Waiting to Wed: Young Adults on Sex and Marriage

Article excerpt

SOME OUTSIDE OBSERVERS look at the relationship scene among young adults and consider that it is entirely about short-term hookups and that the majority of emerging adults are avoiding lasting and meaningful intimate relationships in favor of random sex. While sexual norms have certainly changed, there's no evidence to suggest that emerging adults are uninterested in relationships that last, including marriage. In fact, they want to marry. Lots of studies show that nearly all young women and men say they would like to get married someday. We're not talking half or even 80 percent, but more like 93 to 96 percent. Most just don't want to marry now or anytime soon. They feel no rush.

The slow but steady increase in average age at first marriage--to its present-day 26 for women and 28 for men--suggests that the purpose of dating or romantic relationships is changing or has changed. Most sexual relationships among emerging adults neither begin with marital intentions nor end in marriage or even cohabitation. They just begin and end.

Reasons for their termination are numerous, of course, but one overlooked possibility is that many of them don't know how to get or stay married to the kind of person they'd like to find. For not a few, their parents provided them with a glimpse into married life, and what they saw at the dinner table--if they dined with their parents much at all--didn't look very inviting. They hold the institution of marriage in high regard, and they put considerable pressure--probably too much--on what their own eventual marriage ought to look like. And yet it seems that there is little effort from any institutional source aimed at helping emerging adults consider how their present social, romantic and sexual experiences shape or war against their vision of marriage--or even how marriage might fit in with their other life goals.

In fact, talk of career goals seems increasingly divorced from the relational context in which many emerging adults may eventually find themselves. They speak of the MDs, JDs and PhDs they intend to acquire with far more confidence than they speak of committed relationships or marriage. The former seem attainable, the latter unclear or unreliable. To complicate matters, many educated emerging adults are concerned about possible relational constraints on their career goals.

Since emerging adults esteem the idea of marriage and yet set it apart as inappropriate for their age, waiting until marriage for a fulfilling sex life is considered not just quaint and outdated but quite possibly foolish. Sex outside relationships might still be disparaged by many, but not sex before marriage. And yet creating successful sexual relationships--ones that last a very long time or even into marriage--seems only a modest priority among many in this demographic group. Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist who focuses on emerging adulthood, notes the absence of relationship permanence as a value in the minds of emerging adults:

   Finding a love partner in your teens and continuing in a
   relationship with that person through your early twenties,
   culminating in marriage, is now viewed as unhealthy, a mistake,
   a path likely to lead to disaster. Those who do not
   experiment with different partners are warned that they will
   eventually wonder what they are missing, to the detriment
   of their marriage.

Arnett's right. The majority of young adults in America not only think they should explore different relationships, they believe it may be foolish and wrong not to.

Instead, they place value upon flexibility, autonomy, change and the potential for upgrading. Allison, an 18-year-old from Illinois, characterizes this value when she describes switching from an older, long-term boyfriend (and sexual partner) to a younger one: "I really liked having a steady boyfriend for a long time, but then it just got to the point where it was like, 'OK, I need something different. …