Millennials Rewrite the Marriage Script

January 17, 2017

Millennials are rewriting the marriage script of the last 60 years and establishing their own priorities around love and sex. They readily adapt to new dating technologies but are in no hurry to wed. That means big changes to an institution that has already changed radically in the last hundred years.

The History of Marriage

Anthropologist Helen Fisher sums up the vast, remarkable change to marriage norms in very recent history:

“Marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, now it’s the finale.”

That’s an extraordinary observation; has marriage really changed that much? Consider that throughout history marriage was about several things, but the relationship between the bride and groom was not one of them.

According to marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, “It was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force.” It’s estimated that the majority of marriages throughout history have taken place between first and second cousins. Monogamy didn’t become the norm until the ninth century, owing to pressure from the Catholic church. Society didn’t censure extramarital affairs for men until the 1800s, though they were never tolerated for women. Coontz says the love match evolved around 250 years ago, but mutual attraction has only been a prerequisite for marriage for the last hundred years.

This enormous shift in marriage norms was fed by the rise of market economies and away from agriculture. That led to a very diminished role for parents who wanted to exert influence. Democracies’ emphasis on individual freedoms also played a role.

What we’re seeing today in dating reflects the natural evolution of personal choice in mating, aided by advances in technology. The means may have changed, but the desired end is still the same: LOVE.

Slow Love

An article on Millennials and commitment at Scientific American observes that young people are delaying commitment rather than avoiding it:

“Fisher doesn’t see an apocalypse happening among young daters—instead, it’s “slow love,” she explains in a new update of her 1992 classic, “Anatomy of Love.” Slow love means that before marriage, people are taking time to sleep around, have friends with benefits, or live with their partners. In Fisher’s view, this isn’t recklessness; it’s a way to get to know a mate better before signing up for a life with that person.

Statistics show that cohabitation is increasingly common – in 2010 around half of women reported having lived with a partner before marriage. The living together stage is also lasting longer, having recently doubled from about one year to two.

Fisher also points out that Millennials are wary of divorce. They want to marry – once. Taking things slow increases their chances of marital success.

“These days, people are so scared of divorce that they want to be absolutely positive of who they’re going to marry long before they tie the knot,” she says.”

Delaying Sex

We also know that Millennials are having fewer sexual partners than any generation in sixty years.

Fisher notes that research of dating websites show that “only 3 percent of men say what they’re looking for is just to meet a lot of people, and only 1.6 percent of women say the same.”

“The vast majority, when you ask them what they are looking for, say they are looking for some sort of partner and some sort of commitment.”

It’s important to note that while Millennials have fewer partners, they’re not abstaining from sex – 85% report being sexually active within the last year. They’re less promiscuous and more commitment-oriented.

Fisher believes that all of this is good for marriage in the long run. We no longer marry strangers, we marry people we know exceptionally well. Delaying sex is one way of fostering that development.

Washington Post article about Millennials delaying sex also points out rather than empowering women to have casual sex, hookup culture has empowered women to say no:

“Delaying sex is not necessarily bad, experts say: Being intentional about when to have sex can lead to stronger relationships in the long run. The trend may also reflect that women feel more empowered to say no, said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

“As people have gotten much more accepting of all sorts of forms of consensual sex, they’ve also gotten more picky about what constitutes consent,” Coontz said. “We are far less accepting of pressured sex.”

For a recent example of the turn this conversation has taken, consider the holiday debate over Baby It’s Cold Outsidewhich went from Best Original Song Oscar in 1950 to Date Rape Anthem in 2016.

Millennial Ambitions

Interestingly, Fisher believes that Millennials’ focus on their careers is not only keeping them out of relationships while young, they’re also avoiding casual sex:

“Today’s young people are “a very ambitious generation,” Fisher told Business Insider. She believes that millennials are focusing on their careers over sex and love, and holding off on having regular sex until they’re ready to commit to a serious relationship.

In my recent post Relationships Promote Career Success, I argued that avoiding relationships to advance one’s career is poor strategy. But Fisher points out something important, especially for young people recently out of school. Getting established in a career first may make you more attractive to potential mates:

“The more you have to offer a person in terms of education and earning power and social net worth, the more likely you are to find a partner of higher ‘mate value…Millennials could be avoiding sex because that’s one of the first steps of a relationship, and they are looking “to increase their ‘mate value’ first.

The sex is going to come along, they know that. It’s everywhere for them when they want it. They’re choosing not to have this because they’re trying to do something else.”

Technology as a Tool

To some it may appear that technology is destroying romance. It’s impersonal and superficial. Fisher points out that dating sites and apps are not “dating” tools – they’re “introducing” tools. Note how she says that once you have identified someone you’re interested in meeting you need to go interview them.

Dating has gotten more transactional as the role of technology has grown. It necessarily features filters, e.g. swipe right, swipe left, because the number of potential mates being served up is enormous. We need ways of narrowing the field. Fisher goes so far as to estimate that you’ll like 1 out of every 9 people you go on a first date with. That’s a lot of duds, not to mention a lot of wasted time and energy. The real challenge with technology is in finding ways to sort potential matches effectively before meeting.

Courtship will continue to change rapidly as new technologies emerge. Survival of the fittest will mean successfully decoding and deploying these new means of “introducing” potential mates.

The good news is that the human desire for love and partnership is deeply embedded in our psyches. Even in the old days when young people got married off without having a say, they bonded and became sexually attracted to one another (at least enough to keep reproducing). New technologies present challenges, but the story can still end with Happy Ever After. In fact, now that we’re thinking with our brains, that may be more likely now than at any time in our history. 🙂