Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Sex Without Strings, Relationships Without Rings

June 19, 2000

The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University recently released a report, "The State of Our Unions 2000," prepared by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. It is an alarming summary of how non-college-educated, young unmarrieds in their twenties view courtship and marriage. Their 28-page report can be downloaded from the Internet by going to http://marriage.rutgers.edu/2000.htm

From their research, Popenoe and Whitehead believe that marriage is being undermined by the present singles mating culture. This culture is full of destructive attitudes and beliefs about seeking low-commitment relationships instead of finding a marriage partner. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Singles in their 20s are preoccupied with getting ahead. Women are just as committed to making it on their own and getting a place of their own as men. Both men and women value "independence" as a quality they want for themselves.
  • Men and women describe two different spheres of unwed coupling - "sex" and "relationships." The rules for "sex" and "relationships" are different from "love" and "falling in love."

Sex is a no-strings-attached casual sex with no commitments beyond the sexual encounter itself.

The rules for relationships are more complicated - spend time together, please your partner, do little things, act with concern for your partner's interest and be trustworthy, honest and sexually faithful. Sex is postponed for a few dates while they get to know each other. Instead of meeting at clubs, they meet through friends, church, work or school.

  • "No one expresses blanket disapproval of cohabitation, and most of our participants see it in a favorable light." Slightly less than half of young people are currently cohabiting or have cohabited in the past. Marriage is idealized as a soul-mate union. Partners are tested in a living-together arrangement for emotional fitness and capacities to see if he or she measures up. They are also checking to see if the partner remains consistent in their behavior over time.
  • Living-in partners are wary of a divorce or being trapped in an unhappy marriage. Many have gone through a parental divorce. There are other reasons for living together, such as saving money, working on "personal" issues or marking time until someone better comes along.
  • Women are ready for marriage in their late twenties but have learned to be pessimistic about the pool of prospective mates and the likelihood of finding a husband. Men, on the other hand, continue the pattern established in their early 20s - they are reluctant to give up their freedom, continue to establish themselves in decent jobs, and remain hopeful in their search for a soul-male. "Today, as compared with earlier times, there are almost no pressures on young men in their twenties get married in order to meet women's desires, expectations or timetable."
  • Women are exposed to multiple failed relationships and breakups. These are compounded by failed cohabitations - one sixth of cohabiting relationships last 3 years. These breakups seem to have a cumulative negative impact on subsequent relationships. They learn to be globally mistrustful and antagonistic of all men.
  • Young people have an idealized view of a soul-mate marriage that requires hard work. They are discouraged by their own personal experience, negative media images of marriage and the poor example of their parents' failed marriages. They are haunted by fears of divorce. Instead of seeing marriage as an economic stepping stone, they tend to see marriage as exposing themselves to economic risk and possibly jeopardizing their hard won individual freedom and independence through post divorce property settlements.
  • The loss of child-centeredness in our nation weakens our young people's attitudes toward marriage. According to Popenoe and Whitehead, "...children have been pushed from the center stage in family life."

Though they didn't explicitly state this point, but I feel the lack of child-centeredness among young people of child-bearing age is because of our obsession with our materialistic culture. Getting ahead and having fun is seen as being more satisfying than child-rearing.

The impact of divorce and alternative family structure has had a negative influence on young adults. Many do not have positive experiences of growing up in a happy, intact, two-parent family. It is a difficult leap of faith for young people to choose marriage and children over today’s influence of low-commitment, sexualized dating and a materialistic culture in which they are now immersed.

Turning life around. Popenoe and Whitehead suggest two ways of turning these negative courtship trends and aversion to marriage around. One is the possibility of a concerted social movement to bring about broad-based shifts in contemporary patterns of dating, sexual behavior and mating.

These attitudinal changes would start as a radical countercultural movement and spread to the mainstream in more moderate forms. There is a possibility of linking religious groups with social scientists and policy-makers who share mutual concerns about the importance of solid family life to our society as a whole. This could take the form of public education about the factors that limit mating success.

A second avenue of change is for parents to begin early to talk to children about what to look for in a marriage partner and what it takes to have a good marriage. According to Popenoe and Whitehead, "At a minimum,

parents might wisely consider investing as much time and attention to helping their children think wisely about marriage as they now devote to helping their children think carefully about education and career.