Faith, family and the dropping number of marriages – part II

declining number of marriages

It’s a message young people in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hear early and often: You should get married because marriage is wonderful and family life is at the heart of the faith.

The problem is that church leaders haven’t grasped the power of cultural trends in technology, education and economics that are fueling sharp declines in statistics linked to dating, marriage and fertility, said Brian Willoughby of the Brigham Young University School of Family Life.

“The key word is ‘tension,’” he said. Among the Latter-day Saints, these numbers are “not falling as fast” as in other groups, “but our young people are feeling tensions between the patterns they see all around them and what they hear from their parents and religious leaders.

“We are seeing the same changes — only moving slower. The average age of people getting married is rising. Fertility rates are declining. … We can no longer assume that religious young people are some kind of different species.”

It’s urgent, he added, for congregations to “start making a more explicit case for marriage and family. Our young people know that marriage is important, but they don’t know specific reasons for WHY it’s important.”

The result is what some researchers call the “marriage paradox.” Young people continue to express a strong desire to “get married at some point,” but they place an even higher priority on other “life goals,” said Willoughby.

“Marriage becomes a transition in which they fear they will lose freedom or success. … They hear everyone saying: ‘You go to these schools and get these degrees. You get job one that leads to job two. Don’t let anything get in your way or get you off track.’ With this kind of head-down approach, serious relationships can be a distraction on the path to success. … The heart isn’t as important.”

Thus, marriage isn’t disappearing, but the population of young adults choosing marriage is shrinking — especially among those with little or no commitment to religious life. In a study published in 2020, Willoughby cited several reasons this matters, noting that married millennials report:

  • Relationships that are more “satisfying and stable” than those living “in other types of committed relationships.”
  • Significantly lower levels of depression, with better exercise and health trends.
  • Better access to health care, insurance and retirement benefits.

In Latter-day Saint congregations, said Willoughby, young women and men are asked to serve in parallel leadership networks, working side by side, week after week. This offers opportunities to spot potential spouses with shared beliefs and goals.

But there is one big problem: “More single men tend to drop out of the faith. Often, the ratio of women to men is way too high when it comes to young adults who are serious about marriage.”

Meanwhile, researchers are learning that more and more young men are struggling to master the kinds of basic life skills that make them attractive to women seeking marriage partners, said sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“I think quite a few women would be happy to meet a man at church and marry him,” he said. “But they are still going to want to know: ‘Is this man taking care of himself? Is he gainfully employed? Can he take care of a family? Is he decisive about the issues that matter the most in life?’”

At the same time, many religious leaders need to understand that many of today’s dangerous trends in mental and physical health are linked to the growing cloud of digital screens that dominate modern life, said Wilcox.

This is especially true with the social media programs that shape the lives of teenagers and young adults.

“Churches have to find ways to encourage men — single and married — to turn off the internet and their video games and get their acts together. … And let’s face it, it’s harder to make major course corrections in life when you’re in your 30s,” he said.

“All of this will require churches to do a better job of encouraging marriage, sanctioning marriage and helping young people prepare for marriage. … This has to go beyond the old games-and-pizza approach to youth work and what usually passes for ministries with single adults.”

  • Terry Mattingly leads and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.
  • First published by Religion Unplugged. Republished with permission.
  • Part II of II. Part I was published in the previous edition of CathNews.
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