Are Millennials Reinventing Marriage for Better or Worse?
It’s December, a time when more men pop “the question” than any other month. And while proposals and weddings have become bigger productions in recent years, one thing hasn’t changed all that much is marriage.
However, when you consider that no one really needs to get married anymore; couples can live together, make babies, have sex and find financial security without tying the knot, it’s interesting to look at how millennials are choosing to get married.
Even though most in their 20s are — wisely — delaying marriage and sometimes avoiding it altogether, many say they still want to get hitched, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. Except, thanks to millennials’ openness to change, their marriage may look a lot different than their parents’ marriage. Which is a good thing.
Here’s how millennials will likely change our one-size-fits-all traditional marriage model:
Parenting trumps love
About 52 percent of millennials say that being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life while a mere 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage. So don’t be surprised if more would-be parents start looking for someone who’ll be a great mom or dad instead of being The One or a soul mate.
There are already numerous websites like Modamily.com and Coparents.com that match women who are interested in being moms with men who are interested in being dads — no romance necessary.
Having a non-romantic co-parent is a lot easier than raising a child solo, emotionally and financially, and it removes a lot of the conflict that is hurtful to kids (which occurs in intact and divorced families).
There are many studies suggesting that kids need consistency, stability, and parental warmth and love, but none that indicate kids need their parents to love eachother (and there are many divorced couples who are great co-parents and who clearly don’t love each other any more, but are kind, respectful and act lovingly toward each other).
As Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel says, eroticism is challenging to maintain in the comfort and consistency necessary to raise children; that’s why it may make sense for some to separate love and sex from parenting.
Monogamy? No, monogamish
You know how it goes — meet someone, fall in love, decide you’re a couple and, boom — sex with anyone else is out of the question. Except more millennials are entertaining the idea of ethical non-monogamy and partnerships that are monogamish, a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage to describe couples who are committed to each other while also embracing the occasional sexual adventure with others.
For millennials driving today’s technology-driven world, monogamish arrangements are a no-brainer, according to entrepreneur Chris Messina in a recent CNN post.
“With the advent of connected mobile devices and the Internet, we’ve entered into the era I’ve dubbed Big Dating. Big Dating unbundles monogamy and sex. It offers to maximize episodes of intimacy while minimizing the risk of rejection or FOMO. Today’s most interesting apps (Snapchat, Secret, et al) are designed to support Big Dating, offering discreet, asynchronous, anonymish, non-exclusive communications,” he says.
Same with infidelity. Esther Perel says affairs don’t necessarily have to mean the end of a marriage. Many couples are finding ways to define — or redefine — what monogamy means in their relationship, The New Monogamy author Tammy Nelson says.
And if nothing else, the Ashley Madison hack earlier this year indicated that monogamy is troublesome for many. One study found that a growing number of married men and women under the age of 35 have already had affairs.
We may not be ready to give marital sexual fidelity the boot, but we certainly seem ready to at least question it.
Speaking of technology and FOMO, what about giving marriage a test ride — a “beta marriage”?
Sure, marriage has traditionally been “until death do us part,” but let’s face it — many of us aren’t marrying that way. In fact, 40 percent of newlyweds in 2013 had already tied the knot at least once before.
Short-term marriage is a concept that’s been around for a long time — there were five-year marriage contracts in ancient Japan and a renewable marriage license was proposed (but didn’t pass) in Mexico City as recently as 2011. But we’re finally at a point where we can make it work.
Beta marriages are different than cohabiting because cohabiting couples don’t get treated the same by family, friends and society, nor do they see themselves the same as married couples do — even Justin Theroux said being married to Jennifer Aniston after four years of living together “felt different.” Because it does.
And let’s not forget that the government gives married couples more than 1,000 financial perks and legal protections; unless you have a cohabiting agreement, you are taking a big risk.
More and more millennials say they believe a marriage can be successful even if it doesn’t last forever. And they’re right; couples can decide for themselves what will make their marriage a success, not just making it “until death.”
Plan your wedding, plan your marriage
Not every couple hires a wedding planner, but 19 percent do, according to The Knot. No one would fault overwhelmed couples from seeking help — and discounts — when creating their perfect day, but how many couples actually plan for the many days that come after? Not many.
In fact, between 30 percent and 50 percent of couples who are offered premarital education aren’t interested, and only about 30 percent of couples in general get premarital counseling.
In some ways it’s understandable — when you’re newly engaged, planning your wedding and things are going great, talking about the hard stuff seems unnecessary and just one more thing to do.
Why bring up problems that don’t exist, especially when “counseling” sounds like something couples need when things aren’t going well? And, in truth, even premarital counseling has its drawbacks.
Still, if couples want their marriage to be a success by their definition of “success,” they’ll need to share openly and honestly what they expect from each other and themselves.
Kids, money, sex, chores — these are the issues most couples fight about. Rather than leave a lot unspoken or assumed, a written plan gives couples a baseline that they can review and revise as necessary.
Research shows that when couples have matched expectations, they have happier partnerships. Honestly, isn’t that what you want to say “I do” to?
Vicki Larson is an award-winning journalist, co-author of "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels" (Seal Press), blogger and freelancer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post and elsewhere. The mom of two millennials, she’s passionate about encouraging people to live their most authentic lives and questioning the status quo. In her spare time, you'll find Vicki hiking, biking, camping and kayaking as often as she can. Photo by Dieter Zander.