Breaking “The Rules”
The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.
–Peter De Vries
Why don’t Americans know how to get and stay married? Whatever we think the word means we still value marriage very highly: The National Marriage Project and the Gallup poll organization have found that between 80 and 90 percent of American teens want to get married someday. And yet we delay, we divorce, and we churn through relationships so quickly that in 2004 only 61 percent of American children were living with both of their biological parents. Why can’t we get and keep what we say we want?
Maybe we lack role models. As we wander around aimlessly, the pejorative term “extended adolescence” has become the euphemism “emerging adulthood.” Kate Bolick’s much discussed Atlantic article, “All the Single Ladies,” seems to offer this explanation for its author’s eventual surrender to singleness.
And yet two recent books argue that a big part of our problem is that we do have role models, conventions, cultural mores, and rules to follow. It’s just that the rules don’t work. Paul Hollander’s Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America and Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, And Think About Marrying take very different approaches to the question of how Americans mate and marry. Extravagant Expectations is a work of pop-philosophy that muses about how modernity and the Romantic movement have influenced personals ads and internet dating. Premarital Sex is a research-based look at the sexual practices and beliefs of young Americans from a broad range of class, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Yet both end up arguing that Americans today are working from fairly well-defined “scripts” about love, dating, marriage—and selfhood. Perhaps, they conclude, our marriage problems ultimately spring from a flawed understanding of what it means to become an adult.
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Extravagant Expectations is the lesser of the two books, padded with recitation of what other people have said about the nature of modernity and romanticism. Still, Hollander scores some points. He reads a depressing number of self-help guides to romance, and piles up quotations in which readers are encouraged to view themselves as marketable products. To find a mate, we’re instructed first to “fall in love with ourselves.” Dr. Phil tells the reader she’s “a great partner, a fantastic catch, and one of the world’s best-kept secrets.” She just needs to become a “defined product” that she can enthusiastically sell on the marriage market. The self-help books are built on the premise that we are already basically fabulous, and only need to believe in ourselves in order to promote that fabulousness to others. And the various “experts” promise, as The Rules states explicitly, that if we follow their instructions we can live “painfree.”
Hollander finds that a consumerist mentality pervades our self-presentations in the marriage and romance markets. He notes that Americans who write personals ads (both online and in prestige publications like the New York Review of Books) seem strikingly invested in the idea of cultural flexibility: We present ourselves as people who can go from the opera to the campground, who enjoy fine wines and chicken wings with equal gusto. We’re cultivated, but democratic; adventurous, but also happy to just cuddle by the fire.
Hollander compares internet personals in Massachusetts, Nebraska and Alabama (which turn out to be broadly similar and are therefore lumped together), and California. Although it’s necessarily a highly subjective study, he draws up lists of the personal characteristics most valued by ad-writers in these states. He finds many similarities: In all states, the writers really value a sense of humor, being fun-loving, and being open to new things, but are more reluctant to say they value ambition, kindness, or religious faith. There are regional and class differences as well: From the evidence Hollander provides, people using the more downscale venues seem more likely to explicitly state that they are “hardworking.” The mate-seekers in Nebraska and Alabama are noticeably more interested in long-term relationships, and less interested in short-term ones, than the seekers of Massachusetts and (especially) California. They also seem to be more likely to mention a strong family orientation as a major positive, whether advertising themselves or naming desired characteristics of their ideal match.
Intriguingly, Hollander’s portrait lines up well with the distinctions between “red sex” and “blue sex” drawn in much more rigorous detail by Regnerus and Uecker. In Premarital Sex, “red-staters” come across as contemporary culture’s beautiful losers: romantic, highly relationship-oriented, but conflicted and confused. “Blue-staters” are more pragmatic and more unashamedly individualistic. Nonetheless, both books emphasize that the similarities outweigh the differences. The regional, racial, and even class differences Hollander finds are differences of degree rather than kind—and it might be fair to say that they’re differences in degree of California-ness. Nebraska seems more like California than like its own stereotype.
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While Hollander casts a jaundiced eye on the explicit and unspoken rules of American dating, Regnerus and Uecker are both gentler and more pragmatic. They find that American young adults place a high value on communication and honesty in relationships, yet they’re desperately inarticulate about sex. One young Christian woman says, about having oral sex with her boyfriend, “It’s true that there’s a slippery slope, and so they really try to caution you away from it, but, I mean, I don’t know. It’s one of those things. It’s not, I’m sure I’m just justifying, but it’s something that I’m really, I don’t know, I can’t say for us. I know I’m speaking a horribly illogical argument.” At the other end of the “striving for fidelity” spectrum, hookups and “friends with benefits” can only take place in a context of limited communication: “[T]o admit real feelings for the person with whom they share their body is something many survey participants feared.” (This inarticulacy was also found by Donna Freitas among college students in her recent Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses.)
