Why We're Not Getting Married

For the under-40 set, marriage just seems unnecessary and constricting. Hannah Seligson on why her generation isn’t ready to tie the knot.

My grandparents went on five dates over the course of 10 months before my grandfather proposed. They were married for 47 years. But that was back in the day when the path to the altar was linear and less complicated. There wasn’t the hemming and hawing, angsting and cogitating about marriage, like in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new memoir, Committed.

Each thinks the other person is marriage material, but how can they commit when there are un-traveled continents and four more career paths to explore?

Today, my grandparents’ courtship looks like an anachronism, particularly to the newest generation of urban, college-educated, twenty- and thirty-something daters. The confluence of easy access to birth control, the women’s liberation movement, and the advent of marrying for love and compatibility, as opposed to economics, obligation, and fear of having a child out of wedlock has birthed an offspring: a new romantic rite of passage that I explore in my book: A Little Bit Married

There is now a huge gray area between dating and marriage—it’s a place where men and women are forming long-term relationships that have many similarities to marriage, yet aren’t quite. It’s the place beyond the point of being just boyfriend and girlfriend, but not married. These are relationships that 50 or 60 years ago would have most likely culminated in marriage, but today are just part of the relationship experimentation that’s endemic to many people’s twenties and thirties.

A look at the numbers bears this out. The median age for a first marriage in the United States is the highest it’s ever been—27.1 for a man and 25.3 for a woman—and it skews even higher in many cities, giving way to more years of dating before marriage. In fact, 23 million adults are in unmarried committed relationships. Over 12 million unmarried partners live together, a trend that is being exhibited in a large part by the 25-to-34-year-old demo.

"Dating is not what it was 50 years ago. Dating is evolving into this gradual process of moving in. It involves nights spent over at one or the other’s place. There’s the toothbrush, then a few items of clothing. All of a sudden, they realize they’ve moved in,” says Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies cohabitation.

“A Little Bit Marrieds” are the ones that write a prenup on a piece of loose-leaf paper as they move in, detailing who paid for the Ikea bureau, who brought the flat-screen TV, whose parents gave them the bed. They don’t share the cost of anything “just in case.” They each have separate shelf units for their books and DVDs. Are they roommates or are they building a life together? Are they husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend, or roommates? They may have seen friends go through a whole lifecycle—dating, marriage, and kids—but they still don’t own a couch together. Each thinks the other person is marriage material, but how can they commit when there are un-traveled continents and four more career paths to explore? Everything is great—but what if there is something better out there?

Even royalty march along to the A Little Bit Married beat. Prince William, heir to the British throne, and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, have been dating for more than six years. The snarky British tabloids dubbed her “Waitie Katie.”

So why has the sprint to the altar been replaced with a much slower gait?

We want it all. We are looking for someone to be our gym buddy, career counselor, best friend, lover, creative inspiration, and therapist. In short, the intimacy expectations of young people today are off the charts. The soul mate fetish has given way to lines like: “I want to be as excited to see him in 30 years as the day we first met.” According to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, an overwhelming majority (94 percent) of never-married singles between 20 to 29 agrees, “when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” And that quest for “certainty” and that magic mix of qualities can take years of dating to uncover.

Fear of divorce. The divorce culture, pioneered by the Baby Boomers, is shaping the dating landscape today. With the memories of custody battles, acrimonious dinner tables, and a general atmosphere of family unrest being a not-so-distant flicker in the past, Gen Ys are resolute about not repeating the mistakes their parents made, breeding a rigorous evaluation process for prospective mates. “I want to be sure” has become their Greek chorus and a way to go into marriage with all the right armor.

Adulthood is for later. The timeline to adulthood has been loosened, says Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor at Clark University who studies twenty-somethings. Arnett points out that the concept of “emerging adults” didn’t even exist before Gen Ys, because in previous generations there was no transition into adulthood, you just became one. The zeitgeist today, however, is expressed through lines like: “I’m in no rush. Case in point: the hottest comic strip on the papers this year is Dustin, about an unmarried, unemployed 23-year-old who lives at home with his parents.

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Careers take longer to forge. The days of going to work for one company and retiring with a gold watch 40 years later are long gone. Careers are now something we have many of and the path to them is often murky, at best. The new order of adulthood typical of this generation is to establish oneself in a career before getting married. For men in particular, this new order of events is causing an interference with mating—research has consistently shown that whether and when a man marries is closely tied to the adequacy and stability of his earnings.

A bounty of birth control. Before birth control, a good part of the impetus to get married was, quite simply, it was too risky to have sex outside of marriage. As a male 28-year-old “A Little Bit Married” said: “If I had to be married to have sex, I would probably be married, as would every guy I know.”

Hannah Seligson is a journalist. Her book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door, which spotlights and uncovers a major trend in dating today, the long-term unmarried relationship, was just published by Da Capo Press.