There’s a general assumption – so widespread that it no longer requires demonstration – that in order to have a high-quality and lasting marriage, it’s necessary first to finish college, start a successful career, and then look for a partner with the same qualifications.
Despite the ease of divorce, marriage is still perceived as being characterized by exclusivity, fidelity, and permanence. As a consequence, another idea that has become a widely shared and promoted before embarking on such a definitive commitment is to give the relationship “a test drive” first — a period of cohabitation — to see how being together within the same walls works when you have shopping and chores to do, work commitments to juggle, and perhaps already a child to raise.
Multiple choice is the worst choice
Willingly or unwillingly, we have borrowed this popular approach to marriage from a consumer mindset: before confirming a purchase, I need to test whether the product or service meets my expectations. But the sociological research shows that this is not the best approach when it comes to marriage.
More partners means less commitment
Psychologist Galena Rhoades, who studies young adult relationships, argues in a video on YouTube that:
We generally think that having more experience is better (…). But what we find for relationships is just the opposite. Having more experience was related to having a less happy marriage later on. For example, we found that people who had been married before, people who had lived with a boyfriend or girlfriend before, and having had more sexual partners before marriage, were each associated with having lower marital quality later on.
She cites various possible reasons for this. For example, constantly comparing with alternatives – and having had experience breaking up in previous relationships – can weaken commitment.
Wilcox and Stone: The old model is the most effective one
Sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project (University of Virginia), W. Bradford Wilcox, together with Lyman Stone, a demographer, also showed in a study how much more efficient the so-called traditional and much disparaged model is.
Dan McLaughlin quotes Wilcox in the National Review:
Many young adults today believe cohabitation is also a pillar of successful marriages, one reason why more than 70% of those who marry today live together before marriage. But the conventional wisdom here is wrong: Americans who cohabit before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to break up. Couples who cohabited were 15% more likely to get divorced than those who did not, according to our research. A Stanford study cited other research finding that the link between cohabitation and divorce was especially strong for women who cohabited with someone besides their future husband . . .
It’s a common belief among “secular” young people that it’s much more convenient to marry around age 30 if you want to have less risk of divorce. Yet, the risk of divorce is greatly reduced for their counterparts with religious faiths (not just Christianity), who instead usually marry in their 20s, certainly before their 30s. Wilcox says:
The conventional wisdom holds that spending your twenties focusing on education, work and fun, and then marrying around 30 is the best path to maximize your odds of forging a strong and stable family life. But the research tells a different story, at least for religious couples. Saving cohabitation for marriage, and endowing your relationship with sacred significance, seems to maximize your odds of being stably and happily married.
True, religious marriage lived purely out of conformity to social norms, without awareness of the ideal it embodies, has also been a form of oppression in the past. Reduced to a compulsory custom, to an irresponsible convention, it was in danger of being reduced to a hypocritical appearance of fidelity.
A matter of truth about humanity
But now we are beyond the revolution of the 60s. Rejecting convention no longer needs to be an argument; there is no longer an obligation, especially for young women, to marry on pain of suffering the shame of lifelong spinsterhood or to rush to marry because you are pregnant. Relationship dynamics, married life, and more authentic personal needs can now reemerge without as many preconceptions.
Fidelity is a need that we discover within us, despite frailties and failures. Exclusivity and total commitment in one relationship is what most responds to our core desires to be unconditionally loved, known, and accepted. It has nothing to do with Disney fairy tales but with how we are made and what kind of lifestyle most corresponds to our nature, which is so complex and demanding.
Perhaps even the voice of the Catholic Church may now be heard more clearly and freshly.
Yet it is always the same voice, maternal and masterful, showing humanity its own nature, pointing out dangers, pointing out virtues and models, and offering a way to reach them.