Young Adults, Marriage and Cohabitation

From Eve Tushnet’s review of Extravagant Expectations and Premarital Sex in America:

The authors report their surprise at the high percentages of women reporting actual and attempted sexual assault; they note that, contrary to stereotype, college sexual relationships aren’t unusually unstable, and are actually more stable than sexual relationships of people of the same age who don’t attend college; they explore the mental-health effects on women of having a lot of sexual partners. And yet, of this wide-ranging discussion, I’d argue that the book’s central finding is debunking the myths of cohabitation’s relationship to divorce.

 Young adults’ understandable horror of divorce has led them to a moralizing worldview in which, in order to avoid divorce, it is absolutely necessary to find yourself first, before you marry. So, for example, Regnerus and Uecker find that they often believe that you should have multiple sexual partners before you marry. You should “get it out of your system,” or at least try several partners so you won’t worry later that you settled for a subpar mate. (The desire for variety or “upgrading” has to vanish immediately after marriage, however; one family scholar has called this mentality the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” approach to one’s young adulthood.)

Both young adults and their parents view early marriage as deeply irresponsible. Yet Regnerus and Uecker found that young adults overestimate the instability of marriage in one’s early twenties. When it comes to cohabitation before marriage, by contrast, they not only underestimate the risks but actually believe the opposite of the truth. They believe that cohabitation lets you get to know the other person better, stress-test the relationship, and thereby avoid divorce. 

The truth is more complicated: While cohabitation in itself may not be directly associated with increased risk of divorce, serial cohabitation still is. In other words, moving in with your fiancé or the guy who eventually becomes your fiancé is a lot different from moving in with a series of boyfriends. Second, sex still makes babies, and as Andrew Cherlin’s Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today took pains to point out, children suffer when their parents break up. They aren’t sheltered from that suffering when their parents aren’t married.

And finally, the belief in cohabitation as a way of divorce-proofing your marriage may stem from those false beliefs about marriage as the culmination of personal growth. You want to make sure that you know who the person is before you marry him or her, so you cohabit, and once you’re sure, then you can get hitched. But one reason marriage is valuable that it changes you and your relationship. If it didn’t, it would just be a big party. Moreover, life itself will bring profound changes: the stresses and self-doubts of parenting, illness, financial turmoil, boredom, moving to a new home, new inequalities in the spouses’ financial or emotional situations, and—if you’re lucky—aging and longterm caregiving. There’s no point of security after which marriage will no longer be a leap of faith—not faith in the other person, but faith in our own ability to stretch, change, suffer, and hope.

This is the biggest problem with our current understanding of adulthood. We have very little language for talking about how personal change and growth are provoked by obligation, by responsibility, and—most un-American of all!—by suffering. We discover ourselves in the hard moments as well as the free ones. Married couples become one another’s soulmates, if that happens, because the years wash over them like waves, smoothing out the rough places and wearing them down into shapes that fit together.
(Full article here)

Theodore Dalrymple mentioned somewhere that our modern lives are turning into a sort of Cartesian epistemological foundationalist project gone wild: the only proper way to commit to something is to make sure its secured by some absolute rational bedrock. But just as post-Cartesian philosophy discovered that you could only have certainty at the expense of knowledge, so too do we find that we can only have certainty in our lives at the expense of ourselves. As Eve Tushnet suggests, your self is not something that you ‘find’, but rather something that is shaped by your life. We can only become responsible by accepting responsibility.


About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
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