Friday, February 12, 2010

Should You Marry Young?

Four decades ago American culture underwent a major change. Seemingly en masse, women decided that they would postpone marriage. Not that they were deferring gratification; they wanted to wait before sacrificing gratification to a mind-numbingly oppressive institution.

Rather than marry straight out of college women would go out on their own, make their way in the world, develop their careers, accumulate a wealth of experience and self-knowledge, and then, and only then, commit to a marriage.

Thanks to science and technology women did not have to marry young. They did not have to find a man to support them. They did not have to move from their father's house to their husband's house. And they did not have to reserve sex for reproduction.

As it happens, this is all based on a mistake in reasoning. The fact that you do not have to do something does not mean that you should not do it. The kind of mind that declares that since it does not have to do something it is not going to do it should be called by its proper name: adolescent.

Beyond all that, as David Lapp reminds us in an illuminating article in today's Wall Street Journal (link here), the culture was telling everyone that their twentysomething years were the perfect time to pursue personal growth and fulfillment through a voyage of personal discovery.

By trying out different lifestyles and amassing a variety of human experience, they would discover who they really were. Once they were fully realized human beings they could make a better decision about marriage and would thus make the best of a bad institution.

I find it impossible to read through this kind of list and not think that the culture is telling a large group of people that in order to become fully realized human units-- whatever that is-- they must undergo psychotherapy.

Could it be that the culture has prescribed late marriage in order to create a market for psychotherapy?

Of course, you would expect me to say as much. So here is Lapp's summary of the culturally accepted policy: "Young people sense that marriage marks the end of adventure and the beginning of monotony. Implicit is the dichotomy between individual fulfillment now and commitment later."

With a wisdom that belies his relative youth, Lapp offers a cogent answer to the therapy culture: "As focused as we young adults are on self-development, what if the path to that development is actually learning to live with and to love another person? We may be startled to find that the greatest adventure lies not in knowing oneself as much as in knowing and committing to another person."

When people think that they have to choose between self-actualization and commitment, they have, as Lapp says, fallen prey to a false dichotomy. Why would you not be able to explore the Roman ruins with your spouse in hand? Why would you not be able to party all night with your spouse at your side? As a recent research report concluded: "doing it together is better than doing it alone." Link here.

Of course, the dichotomy depends on the belief that singlehood is free-spirited, adventurous, autonomous, and fun while marriage is a boring commitment that brings with it responsibilities and duties to other people.

Let's recognize this as a calumny against marriage. It is also an invitation to protracted adolescence. And it is also an exhortation to sacrifice your good character on the altar of self-fulfillment.

If you were wondering why the culture shift in favor of deferred marriage was accompanied by a spike in the divorce rate, this might offer something of an insight.

To make a fetish of adolescent irresponsibility, on the grounds that it going to allow you to act out more of your unrealized potential, is simply a way to induce people to delay being an adult.

You have the potential to commit murder, to commit cannibalism, to commit grand larceny... and you have the potential to be rude, inconsiderate, tactless, and insulting. To imagine that you need to be sufficiently adventurous to do all of this in during your voyage of self-discovery, and that it will tell you who you really are, is a piece of sophistry that we would all do well to ignore.

If you truly go out to live the great adventure of twentysomething singlehood, on the grounds that it is going to provide you with insight into who you really are, keep in mind that most of it os just going to give you more to a more difficult period of adjustment.

Worse yet, many of these experiences are traumatic. If you decide, as a personal policy, to postpone marriage, this will make your relationships more fragile, it will lead you into attachments and experiences that will be traumatic, and it will undermine your ability to trust any individual who might be a spouse.

More than that, the notion that two fully actualized individuals will be more ready to undertake a marriage is incoherent. Experience has shown us all that it is easier to build a life together than to merge two fully actualized lives.

If you spend your twenties indulging your taste for psychic adventure, you will also develop a multitude of habits that will be yours and yours alone. Bachelor habits only one person into account. They show no deference or respect for any other individual.

From the perspective of what makes for a good marriage, they will be yet more junk that you will need to jettison. Once bad habits become ingrained they are much harder to live down.

1 comment:

Kami said...

My husband and I married very young by today's standards: 21 and barely 22. We have been married now for a little more than a year, and we are enjoying many fun adventures together. We learn things a lot more quickly together, too. You have two heads, two hearts, and two pairs of hands - and two heads are better than one, right?