Young adults are postponing getting married not because it doesn't matter to them, but because it's so important, says a study by researchers at Brigham Young University and Ball State University published in The Journal of Psychology.
Researchers asked 571 single students at Ball State to think about the future and predict how much effort and energy each would put into marriage, parenthood, career and leisure/hobbies. Then they portioned a pie chart accordingly, based on how important they thought each role would be, said lead author Brian J. Willoughby, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. The total had to equal 100 percent.
Marriage won out at nearly 30 percent, though parenthood and career were not far behind. It's not surprising, said co-author Scott Hall, an associate professor of family studies at Ball State, because marriage trends, parenting trends, careers and social lives are integrated.
"What we found when we made them (assign values) was marriage was still the most important thing they anticipated being in their future," said Willoughby. "So it was more evidence than we've seen in the past that young adults are still valuing marriage."
Marriage's value in today's society has come up repeatedly in recent years as marriage rates decline and the number of cohabitating couples climb. America is also experiencing a marriage "divide" across education and economic lines. College-educated young adults are still likely to marry and have children later. Among those with lower education and socio-economic status, babies come along, but marriage may never occur.
“We’ve been tracking this shift in what marriage means to young adults,” said Willoughby. “Instead of marriage being thought of as the foundation on which you build a life with someone, it’s now a sort of capstone. They see it in terms of, ‘If you get through college and you have careers, getting married is how you reward yourself.’”
Some speculate that marriage is becoming outdated, nobody cares any more and an alternative way to organize family life is needed, Hall said. "These kinds of studies continue to affirm that the delay in marriage may not represent that people think marriage is not important, but it's impacted by something else."
In follow-up a year after the original assessment, the researchers noted a "marriage paradox." As the unmarried subjects got older, marriage became more important, but the amount of energy they expected to put into it went down, competing with the energy already being expended on careers, travel and other pursuits.
Subjects who had endured a significant breakup had a lower perception of marriage, Willoughby said.
He is hopeful the study will help start a conversation among young adults on what marriage is and how they can successfully transition to the long-term relationship most of them want but are now delaying, he said. "How do they negotiate all of these roles when their lives are just going to keep getting busier?"
Young adults want to do everything, he said. But they may not see that the decisions they make and the things they choose to do in their 20s are a way of prioritizing that will have a big impact on what happens to them in their 30s.
"Seeing the trajectory is really helpful," he said.
Research suggests there's a downside to waiting too long to marry, Willoughby said. While there's not a best age to tie the knot, the mid-20s appear to be a kind of "sweet spot."
He noted evidence that waiting too long can be a bad thing. While many couples who marry later have stable marriages, "they tend to be unsatisfying. By that time in life, they've prioritized career, friendship, other things. It's hard to hit the reset and say this marriage is going to be really important, when those other things have already been important the last 20 years," Willoughby said.
The researchers found a fair amount of variation, including significant differences between those who were religious and those who weren't and between men and women.
Hall said it's hard to tease out all the reasons people delay marriage, although a large portion — maybe even a majority — want to wait to be sure they're ready and have lined up their ducks so the marriage will succeed.
Others may delay to take advantage of other opportunities. And delay or forgoing marriage is also more common since the stigma of having nonmarital relationships has decreased as well, he noted.
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