October 13, 2006

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

The state of the union

In the film The Last Kiss, Zach Braff tells his pregnant girlfriend he’ll marry her when she can name three couples whose marriages have lasted five years.

She gets stuck at her parents and a pair of ducks at the park. And after a few more scenes, she’s down to the ducks.

Pretty bleak.

It made me wonder: Is that really how young adults feel about tying the knot?

Statistically, Americans are shying away from the altar. Marriage rates (per 1,000 unmarried adult women) fell nearly 50 percent from 1970 to 2004. The number of Catholic marriages also has plummeted.

Researchers for the National Marriage Project cite multiple reasons: the increase in cohabitation, the delay of first marriages until older ages and the growth of adults having children outside marriage.

Culturally, a number of factors are taking a toll on marriage—and inhibiting single adults.

For starters, there are fewer examples of strong marriages. Many young adults have witnessed the bitter divorce of parents or friends, and they’re a bit gun shy.

Meanwhile, celebrities are making a mockery of marriage. Britney Spears’ first marriage lasted 55 hours. Renee Zellweger and Kenny Chesney’s endured four whole months. Apparently they waited until after their beachside ceremony to raise trivial questions like: “By the way, do you want kids?”

“Til death do us part,” it seems, has become “til difference do us part.” And “for better or worse” now implies “until someone better comes along.”

An obsession with the wedding ceremony, fueled by reality TV and evidenced by a proliferation of bridal magazines, isn’t helping marriage. Analysts say the average cost of a wedding in 2006 is $26,000.

Deciding how to spend all those dollars doesn’t leave much time for contemplating the partnership that will proceed the Big Day. And the debt that weddings thrust many newlyweds into doesn’t exactly breed harmony.

More than ever before, we’re living in a culture of instant gratification. Technology is fast; attention spans are short.

Americans love having options, and that’s exactly what the 21st century delivers. Google grants 178 million entries on marriage in less than two-tenths of a second.

If you don’t like what you’ve got—a purse, a nose or a spouse—if it fades or wrinkles or disappoints, you can always take it back.

There’s good news, though. Catholic young adults are earnest and discerning. This marriage crisis has given us pause, prompting us to really think it through.

Twenty years ago, many singles began sentences with the casual assumption, “When I get married …” Today, I hear many saying, “If I get married …”

With that attitude, the marriage rate may continue to drop. But so will the divorce rate.

Today’s young adults are acutely aware of the effort that marriage requires. And we’re willing to work. My friend, Wendy, and her fiancé care so much about their marriage that they received extra counseling from their priest.

When I watched them exchange vows last week, I was overcome. They may be young and poor and nervous, but they are best friends and they believe.

Sheer love, earnest hope and deep faith—these three things remain.

(Christina Capecchi is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. E-mail her at christinacap@gmail.com.) †

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