder. They vaguely imagine a future that feels more settled, more conducive to finding that “perfect match.” But they worry about recognizing their soul mate—what if they’re wrong? What if someone better comes along? Millennials, who came of age assuming everything can be customized — from running shoes to espresso to social media — risk “treating affective relationships…[as] disposable,” writes Pope Francis. Those habits set real marriages — between two very flawed human beings — up for failure, or serious disappointments. Unrealistic expectations are compounded by cultural changes redefining marriage and parenthood as paths to personal fulfillment. Millennials, observes Willoughby, “believe you get married when you find someone that makes YOU happy…you have children when they will make YOUR life fulfilled by becoming a parent. Having a family is something the [that] serves individual happiness and contentment; it is less about societal obligation than it might have been 1-2 generations ago.” Marriage measured by self-centered peaks of personal fulfillment won’t make it through the inevitable valleys of sin and struggle—or experience the joy of generous love.
A friend who persevered through a bumpy marriage remembers well the many months when he was preoccupied by the tantalizing lie that divorce would make him happier. Many couples, even young marrieds, experience this, says a recent study (The National Divorce Decision making Project, 2015): “[I]n a culture with high divorce rates and widespread concerns about the fragility of marriage it is hard not to have some thoughts about divorce when problems and disappointments exist in the marriage. It’s hard to swim upstream against such a strong cultural current.” Most marriages survive those situations if those thoughts spur the person “to try to strengthen or repair a relationship.”
Most struggling couples who stay committed eventually experience thriving marriages. The study found that 28% of couples “thought their marriage was in serious trouble at some point in the past but not recently.” Almost “90% of them said they were glad they were still married;” only 1% wished otherwise.
Marriages can and do turn around. Couples survive “rough times” in various ways:
[M]ore than 90% said, “Over time, things changed and just got better or weren’t as hard.” A similar proportion said, “My commitment to keeping my marriage/family together was strong.” Also, “I/my spouse worked at fixing some problems and improving our relationship,” was endorsed as helpful by nearly all who reported serious marital problems in the past…[O]ne in four got some counseling (together or alone) [and] 75% said it was helpful.
In sum, “[p]atience, perseverance, promises, and some relationship perspiration” help resolve marital problems and prayer and the sacraments provide the spiritual nourishment to love and live marriage as God intends.
My friend with the bumpy marriage (a car buff) offers this analogy to explain the deep happiness he and his wife now enjoy, after decades of marriage (paraphrased): “When you’re newlyweds, your marriage is like your first car—it’s the best, shiny and new, an exhilarating ride. As the miles pile up, the shine dulls. Hard driving, season after season, takes its toll. Repair costs increase and satisfaction drops…it’s tempting to want to trade up. But you persevere, care for the car, and value its fundamental soundness. After logging many miles, you realize your car is a classic. You experience great satisfaction, cherish its value, and the years of memories and life it represents.” That’s marriage, through the eyes of a car guy. It testifies to the grace of lifelong marriage—customized by God.
MARY HASSON, JD, directs the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.