Millennials are killing divorce, but where does that leave marriage?

October 15th, 2018

Those of us in churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary heard Jesus’ strong words against divorce from Mark 10 earlier this month. Talking about divorce is a minefield in the best scenario, but it’s a particularly sensitive subject for many given the history of how the church has handled divorce and divorced people in the past. No one gets married hoping it will fail, so the news that the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen seems to be good on its face. From 2008 to 2016, the divorce rate declined by eighteen-percent, according to sociologist Philip Cohen, primarily due to millennials divorcing much less than previous generations, namely Baby Boomers.

In general, millennials are waiting longer to get married and have children and so are likely to be more emotionally mature and financially stable, contributing to the durability of their marriages. But it is a cause for concern that poorer and less-educated Americans are not opting to get married and instead choosing to cohabitate and even raise kids together, relationships which studies show are not as stable as they have been in the past. This leads to the conclusion that marriage is becoming a more exclusive, albeit more durable institution. Though the divorce rate is falling, the dissolution of long-term, committed relationships is probably remaining about the same.

The cultural institution of marriage is constantly in flux, despite whatever theological and sacramental commitments the Church holds. For example, we no longer think of marriage as the literal property transfer of a woman from her father to her husband. In our modern era, the legality of same-sex marriage and the widespread acceptance of divorce has also altered marriage as an institution. Recently, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that all couples in England and Wales will be able to opt for a civil partnership in lieu of marriage, a preference some have due to the cultural and religious baggage of marriage.

Given the decrease in stigma against cohabitation of romantic partners and child-bearing and child-rearing outside of wedlock, one might ask why people should get married at all. Whatever individual decision couples make with regard to their personal values, I am concerned that marriage is becoming the purview of wealthier, more highly-educated couples, and I believe that the church should be concerned as well. Outside of the legal and civic benefits accessible to married couples, Christian marriage is also a covenant and, in certain traditions, a sacrament. If we do value marriage as a covenant and a sacrament, not just a legal status, we should encourage it of all seriously committed couples, not just those who are more likely to be featured in the local newspaper’s wedding section.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer states that marriage is intended by God for a couple’s “mutual joy” and “for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” In The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, marriage is marked by “love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity.” The traditional vows of “for better or for worse” are also evidence that marriage is not reserved for reaching a particular educational or professional status.

While the lower divorce rate among young people is something to celebrate, we must be careful not to overlook the skepticism and wariness that they have towards marriage in general and how external factors like low wages and massive debt contribute to their delay in meeting markers of American adulthood like marriage or purchasing a home. By promoting the commitment and covenant of marriage as separate from particular economic or professional goals, the church might be able to support couples who would want to marry but might not feel that they are “ready.” Even in a changing culture, marriage is important as a foundational unit of human community and, for the church, as a mystery of the union between Christ and the Church.

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