Are 20-Somethings in a Relational Wasteland With No Courtship?

Chances are you met your mate, dated for a while, fell in love, got engaged, then got married. It’s the “courtship narrative” we were brought up with. But it’s not the case anymore. For many, “this narrative has been disrupted, without being replaced, leaving many 20-somethings in a ‘relational wasteland.’” Sadly, in this super-connected society, true emotional connections are becoming more difficult.

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project a the University of Virginia, writes in The Washington Post about young people who are Lost in a World Without Courtship.

Why the change? Sexual activity is starting much earlier than in previous generations, but the average age at which people marry is later. This leaves a hormone-filled gap—during which our culture (including parents and churches, according to Wilcox) provides little guidance. Casual sex generally fills the gap, with no discussion of love, and often no dating or courtship. (It’s not uncommon to hear about “sexual favors” being performed casually in elementary and middle school.) Even after graduating from college, many 20-somethings go out in groups and “hook up” as they wish, rather than go out on dates. Occasionally, a couple creates a “relationship,” but marriage is not the next step in their narrative.

Wilcox says young people have evolved their own narrative, and the next step is cohabitation. “For some, it is a test-drive for marriage. For others, it is an easier, low-commitment alternative to marriage.” From 1960 to 2007, cohabitation increased forteenfold. “Serial cohabitation trains people for divorce…and can poison one’s view of the opposite sex,” says Wilcox, adding that engaged couples who cohabit are generally not adversely affected.

The bigger problem for society is when cohabiting couples decide to procreate. “Cohabitation is no place for children,” says Wilcox. Three-fourths of children in such unions see their parents split by age 16, while one-third of children with married parents see them divorce. He says marriage is society’s best tool for binding the parents together in the common interests of the child. Children in single-parent homes are considerably more disadvantaged—financially, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Wilcox suggests the ideal age to marry seems to be in the early to mid-20s. Teen marriages have a much higher divorce rate, and those marrying after 27 are at risk of being too set in their ways or having unrealistically high standards. (Kathleen Quiring has just written a series on why early marriage can be a positive trend in her opinion. Read the series at Project M.)

What’s your story? How did you meet your mate and fall in love? Do you think courtship, romance, dating and love are dying out with the young? How do you think marriage will be affected for the next generation? What do you teach your children about love and sex?

8 responses to “Are 20-Somethings in a Relational Wasteland With No Courtship?

  1. Lori,

    This is an eye-opening post. I am very traditional in my own romantic life but I try to keep an open mind when it comes to the paths that others choose.

    As liberal as I am those stats don’t lie:

    “The bigger problem for society is when cohabiting couples decide to procreate. “Cohabitation is no place for children,” says Wilcox. Three-fourths of children in such unions see their parents split by age 16, while one-third of children with married parents see them divorce.”

    I do believe that children greatly benefit when their parents are married. I would be interested to know where the couples that have children first, and then eventually get married later down the road fall in these stats.

  2. Thanks, Shannon. Yes, I’ve had wonderful friends who had children first, then married, and went on to have great marriages. It is possible, but these stats show long-term commitment is often missing in cohabiting unions.

  3. Great article as usual, Lori. I LOVE how you always back everything up with stats or facts from authoritative sources. As Shannon suggests, there’s little arguing with stats. I’m very interested in the original Wilcox article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. Wilcox has published extensively on family topics. I will have to share another book with you on similar themes. Stay tuned. Thanks for the note.

  5. I have heard this generation referred to as one needing “instant gratification.” Your article certainly seems to back up this claim.
    You mention hooking up and sexual favors being a way of life, rather than dating and courtship. I find that to be sad.
    I was taught sex is a gift, is special, carries emotional ties and consequences and also, therefore, responsibility. Of course, I also think relationships, while they may be “work,” are totally worth the work! Sure, they require compromise, commitment, self-lessness, but those are gifts to give, and surely bring joy and togetherness, and something as close to God’s “unconditional” love as we can get. That’s worth it!
    That a generation is missing out on that, I think is sad.

  6. Good points, Cathy. Unfortunately many who live that lifestyle do find it sad, but may not know a better way. The way you model your own marriage and teach your children can go a long way toward reviving the joy you discuss.

  7. I suppose our story is as unique as it is outdated. My wife and I met for the first time in sixth grade, became best friends in high school and started dating our Sr. high school year, marrying just after graduating college. We’ve been married 27 years.

    We do our best with our three girls to instill the traditional values of courtship and marriage in them. This is no easy task given all the counter-messages around them. I believe life-long marriage, by far the best solution to many societal ills, is under termendous assault. And I am on a personal mission to do whatever I can about that.

  8. Thanks, Scott. Congrats on your longevity! I have lots of friends who met in high school and went on to have long, fulfilling marriages. There’s something romantic about marrying one’s high school sweetheart and growing up together. Bringing the issues into the open can help us as a community address the breakdown of values. I wish you the best on your mission. Thanks for your note.

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