What Has Become of the Impulse to Marry?

22 Apr 2021

Convinced that raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Mark Regnerus looked deeper into the marriage ecosystem of several countries, in particular among cohorts traditionally more inclined to marry. He gave STI the following interview concerning the book he’s published about what his study revealed.

STI Experts

Congratulations on your latest book, The Future of Christian Marriage (Oxford University Press, 2020)! What’s the book about? 

The book is an examination of the “marital impulse” among young-adult Christians in seven different countries around the world.

What moved you to write this book?

After I finished my last book, entitled Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (Oxford, 2017), I was a bit discouraged about what I had learned about the relationship scene among young adults in the United States. I decided to do two things: to focus on young-adult Christians to see how they were faring, and to expand my scope past the United States into other countries. I wanted to be open to learning whether there were good ideas elsewhere about fostering marriage. While not all of the book’s central storylines are happy ones, the topic itself—the desire to marry—was a more encouraging matter to study than was the general mating market.

Why did you focus on Christian marriage in particular?

Having already been aware that marriage rates had been in decline in the Western world, I wanted to know if the same pattern was true among Christians, for whom marriage tends to be held in greater esteem. That is, are Christians any different from the rest of the population? Do they talk about marriage distinctively? Does their faith motivate them here in such a way as to set them apart in marital timing? Those are the sorts of questions that motivated me.

How did you collect the data?

I decided to collect in-person interview data in eight different countries representing distinctive religious and geographical traits. I wanted representation of evangelicals, Catholics, Pentecostals, and the Orthodox, and I wanted it from across the globe. I located a reliable research partner in each site—someone whom I could trust to oversee the data collection project, the transcriptions of the interviews, and their translations, as well as to host a visit, a follow-up and interviews by me. In the end, we collected data from seven countries—Mexico, the United States, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, and Nigeria—having unfortunately missed out on a planned Asian site.

There’s a conventional ‘wisdom’ that marriage rates are declining and divorce rates climbing. Is this true?

It’s half true. In much of the world, yes, marriage rates are declining. Our common experience with COVID-19 didn’t help this at all, but it was already occurring. On the other hand, while divorce rates may be rising in some areas, overall divorce rates are decreasing, largely because marriage rates are decreasing, leaving fewer people to even be at risk of splitting up. In the West, this colossal delay and decline in marriage started around 1980, and continues today, although some countries seem to have bottomed out. Worldwide, there’s been a 32 percent drop in Catholic weddings since 1970. You can see this phenomenon clearly when you juxtapose weddings and funerals. In the US, there were nine Catholic weddings for every ten funerals in 1965. But that’s still a net “positive,” as 18 people were married for every ten buried. But by 2017, the ratio had dipped to 3.7 Catholic weddings for every 10 funerals, meaning the Catholic Church is now marrying fewer than eight people for every 10 who are buried. Unlike those from other Christian traditions, churchgoing Catholics are not simply free to marry in other venues, so this is a real marker of change.

Why is marriage slowing?

Marriage has been slowing for a variety of reasons. First, there has been an almost unnoticeable change in how people think about marriage, including Christians. Marriage has shifted from being a foundational experience to being about a “capstone.” Think about it. A foundation is necessarily hard-wearing. A capstone is an accessory. We now get ourselves ready for marriage, rather than marrying to get ourselves poised to accomplish common adult objectives—a home, a job, a family. But marital expectations and standards are high—for everyone, rich and poor alike. This means that the advantaged are consolidating their wealth and income by marrying off two successful people, while the disadvantaged are increasingly left without even support from each other. The capstone vision has this key problem: it’s turned marriage into a luxury good, unaffordable for many. As a result, I maintain that marriage—or rather, the lack thereof—is the social justice issue of our time.

Marriage is also slowing because, I claim, fewer people want what marriage is. Scholars typically maintain that marriage has dramatically changed. I don’t see a lot of evidence that the way in which people actually live out their marriages has changed all that much. We still want them to last. People expect faithfulness. They commonly hope to have children, if possible. No, marriage is not so much changing as it is simply receding. Fewer people want marriage in an era of increasing technology, gender equality, and secularization.

Is marriageability primarily about having enough money, then?

In part, but that’s not all. As fewer people need marriage—but many still want to marry—the criteria for marriageability expand for both men and women. We’re choosier. That could be good, but it certainly means fewer will marry in the future. Demographers project that nearly one-in-three 20-year-old women will not marry in their lifetimes, an estimate well above the one-in-ten who didn’t marry in the past. We are living through an epidemic of “uncertainty” about marriage and the future. People are aware of having more options - or so they think - and their expectations are high. In theory, committing should diminish all this uncertainty. Instead, delay is a far more common response to uncertainty than is acceleration.

Why is this a problem? 

Marital delay is not inherently a problem, and can be a strength. Indeed, rushing in without ample maturity, social support, and social control can backfire. What concerns me is that delay has become a dominant norm—practiced even without obvious reasons. What the general pattern of delay certainly means, however, is that fewer people—Christians included—will marry in the future. And that is in spite of their wishes, meaning that more and more people are not doing something they thought they would do and wanted to do. Delay predicts overall reduction everywhere.

What can be done to improve the situation?

Plenty can be done, and I describe eight social phenomena that can help matters. Rather, they can help or they can harm, depending on how they are employed. For example, I find that parental advice is a double-edged sword. Well-meaning mothers and fathers can offer fine advice, but lately, they nearly always counsel patience and delay. “Don’t rush into a relationship,” they caution. “You have plenty of time!” “Don’t be dependent on a mate.” As a result, they’re teaching their children that putting oneself in the trust of another person may be foolish and risky. Hence, many choose to wait out the risk—sometimes for years—to see how a relationship will fare before committing. Fast forward a few years, and those same parents are wondering why their children delay so long. Yet, I think they contribute to the uncertainty. 

I offer other suggestions in the book, as well. These range from the practice of telling exemplary marriage stories, improving premarital preparation, helping troubled marriages manage to “make it,” all the way to experimenting with pro-child subsidies—like Poland offers—that can help diminish a couple’s financial concerns. One of my clearest convictions, however, is that fostering distinctively Christian subcultures—especially in groups of, say, between 25 and 200 persons—is an excellent way to indirectly encourage matrimony. Fewer than 25, and it’s too small. Larger than 200, and it becomes difficult to meet people. Marriage shouldn’t be the point of such groups, but rather a welcome byproduct. Remember the author C.S. Lewis’s remark, “Aim at heaven, and you’ll get earth ‘thrown in.’ ” I think that mentality can work for marriage, too.

Is the future bleak for Christian marriage?

No, although this current “recession” in marriage will continue for a time. Marriage is a natural institution, and it will not disappear. I do, however, think that marriage will become more and more of a religious thing, as the secular world continues to slowly abandon it. This is what the Church must resist. Yet again, the Church will have to show the world what it means to love one another selflessly.

Mark Regnerus is Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, and Senior Fellow, Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.

Listen to an interview with Professor Regnerus about the book.

Re-visit the professor’s STI interview on his previous book, Cheap Sex.