Marriage and 20-Somethings

As the child of divorced parents who rarely argued — or at least did a really good job of shielding me from their disagreements — I read with interest this Boston Globe report on a study that found long-term negative consequences for children exposed to verbal fighting between their parents:

…15-year-olds exposed to their parents' verbal battles, or involved in family arguments, were more likely to be functioning poorly at age 30 than other people in the study who did not live in increasingly fight-filled homes.

The children exposed to family fighting were two to three times more likely to be unemployed, suffer from major depression, or abuse alcohol or other drugs by age 30. They also were more likely to struggle in personal relationships, but that was evident to a somewhat lesser degree.

The study puts in perspective this Washington Post op-ed by Mark Regnerus, who argues in favor of immediate post-college marriage between 23-year old women and men in their later twenties. (This matches up the genders' biological clocks, he says, urging women to reproduce during their "most fertile years" instead of focusing on careers. That's men's work!) Living as a married couple is more economically viable, Regnerus writes — which is true, as long as you take as given that government ought not to provide social services such as health care or child care. Those services would make it easier, of course, for people to be effective individuals and parents, regardless of whether or not they've found a romantic partner who makes their life easier, not more difficult.

But instead of social services, conservatives perennially offer up "marriage promotion." The problem is that traditional marriage is no more an obvious "good thing" for individuals and society than is living in a yellow house instead of a white one, or driving a Honda instead of a Toyota. As the new research on verbal abuse and children makes clear, what is important is healthy, supportive environments. Since we know fights about money are a leading cause of divorce, it makes perfect sense for people in their 20s to delay marriage until they are economically secure, which often entails focusing first on higher education and career success.

Incidentally, I'd add that Regnerus' portrait of college-educated 20-somethings is pretty alien to me. "Many women report feeling peer pressure to avoid giving serious thought to marriage until they're at least in their late 20s," he writes, claiming that young adults today prefer "sexual variety" to stability. I'm in my mid-20s, and while it's true that only a few of my friends have imminent plans to walk down the aisle, the vast majority of them are either in long-term committed relationships or looking for one. We are a generation raised during the height of the AIDS crisis, and ours is an age of serial monogamy and practice-marriages.

Even those who declare themselves ambivalent about the institution of monogamous marriage, like TAP contributors Courtney Martin and Jessica Valenti, are, in fact, aping marriage or even living it. While websites like this one might promote the idea that today's young people are "clubbing" and "sexting" up a storm, many of us are living much more conventionally than we even like to admit to ourselves.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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