Marriage is still important to young adults, BYU researchers find


Marriage is still important to young adults, despite average marriage ages of both men and women rising in the past few years, Brigham Young University researchers found.

“Marriage is still very much a goal for the vast majority of young adults, despite decreases in actual marital transitions,” a recent study found in The Journal of Psychology states.

With many dramatic shifts in societal norms in the last several decades, marriage — defined in the study as “once the common and normative ‘capstone’ of adult relationships progression” — has started to move down the list of priorities young adults are spending their time and efforts on achieving.

“We see all of these national statistics that say people are delaying marriage,” said Brian J. Willoughby, who teaches in the School of Family Life at BYU. “We don’t really understand why these national trends are changing and we didn’t have a lot of information from the actual young adults telling us ‘here’s how I am thinking about marriage in my life.’ ”

In order to understand the young adult demographic and their thoughts on marriage, Dr. Willoughby and his associates, Scott S. Hall from Ball State University, and Saige Goff from BYU, looked at responses from a group of 700 young adults ages 18-30 attending a university in the Midwest.

“The study was aimed at trying to understand how young adults today are thinking about marriage, and how they are living it in their lives,” said Dr. Willoughby. The results they found are positive, finding that “young adults aren’t dismissing the idea of marriage. They are still giving very positive responses.”

Researchers had participants take an online survey that asked questions about marriage, what they thought about it and how much of a priority it is in their lives.

“We also asked them what their current relationship status was, who they are dating and how they are dating,” Dr. Willoughby said.

That first collection of data gave researchers a solid starting point.

“We got an initial snapshot on how they were thinking about marriage,” he said. They learned that marriage is considered important to young adults, even if they themselves aren’t getting married.

After the initial study, researchers followed a subsample of about 150 participants for a few years after. From that smaller sample they were able to check in with participants for an additional two years, gathering their thoughts about marriage, sometimes showing how those thoughts have evolved or changed with life experiences.

“We were able to track how their thinking process about marriage was actually changing over the course of those two and three years,” Dr. Willoughby said. “That is helping us start to really understand what the nature of marriage looks like for young adults and how they are navigating school and career and friends and relationships and all this stuff that is happening to them.”

Participants who had gone through a break-up were more likely to be more pessimistic in regards to marriage, while others reported an increase in marriage importance as they became older.

Researchers asked participants to rank four topics — marriage, parenthood, career and leisure activities — and asked them to give a percentage for each one for a total of 100 percent. Of the four categories, marriage was the highest average across the samples.

“Young adults aren’t dismissing this idea of marriage,” Dr. Willoughby said. “We asked them, ‘How important marriage is to you?’ and ‘How central do you think it is going to be in your life?’ They were still giving very positive responses.”

The results showed marriage was closely followed by the ranking of career and parenthood.

“The [participants] kind of anticipated having to balance those three things pretty closely,” he said. “There was no real evidence that they were saying marriage doesn’t matter to them. That was one of the big finds. We see them delaying marriage, with some never getting married, but it doesn’t look like it’s because they are devaluing marriage. If anything, they are reporting higher levels of importance for marriage than they have in the past.”

But rather than seeing marriage as a rite of passage in their twenties, many young adults are starting to see marriage as a “capstone” or reward that comes after someone finishes school, is stable in their career, after they own a home and have become financially stable.

“A lot of realities go into it,” Dr. Willoughby said. Whether it is a fear of divorce, societal pressures, an attitude that “marriage is important but not right now,” or any other reason, young adults are delaying marriage.

But further research shows those accomplishments — and waiting — doesn’t necessarily make marriages better, or easier.

“That is kind of tricky to get young adults to realize that if you prioritize getting married [younger] it might make life harder right then, but it might make your marriage better in 10 or 20 years,” Dr. Willoughby said. “With a lot of young adults, that sort of long-term thinking is sort of difficult for them.”

Although there can be more financial and economic sacrifices when marrying in early and mid-twenties, there are other byproducts that can be of benefit.

“I think from a research standpoint, one thing we know about successful marriages is that couples that last a really long time and are really satisfied generally have a sense that they work to accomplish something together,” Dr. Willoughby said.

As a couple works towards common goals in their life together, they experience sacrifice and success together.

“The research suggests that there is something about growing together and going through trials together that is pretty powerful for a lot of couples,” he said. “It takes sacrifice, and I think there are a lot of positive long-term benefits that come from that.”

Recognizing that many Church leaders have encouraged young adults to make marriage a priority, Dr. Willoughby said the idea of marriage isn’t the problem. The challenge for young adults comes when they are trying to follow the counsel from the leaders amid the trends of the world.

“The Brethren talk a lot about priority — they don’t talk a lot about specific ages — they talk about priority, making sure marriage and family and children are a priority in life,” Dr. Willoughby said. “That lines up very well with the research that we have. When people put those things in priority in their life they tend to do better.”

[email protected] @marianne_holman

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