When students go back to school, will they practice for divorce or prepare for marriage? That’s the question I asked myself as I read the recent Pew Center Report on the Generation Gap. The report shows that young Americans are fed up with the divorce culture. Unfortunately, many of those same young people are embarking on a lifestyle that is setting them up for marital failure: cohabiting in their co-ed dorms.
The table entitled, “Views About Divorce, by Gender, Race and Age,” illustrates the younger generation’s tougher line on divorce than their elders. In response to the question, “Should (divorce) be avoided except in an extreme situation, or (is divorce) preferable to maintaining an unhappy marriage?” only 30% of Baby Boomers and 32% of those over 65 thought divorce should be avoided except in an extreme situation. These two generations institutionalized the Divorce Revolution. The immediate post WWII generation implemented no-fault divorce. The Boomers practiced it with a vengeance.
Their children, and their younger siblings are not so enthused. Nearly half of the youngest generation surveyed, those between the ages of 18 and 29, believe divorce should be a last resort. The next older generation, born between 1958 and 1977, are Baby Boomer kid siblings and first offspring. Forty-two percent of this group think divorce should be avoided.
In my experience giving speeches on campuses, I have been stunned by how many students are sick of divorce. They’ll tell me about their parents’ four divorces. Or they’ll tell me how horrid it was when their mom kicked their dad out of the house. One young man described his humiliation watching his mom’s parade of boyfriends. Even students who disagree with me about things like gay “marriage,” admit I’m right about the problems of children of unmarried parents. These young men and women want lifelong marriage for themselves, and for their children.
Unfortunately, some of their other views will not serve them well in their ambitions for life-long married love. The same Pew report showed them to be tolerant of cohabitation. The trend toward cohabitation is partly due to fear of divorce: people view cohabitation as a safe alternative to marriage and as a test-drive for marriage. Unfortunately, neither of these perceptions is accurate. Cohabiting does not protect a person from the pain that breaking up so often causes. And, cohabiting couples are more, not less likely to divorce, if they ultimately do marry.
Many cohabiting couples don’t exactly “decide” on their status: they make a series of non-decisions. One sleep-over leads to another, with a few possessions being moved in each time. People tell themselves they are having a “test drive,” sitting back rationally deciding whether this relationship is really right for them. But their bodies have a different agenda.
People attach to each other through the sexual act. For women, the physiology of attachment takes place through a hormone called oxytocin, which we release when we are making love or nursing a baby. This hormone tells us to relax and connect to the person we’re with, whether it is the nursing infant who is radically dependent on us, or the partner who could become the father of a child. This attachment hormone is our body’s way of trying to create a family.
Although men famously do not attach to their partners as easily as women do, men do nonetheless bond. The cohabiting couple may believe they are testing out their relationship. But in fact, their bodies are creating an “involuntary chemical commitment,” whether they are really a good match for each other or not.
This is one reason why cohabitation is so often disappointing. If the couple breaks up, as they are statistically more likely to do than married couples, the pain of the breakup can be just as intense as if they were married. And if they do get married, they may not be as well matched as they think they are. They may wake up one morning and wonder who the heck they are in bed with. They may feel themselves to be in an “arranged marriage:” arranged by a couple of kids buzzing with hormones on the brain, rather than by adult parents. Their bodies have connected, in spite of their belief that they are hedging their bets.
Preparing for marriage or for divorce? The young want life-long married love. They deserve accurate information from us: cohabiting in the dorm rooms is a set-up for marital failure.