Regnerus and Uecker draw out the social “scripts” by which many young adults live today, and focus on the self-defeating nature of those scripts. ??Premarital Sex begins not with sex itself but with today’s notions of adulthood. The authors note, “Historically, the transition from adolescence to full adulthood included five elements: economic independence from one’s parents, residing outside of their home, conclusion of schooling (and commencement of work), marriage, and children. Marriage and parenthood were the traditional anchors of these five, since the majority of the population didn’t pursue higher education, many women didn’t join the labor force, and sometimes independence from parents never quite materialized in the way we imagine it today. …In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had met all five criteria by age 30. Among today’s 30-year-olds, only 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men could say so.”
Delayed marriage is not just a matter of circumstance. A new view of adulthood requires it, and a whole host of stern moral precepts has arisen to defend it. In the new view, young adulthood is a time for finding oneself: for travel (or, considering young people’s limited means, at least the aspiration to travel), extensive education, leisure, sexual exploration, and cohabitation. Regnerus and Uecker quote many young people who genuinely believe that marriage marks the end of self-discovery and the end of intense personal change. They say, “I don’t really plan on getting married for a while, or settling down for a while. I’d like to do all my living when I’m young.” Or they say that marriage and children are “what makes your life, like, full, after like, you are done with your life, I guess.” They want to travel, to try things out, to try on careers and relationships and personae; once they’re done, once they’ve found a costume of the self that fits perfectly, then they’ll be ready and eager to marry.
Premarital Sex is filled with sharp phrases about the landscape of sexual activity (“Thirteen is the new eighteen” and “twenty-one is the new sixteen”) and important insights. It covers Christian teens’ attempts to negotiate “technical virginity” without any vocabulary of lust or chastity, just a list of prohibited and less-prohibited acts. It covers—and makes a strong case for—the negative effects of internet porn on the dating scene, not least in shaping mens’ sexual desires and expectations. It argues that the new sexual scripts increasingly favor male preference even though women typically control when sex happens in a relationship, and tend to prefer to wait longer and secure greater commitment before it does. It covers pregnancy scares, women’s willingness to engage in sex acts they don’t find pleasurable because they want to be nice, and the idea that “whoever cares less has the upper hand.”
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.
Neither Extravagant Expectations nor Premarital Sex offers proposals for cultural improvement. But if I had to give my own proposal, it would have three parts:
1. Becoming an adult is about finding your vocation.
- This is the path in which you are called to love God and to love specific, particular other people. This is how you are called to pour yourself out for those you love. For most people this will still mean marriage and children. How would dating look different, if we thought of it as finding our vocations rather than finding ourselves (or even finding our soulmates)? How would single life look different if we thought it might be a precursor not solely to marriage but also, or instead, to a life in service to the poor, a life in a vowed or “intentional” community, or a life of devoted friendship or care for one’s family of origin? (This question of the purpose of the single life is the aching heart of Kate Bolick’s
- article. She is trying to discern her vocation in a culture which places impossible demands on spouses, who must be
- to one another, and offers no alternative paths to adulthood, leaving the unmarried in an eternal and humiliating adolescence.)
2. Preparation for marriage—or for any vocation—means learning to roll with the punches: learning to adapt.
- It means learning to be humble, sacrificial, tolerant, and patient, without a sense that life owes you something; flexible, well-trained in both apologies and forgiveness. It does look like Hollander’s personals ads in one respect: People who are ready for love have learned to laugh at themselves. They don’t fetishize choice or control. They recognize that every form of love comes with its own corresponding form of loneliness, and in many ways self-discovery begins when our options start to close.
3. Practice for your vocations by taking on and fulfilling obligations
- . Not by travel, variety of sexual partners, or consumption goods! How would your life change if you served your friends, your parents, or some of your neighbors in need, with the kind of devotion you would expect to extend to a spouse or child? Maybe we learn best how to love by loving.
Will this way of life make us happy? I wouldn’t promise that. “Happiness research” finds, for example, that parents tend to be less happy than married couples without children. Happiness isn’t the same thing as meaningful purpose and it definitely isn’t the same thing as love. But I do think this understanding of adulthood would be better for children, gentler, and more beautiful.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.