For Rachel, the educational phase of her life was about freedom and independence, not commitments. She met plenty of men in her 20s, but none of them was ready for a serious relationship. She doesn’t entirely blame them. “Men have gotten rightfully confused about what the heck women want,” she said, “and aren’t really sure how to date women.”
After moving to Austin, Rachel met her husband on the dating site OkCupid “because I’m cheap,” she said, laughing, “and it was free.” Her marriage preceded her conversion, yet the two events felt like a package deal. Before becoming a Christian, sex was less meaningful, cohabitation was defensible, and marriage was a piece of paper issued by the state. No longer. After coming to faith and joining a Southern Baptist church, she now believes that marriage is a covenant before God and a sacred relationship.
Even more than marriage, the arrival of children matured the love between Rachel and her husband. Starting a family felt natural and intuitive. But she’s convinced that her husband and many men like him view work, marriage, and family as something more practical and functional. “I think men are meant to be the providers,” Rachel said. “You know that’s kind of what they’re designed for.”
Although Rachel landed on her feet, the fact is that fewer and fewer men like her husband are opting into matrimony and family. According to a Census Bureau survey taken in 2018, only 35 percent of 25- to 34-year-old men were married, a precipitous and rapid plunge from 50 percent in 2005.
Getting married is something humans have done for millennia out of economic practicality, if not out of love. Some challenges in tying the knot are old and mathematical—for example, more women are interested in matrimony than men. Others are recent and ideological, including the new norm of short-term relationships and the penchant for “keeping your options open.”
However, long before social distancing took its toll on marriage, I became curious about how the marital impulse was faring, especially inside the church. As a sociologist, I wanted to know: What forces push Christians away from matrimony? What scenarios encourage marriage? Are American Christians unique in their experience of these forces? And finally, are Christians elsewhere better at resisting the cultural voices that counsel them to be self-absorbed and skeptical about marriage?
Unfortunately, the kind of marriage I had in mind is no longer hip in the scholarly sphere. The late ethicist Don Browning said that for many academics, marriage is now considered “the ‘M’ word, almost in the same category as other dirty words.” Add Christianity to the mix, and you get the holy grail of unfashionable pairings among my peers.
Nevertheless, I persisted. Over the course of a year, my global research team and I spoke with nearly 200 churchgoing, young adult Christians across seven countries: Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria, and the United States. (Subjects quoted in this story are identified by pseudonyms to protect their identities.) Some of the interviewees, like Rachel, were recently married or engaged, but the majority of them were unmarried. Their average age was 27.
The takeaway from my research was more than clear. Skepticism about marriage is spreading well beyond the West. It was detectable from Mexico City to Moscow, Beirut to Lagos. As I studied the data and put the puzzle pieces together, it became obvious that among the globe’s young adult Christians, something is afoot with marriage. In an era of new options, more choices, greater temptations, higher expectations, consistent anxiety, and endemic uncertainty, nothing about the process of marrying can be taken for granted. Although I risk sounding alarmist, I can’t stress this point enough: The institution of marriage is under severe strain.
Ander, a 25-year-old engaged physician-in-training in Spain, is marrying soon. One might think that he of all men, a doctor marrying another doctor after six years of dating her, would exhibit confidence. Not quite. I asked him what he’s afraid of.
“Not to be free,” he said. “Tied to someone. Compromised. Things you don’t know that you don’t know. Maybe we’re okay now, but not later.” After asking him how, exactly, that might happen, he said, “Differences arise in a couple. The other person is different than you thought they were.” I asked if dating for six years wasn’t long enough to get to know someone. He replied, “I feel like I don’t know her that well.”
Ander said he has only modest Christian resources to help him deal with his concerns, even though his faith is strong and he’s entrenched in a supportive community of believers. He’s hardly alone in expressing uncertainty and its accompanying anxieties, to say nothing of the standard premarital jitters. But he recognizes that these misgivings have taken on a life of their own. “This fear is now pathological and is stopping us in some way from doing a good thing,” he said.