In my previous post, I talked about how a less-than-perfect wedding day is good preparation for life. According to The National Marriage Project, though, fewer people are having a wedding day. In many ways, that’s understandable. Marriage is hard. Parenting is harder. Living on your own is easier. Living with someone isn’t easy — but you do have the option of simply stepping away when the lease is up.
And so, fewer people are getting married these days — and the ones who do are getting married later in life. Nearly 25% of men reach the age of 40 without ever getting married. And those men who do tie the knot don’t do so, on average, until the age of 30.
These stats, and so much more, come from the National Marriage Project’s new report, the State of Our Unions. While the title is attention-grabbing, the findings are even more so. Marriage is becoming increasingly an “add-on” to a successful life. Get through college, get your finances together, get your first home, and then figure out the marriage thing. This approach even has a name: capstone marriage (getting married as the pinnacle of reaching adulthood) vs. starting adulthood with it (which the authors call a cornerstone marriage).
On one level, capstone marriages seem to make sense. Why commit to something, especially something as life-changing as marriage, before you’ve figured out life? Why tie yourself down and limit your options when you’re young?
But this mindset springs from the idea that freedom comes through limitless options. It comes from the perspective that marriage and commitment (to say nothing of parenthood) restrain us, and keep us from “finding our true selves.”
But what if it’s exactly through commitments that we really find who we are? What if freedom is found in the restraints of relationship — and not in their absence? What if my identity is not primarily about how I see myself when looking inward — but through living outward? Who am I — and who do I become — when I choose to define myself not by the changing nature of what I’m feeling about myself, but by the pledges and promises I make to others?
This has to do with marriage, yes — and so much more. It’s about how we choose who we are, and it comes down to this question: Do I find who I am primarily through freedom from relationships, or through the freedom of relationships? This doesn’t mean that everyone must get married, or should. It doesn’t mean that only parents really know what life is about. But it does mean, I think, that we are more likely to be and become the people we are made to be when we choose to be in a committed relationship with others — for their good. This can look like marriage and/or parenting, or it can be fidelity to a church (especially through covid). This can involve lifelong friendships that we don’t discard when life gets hard, or simply putting down roots in a town or a neighborhood and loving those around us.
In other words, freedom is found not in limitless options, but in choosing to be defined by the relationships we commit to. In the process, we grow and are changed (even when things are difficult), for we have made a vow to walk through life with this person, this family, this church. We choose limits so that we can find ourselves in relationship, in commitment, in servanthood, in learning to face life with others on the journey.
In the marriage report, the researchers contend that while entering into marriage in one’s early 20s may feel risky, such relationships actually may be more stable. Why? Because those who choose a cornerstone marriage “may be unusually dedicated to marriage — or to one another. And later-marrying couples may have some significant challenges to surmount, such as the difficulty of forging a ‘we’ identity after living for ‘me’ for much of their early adulthood.”
So, this chart should concern all of us, regardless of our marital status — for the future of the family, of children, and of our next generation just might depend on how seriously we learn to find ourselves, not through our own sense of self and self-driven goals, but in relationship. For it just might be true the that the best way to find yourself, is to find yourself through relationships with others.
As John Ortberg has noted, for those who choose not to commit to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing. I think that’s something we all need to remember this Valentine’s Day.