Meet Generation Divorce: Why More 20-Somethings Are Untying The Knot

Say hello to the era of the ‘starter marriage’…

Marriage is so hot right now. Or, wait – let me rephrase that: weddings are so hot right now.

After all, what’s more exciting than sharing pics of your sparkly new engagement ring on Facebook and Instagram, coming up with the perfect wedding hashtag, and scouting out a barn with the perfect kooky yet charming DIY-aesthetic for your ceremony? Not to mention gushing about how you’re marrying the absolute best person on the planet, and how lucky you both are, and how you’ve never been happier.

Is there an edge of ‘I hope my ex sees this and feels a stab of terrible regret?’ to all this breathless wedding hype? Only a cynic would say so. So, I’ll say it. I’ve written before that I think weddings are gross and fake, and of course, I’m divorced myself – although I was married practically before the internet was invented, and certainly before hashtags were a thing.

I don’t regret my marriage – I learned a few valuable things from it – and I don’t regret getting divorced, either. I believe in love; I even believe in marriage. But the new 20-somethings trend of ‘starter marriages’ brings out the cynic in me. What’s behind it, other than a seeming desire to participate in ‘engagement season’ and garner lots of ‘likes’ on social media? And what happens after the excitement fades?

The starter marriage

David Kaufman, a columnist for the New York Post, reported on a study that showed 43 per cent of millennials would prefer a marriage that would allow for an ‘easy exit option’ within the first two years. And one-third of them thought marriage licenses should only be valid for a set period of time, after which couples would have to renew the license or let it expire – the ultimate no-fuss, no-muss divorce. Still, another 30 per cent of respondents said they did believe marriage should be forever – so clearly, some young people still take ’till death do us part’ seriously.

Kaufman latches onto the fictional characters of Marnie Michaels and Jessa Johansson, from the HBO show Girls, to make his case against the starter marriage trend. Both characters had brief, ill-fated marriages on the show; Kaufman says Micheals goes “from single and dating to married, cheating and demanding a divorce in less than one season, treating marriage like it’s an exotic semester abroad.”

Kaufman wonders if social media and dating apps – i.e., ‘hook-up culture,’ could be contributing to the rise in the short-lived marriages prolific among millennials. And while it’s true that, in general, social media seems to be bad for relationships, hook-up culture certainly existed long before digital culture – as this brief history of the fuckboy demonstrates.

The cornerstone marriage

Once upon a time, people got married around the same time they left home. My mother isn’t the only woman of her generation who was familiar with the idea of going to college to get your ‘MRS degree,’ the implication being that the only reason to go to college was to find a husband.

Even today, there are those who advocate getting married young. For example, the notorious ‘Princeton mother,’ Susan Patton, who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal advising young women to “find a husband on campus before you graduate,” lest they miss out on getting a man while the getting is good. “Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated,” wrote Patton. Her assumption being that if women don’t land a decent man in college, they never will, because all the good marriage material will go on to marry someone younger and dumber after graduation.

This is, of course, a load of crap. Still, there are good reasons to get married young. Take writer Karen Swallow Prior, who got married at 19 – and stayed married.

“I can attest that marrying young…was most beneficial: to me, to my husband, and to the longevity of our marriage,” writes Prior in The Atlantic. Her article, The Case for Getting Married Young, does make a compelling case for the so-called ‘cornerstone marriage’.

The cornerstone marriage is a base that a couple builds on, rather than a crowning achievement that comes once you’ve got all the rest of your ducks in a row (more on that below). After marrying young, Prior “transformed from a party girl into a budding scholar,” graduating college and going on to earn two graduate degrees, including a PhD. Her husband “made music, built things, earned a teaching certificate, and became a teacher and coach.”

Prior recounts their days of being so poor they lived in a relative’s basement and were given groceries by their church.

“We worked and played and worshipped and prayed and travelled and fought together,” she writes. In the end, she believes those years of struggle helped her forge an unbreakable bond with her partner.

“It was not the days of ease that made our marriage stronger and happier: it was working through the difficult parts.”

The capstone marriage 

In contrast to the cornerstone marriage, the capstone marriage is entered into only after you’ve done everything else, possibly including getting your starter marriage out of the way.

In truth, while watching Girls might lead one to believe otherwise, not that many millennials are actually getting married in the first place. A Pew Center report shows only 26 per cent of millennials are hitched. Twenty-years ago, when Generation X was the same age as millennials today, 36 per cent of them were enjoying wedded bliss. And in 1980, 48 percent of Baby Boomers had tied the knot.

So then, why is the average age for marriage getting older?

In 2009, sociologist Mark Regnerus reported one possible reason is that more parents are encouraging their kids to finish college before they get married. Because of this, “our children now sense that marrying young may be not simply foolish but also wrong and socially harmful.” Add to that the fact that most people graduate college with crippling student loan debt they’re reluctant to bring into a marriage, and you get the phenomenon of people who delay getting hitched until they’re able to pay off their student loans.

But get this: statistics from Knot Yet, a project dedicated to studying the benefits and costs of delayed marriage, suggest holding off on marriage may actually have a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing.

‘Unmarried 20-somethings are more likely to be depressed, drink excessively, and report lower levels of satisfaction than their married counterparts,’ the report states.

Early marriage, early divorce?

According to Regnerus, “marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life.”

Regnerus asserts that what makes a marriage good is “persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I’ve met 18 year-olds who can handle it and 45 year-olds who can’t.”

Could it be that the ability to come up with a creative wedding hashtag and put on an Instagram-worthy celebration doesn’t translate to the ability to handle the thorny nature of marriage? As someone who’s been there, I can attest that getting – and staying – married takes a big dose of faith. And the New York Post‘s David Kaufman says that’s one thing millennials are sorely lacking.

“A lack of faith is, perhaps, the most defining millennial characteristic. Just 19 per cent of them believe that most people can be trusted.”

Kaufman posits that, lacking faith, millennials are giving up on their marriages instead of hanging in there when things get difficult, as they inevitably will. Sadly, it could be that by giving up, they’re missing out on the rich rewards that marriage offers – which last a lot longer, and are a lot better, than a viral proposal video or a few hundred ‘likes’ on Instagram.

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Comment: What do you think is behind the culture of disposable marriages?