Defenders of marriage, rejoice: Divorce is on the decline. On Monday, The New York Times reported that divorce rates are the lowest they’ve been since the early 1980s. Millennial marriages, it seems, are particularly strong. The Times cites University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers to note that if trends continue, only a third of current marriages will end in divorce.
That’s a marked change from the fearsome 50% divorce rate often brandished as evidence of the nation’s moral decline. Prophets of the Focus on the Family inclination have long foreseen the death of marriage, with homosexuality largely to blame. Heterosexual unions, specifically those of young adults who practiced abstinence, are upheld as the ideal that will save marriage.
But marriage is not dead, and could be experiencing something of a renaissance. So what’s behind it?
As with all demographic shifts, a number of factors are in play. The Times notes that lower divorce rates still don’t correspond to a higher number of marriages. Fewer people are getting married, a fact that’s long been a source of ire for marriage-minded Christians. But those that do are still finding themselves in more stable unions, and as the Times indicates, that’s because people are marrying later than ever before.
The idea that later marriage can contribute to the institution’s stability is rather at odds with conservative rhetoric on the subject. In the Atlantic last year, evangelical writer Karen Swallow Prior wrote that “prolonged singledom has become a rolling stone, gathering up debt and offspring that, we can imagine, will manifest themselves in years to come in more broken, or never-realized, marriages.”
Prior, who repeatedly drew on the controversial work of evangelical sociologist Mark Regnerus to make her points, argued that marriage should be the “capstone” of young adulthood, and attributed her own professional success to her decision to marry at the age of 19.
Likewise, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in 2010 that, “The delay of marriage is a huge problem, and Christians should be in the forefront of seeing and understanding the problem — and countering the arguments against early marriage.”
“Churches and parents need to ask why we are not getting young adults ready for marriage,” he added. “Abdication to the ‘hooking up’ culture of young adulthood is just not an option.”
But further research suggests that Prior’s successful early marriage is an outlier, and that Mohler’s defense of the practice is likely misplaced. The University of Illinois-Chicago’s Evelyn Lehrer noted in 2009 that although individuals marrying in their late twenties and thirties had historically been most likely to divorce, that’s no longer true. Now, marriages conducted at these ages can be the most durable. That also happens to be when most Millennials choose to marry.
Religious commitment doesn’t necessarily improve an early marriage’s chances, either. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin and the University of Iowa found that conservative Protestants are the religious demographic most likely to divorce, even when compared to their non-religious peers. Early marriage and a refusal to use contraception are cited as the two primary factors behind that figure. “Thus the common conservative argument that strong religion leads to strong families does not hold up,” they concluded.
That result is particularly intriguing given that Millennials are abandoning religious institutions at an unprecedented rate. The least religious generation in American history may also have the country’s most stable marriages in over two decades.
This may surprise Prior, Mohler, and their peers. It doesn’t surprise me. As a graduate of a conservative Christian college, I’m well acquainted with evangelicalism’s marriage obsession, and with its potentially self-defeating properties.
A few short weeks into my undergraduate career, I found myself listening to a chapel speaker compare our campus to a bagel shop, with the women as bagels. “Take a good look, men,” he crowed, “You’ll never have a selection like this again. Don’t leave a good bagel lying on the shelf!”
I decided I’d rather be left on the shelf than wooed by a man who’d compare me to baked goods.
But my alma mater couldn’t let the matter be, and I learned to live with the slow cramping frustration of being defined primarily by my relationship status. Marriage — both the threats to it and the process of attaining it — saturated campus life. There were chapel messages, student organizations, small groups, and constant events organized on the subject. The school paired units in its men’s and women’s dorms together and encouraged them to go on double dates.
“Ring by spring” might as well have been the official motto for how often it was uttered on campus. As I entered my upperclassmen years, I learned that not only did we have married housing for undergraduates, but also that there was a waiting list to get it.
Rumored among students, but never confirmed by data: These marriages often didn’t last. The small and self-contained campus culture that subjected young dating couples to such intense and righteous scrutiny didn’t reliably produce healthy unions.
Now, there’s evidence those rumors were right.
I have my own theories about evangelicalism’s inability to control the marriage narrative. Here’s one: the rigid relationship template it foists on its youth emphasizes the creation of a unit, but not the development of individuals.
Although I graduated without a ring on my finger, I am aware that marriages, like all relationships, consist of people. People don’t spring into the world already in units; we learn who we are, and then we learn we who are with others. It’s a messy and complicated process. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and you’ll find someone to process it with. Other times, you’ll understand that it’s an endeavor best undertaken alone, and that does not make you a failure.
I didn’t see that reality reflected by my college culture, or before then, either, in my conservative youth groups. I don’t see it in evangelical rhetoric now. I do see it, however, reflected in the cold, hard facts. We are leaving traditional religion, we are abandoning or delaying its relationship principles, and on average, our marriages are now more likely to last than to end.
Conservative Christians have long feared the prospect of rethinking marriage. But resetting marriage for our time might be the only thing that saves the institution.
Image via Thomas Leuthard.
The opinions in this article belong to the author.