It is a paradox of sorts.
Their hope for the future is to get married and raise a family.
Their fear is that they won't or, that if they do, it will end in divorce. Some say they don't even date. Others worry that if they meet the right person, they will be unable to financially support a family.
"We are doing all we can to get married," said a single Latter-day Saint. "I don't really know what the problem is."
Another young single adult explained: "I think we are a bit more cautious. We want our marriages to work."
A third shared her dilemma: "I'm finding that I don't really have married friends or family who can relate to where I am in my life. They've never faced being my age, still being single, being so on their own and having so many decisions to make by themselves."
Their hopes and fears are typical of more than 60 young single adults (ages 18 to 30) who responded to an informal Church News e-mail survey. Every respondent wrote about the desire to marry. A large majority also wrote about dating woes, financial concerns, and the feeling that they are incapable of creating a lasting relationship. Many especially women worry that marriage simply won't happen for them.
Marriage: a delayed practice
Today, nearly 95 percent of Americans say marriage is important. Yet, Latter-day Saint young single adults are seeking marriage in a culture that has dramatically delayed the practice. "We have seen a steady increase, over the last 20 or 30 years, in the average age of first marriage," said Jason Carroll, a professor in the BYU School of Family Life. "Nationally it sits at a historic high of 28 years for men and almost 27 for women."
While Latter-day Saint young adults marry 4.5 years earlier than their national peers, on average, Brother Carroll said they are still impacted by three factors that influence couples to delay marriage.
• The first, he said, are widespread economic concerns. "We cannot underestimate the shift to the modern economy and what is required for young adults to become an adult and provide for a family," he said.
• The second, he said, is that today's young single adults are the children of the divorce generation. "All of these kids have been exposed to the realities of divorce on some level. It creates a situation where they have high aspirations for marriage, but they frequently have low expectations. They still want marriage and desire it, but they are more pessimistic about its being a reality for them."
• The third, he said, is an erosion of dating. Many "young people across the country don't formally date during their college years," he explained. "People are getting into their mid-20s and desire to marry, but it is not happening for them." Proof of this trend in the United States is the multi-million dollar singles industry, Brother Carroll said.
Worst-case scenario planning
Brother Carroll said many Church members delay marriage due to a "worst-case scenario" desire for self-reliance. In the past, couples worked together to ensure "family reliance," where husbands and wives shared an interdependent ethic of self-reliance. But as marriage has been seen as more and more fragile, parents are encouraging young adults especially women to develop an independent ethic of self-reliance, where the individual not the marriage is the foundation of self-reliance.
"I have real concern that because of such an emphasis on possible worst-case scenarios, we miss out on the chance for the best-case scenario," he said. "Individuals may enter marriage with less faith and confidence in the relationship. They will not rely on each other as much as spouses.... We have the real possibility that worst-case scenario planning is becoming a self-fulfilling process. Young people may strive so hard to be independent that the transition to marriage is really hard."
He said, individuals may be approaching marriage with a built-in escape pod.
Become the right person
Larry Nelson, a professor in the BYU School of Family Life, said young people understand that not just marriage but successful marriage is the goal. "They realize that you have to have some skills and abilities going into a marriage to make it successful."
What is important, he said, is not when a person marries but that they use the time before marriage to "become the right person."
"We need to get rid of the notion that this time period is about finding the right person," he said. "If that is the case, we are setting young people up to fail because every day you wake up single then you feel like a failure. Instead, an emerging adult a young adult needs to focus on becoming the right person. Then, every day that a person becomes better prepared for future family relationships is a successful day. If that focus on preparation translates into a successful marriage down the road, then it was a good use of this period of time."
Brother Carroll noted that some of the best predictors for success in marriage are how a person spends his or her pre-married years. National statistics show that people who engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, binge drinking, and promiscuous sexual behavior have higher rates of divorce. "Premarital sex and co-habitation are two of the strongest-known risk factors for divorce," he added.
His take-home message for young single adults: "Your behaviors, choices and patterns now will impact the success of your marriage later."
Ideal marriage age
In addition, he said, young people who reported that their ideal age of marriage was 24 or higher have significantly higher risk factors in marriage. "It doesn't matter when they marry. What matters is what they are planning for," he said.
For example, a young man who plans to marry at 28 or later typically engages in different behavior than a young man who would like to marry at 23.
"Nationally, young people who put the ideal age of marriage between 18 to 23 had much lower risk behaviors," he said. "We believe it is because they are starting to transition to adulthood. They are starting to anticipate the changes associated with marriage and are starting to act more like an adult."
An LDS application of the trend can be the 23-year-old who has an ideal marriage age in his early 20s, chooses to be active in one ward as opposed to ward hopping holds a calling, and participates in the structure the Church provides. His peers who have an ideal marriage age in their late 20s might not be as motivated to take advantage of Church structure, Brother Carroll said.
A sample of BYU students revealed that on average young men and young women at the Church university identified 23 years as the ideal age for marriage two years ahead of their national peers.
Also of note is a marriage readiness study at BYU revealing that two-thirds of 21-year-old and older BYU students and their parents believe they are ready for marriage. That, he said, also leaves one-third of the 21-plus population in the Church who do not believe they are ready for marriage.
That might be because their expectations for a standard of living are higher than in the past, he said. For example, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States was 2,330 square feet in 2004, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970. "We have shifted," he said. "We have the notion for many that you have to have a house with a three-car garage." Nationally that standard is being upheld by two lifelong family incomes, he explained.
Established as individuals
A 27-year-old woman said it seems like there is a narrow window of singles in her generation that just don't know how to get married. "Although plenty of people my age have gotten married there is a fairly large group that just haven't been able to make it that far or have already done so once but it didn't last," she said.
Maybe it is because of their fears, experts say.
"I know this sounds very cliche," wrote a 25-year old Latter-day Saint, "but I really do worry about marriage and family related things. I'm a saver will I marry a spender? Will we be spiritually compatible? Will we be able to communicate about important things? Will I marry at a young enough age to have the number of children I want to have?
"At this age, both sides are likely to have figured out who we are and have become very specialized versions of ourselves. It is going to be difficult trying to merge two lives, when we've both had such a long time to become established as who we are as individuals."
• Next week: Young single adults and Church activity.
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