“Abandon hope all ye’ who have passed the age of 23 and not found a spouse.”
That, in a nutshell, is the argument that launched a thousand opinion pieces on early marriages.
Writing last month in “The Daily Princetonian,” alumni Susan Patton urged young co-eds to get busy finding a husband before their chance at marriage passed them by.
What’s followed, over the past four weeks, has been a chorus of “yeas” and “nays” in just about every major news daily and magazine in the country, some arguing for earlier marriages, others arguing against. (See here, here, and here for a sampling)
The arguments are well-intentioned. People want to stem the growing tide of single adults not committing to a primary vocation (43 percent of the U.S. population and rising), not to mention the disintegration of family life; and age is an attractive hook on which to hang one’s hat. It’s a simple, concrete solution to say that everything would be better if more people married at 23…or 43.
But it’s not the right solution.
Some people should, of course, get married at 23. Others should wait until 43. Or 83. There’s much to be said for both earlier marriages (having babies and adjusting to life with another person are easier) and later marriages (they tend to end more in death and less in divorce).
But just saying, “Marry early” or “Marry late” isn’t helpful. It doesn’t address the real reasons people aren’t marrying, and it does little to solve the larger problems marriage faces. Remember, it was our early-marrying parents and grandparents who invented the no-fault divorce culture.
So why aren’t people marrying? Why is there this new kind of vocations crisis? And how is that feeding the larger crisis in marriage itself?
1. People are busy chasing after false gods.
Most of us grew up hearing that what would make us happy was money or power, fame or “stuff,” not cuddling babies or dying to self for the good of another. We also were told to put our education and careers first, to pursue what the world thinks impressive. But we weren’t told to pursue what God thinks impressive. We weren’t encouraged to bring him into the career planning and life planning process or taught how to discern his will for our life.
The results? Men and women who spend their lives trying to measure up to everyone’s expectations, save for the one Person whose expectations actually matter. Men and women who don’t know who God made them to be or how he wants them to live. Men and women who are trapped in careers for which they’re not suited, relationships that have turned destructive, and lives that aren’t leading them to joy.
Some of those people probably should have married at 23. Others should have become priests. Or missionaries. Or missionaries who then married at 35. But because God was never allowed into the equation, they followed the wrong path. All it takes to do an about face is to let him back in. But many people aren’t doing that. They just keep walking…in the wrong direction.
2. People don’t understand what marriage is.
Over the last half-century or so, “happily ever after” became not an ending for fairy tales, but rather an expectation for marriage. Likewise, people decided looking for a spouse meant looking for a soul mate, the one person who could fulfill their every emotional and sexual desire.
And they’re still looking. They’re looking and looking and looking, but never finding the perfect fit.
Reason being? There is no perfect fit…save Jesus. In the end, he’s the only one who can completely fulfill us, who will never disappoint. Which is why the Church doesn’t teach that marriage will fulfill us. It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to help us make the journey to the One who will fulfill us. It’s a holy calling whose ultimate purpose is to make us holy. And that doesn’t happen through long walks on the beach. It happens through feeding a crying baby at 3 a.m. or mowing the lawn when we’d rather watch the game, through forgiving when we’d rather fight and staying when we’d rather leave.
It’s those daily deaths to self—some ordinary, some extraordinary—that make both for a successful marriage and a successful journey to God. When you know that, you look for a spouse differently. You also approach marriage differently. When you don’t know that—when all you know is what Hollywood tells you—well, you just keep shopping. Or you buy but demand a refund when your purchase inevitably disappoints.
3. People are wounded.
Chasing after false gods and looking for a spouse in all the wrong ways quickly takes its toll. Mistakes are made and wounds incurred, wounds that can make the bearers all but incapable of (or wary of) marriage.
That means we’ve now got almost an entire population of men and women from 18 to 80, who are in no shape to enter into a healthy, loving, life-giving relationship. Some don’t see that. Others do see but have no interest in changing their situation. It seems easier, safer, to just pretend the wounds aren’t there.
Obviously, that’s silly. God’s grace is rich, and his mercy is abundant. The payoff for working through our woundedness and entering into a loving marital relationship (or the priesthood or consecrated life) is a thousand times more rewarding than the comforts of just hanging out by ourselves, licking our wounds.
But if the devil is great at anything, he’s great at deceiving. And he’s deceiving a whole lot of people on that point right now.
That’s why people aren’t marrying and staying married like they used to. Or, at least, it’s a good part of the reason. And addressing those problems—not just advocating for legions of child brides or graying brides—is what has to happen if we want to see this new vocations crisis reversed.
The truth is, men and women who are marriage material are in short supply right now. Telling people (especially faithful Catholics) to get married at 23 is almost like telling people to win the lottery. It might be a good thing for them. Or it might not. Regardless, so much is out of our control. That’s just life in a thoroughly messed up post-Christian culture.
But that life doesn’t have to be a miserable life.
When you live your single years as God intends you to live them—faithfully, obediently, chastely, seeking truth, and making a gift of yourself to all those around you—there is wholeness. There is peace. There is joy.
At least, that’s been my experience.
Single at 38 certainly wasn’t my plan. My plan was married at 23. It hasn’t worked out that way. But you know what? I don’t have any regrets. My single years haven’t been easy. But the alternative—knowingly stepping out of God’s will—would have been much harder.
Besides, the years haven’t been wasted. They’ve been beautiful, blessed years, and if I ever do marry, every one of them will contribute to making me a better wife and mother.
So, if you’re not married at 23 or 33 or 43, don’t panic. Look to God’s will. Deepen your understanding of marriage. Don’t hurt yourself, and deal with the hurts you’ve got.
If you do all that, there’s no guarantee of a spouse. But there is a guarantee that you will be doing something real to fix the marriage crisis in our culture. Even more fundamentally, there’s the guarantee of grace. There’s the guarantee of walking side by side with Christ. And that’s the best guarantee of all.