Millennials, on the whole, are a little marriage phobic. (And since millennials are on the cusp of surpassing Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living adult generation, that’s a whole lot of wary people.)
Statistically, those in their 20s and 30s are putting off marriage and having children later in life. According to census data, the average age for a first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men; in urban areas like Washington and New York, those averages are even higher.
Some aren’t getting married at all. The divorce rate is going down, partially because millennials are waiting to partner up ― or not partnering up at all.
Of course, the apprehension could be tied to financial constraints. Stress over outstanding student debt, for instance, has a way of interfering with plans to marry or start a family. And many stave off marriage to get a foothold on their career.
But there’s also a pervading belief that there’s little benefit to obtaining a marriage certificate. Is there something about marriage ― going to the trouble of getting the government involved ― that puts undue pressure on an otherwise solid relationship, as some writers have suggested?
“I do see couples who were ‘solid’ at the beginning of their relationship and then get married but end up struggling and feeling that marriage ruined their relationship or that they are with the wrong person just a few years in,” said Liz Higgins, a therapist and the founder of Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas.
“In my clinical experience, the seven-year itch has begun to look more like the three-year one,” she said.
Why is that?
“I think our generation has taken on this idea somehow that if there is conflict or if you don’t feel happy in the relationship, you’re with the wrong person,” she said. “Divorce, though still expensive and loaded in many aspects, is a common path to take.”
When you see others ― your peers, maybe your parents earlier on ― take a glib approach to something so serious, it’s easy to become cynical. For others, what scares them off is the feelings of finality and permanence that marriage can evoke, said Kelifern Pomeranz, a psychologist in the Bay Area.
“And those feelings come with additional complexities such as combining your finances and navigating relationships with in-laws,” she said.
Prior to marriage, Pomeranz said, we often have “a sense of autonomy as we make life decisions to achieve our personal goals. Marriage shifts the focus from what is best for ‘me’ to what is best for ‘us,’ which may mean compromising on our personal preferences.”
Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, has also heard this sentiment expressed in therapy sessions with singles.
“For those who see the vows and commitment as restrictive, marriage is the end to their freedom and the beginning of a life of unmet desires and diminished options,” he said. “They may have liked viewing their relationship as a choice they freely chose each day, and when the commitment comes they’re very aware of the barriers and conflicts of the institution.”
Feeling stifled can indeed undo a marriage if a couple stops viewing the relationship as something that’s still growing and evolving after the legal documents are signed. But what’s equally damaging is the tendency to grow too comfortable in a marriage, Higgins said.
“I think that’s because from a psychological and systemic perspective, making the commitment of marriage actually places your relationship on a different level of security,” she said. “That’s when we can take it for granted. When a couple stops intentionally working on their relationship, paired with the natural trials, changes, and growth in their lives, this is where the insecurities can begin to brew.”
That’s a problem that any long-term couple faces, not just couples who marry.
“Just talking about those topics in an honest and frank manner will help couples see what they expect individually and why. This puts you far beyond many couples entering marriage.”
And then there’s the fear that marriage might change your partner. That, say, they operated on one level while you were dating (encouraging you to go out with your friends on the weekend, for instance) and a wholly different level after marriage (encouraging you to stay home and put in more couple time).
Howes said he hears complaints along these lines, usually after a client has separated from their spouse.
“People will describe it as a form of bait-and-switch: their partner was on good behavior to lure them down the aisle and once the papers are signed their true colors come out,” Howes said.
Changes like this do happen, Howes said, but it’s usually not fueled by any sort of maliciousness.
“Usually, the marriage has given the person the security to let their guard down and relax into the relationship, which may look like they’re not trying hard, are being selfish, or are taking their partner for granted,” Howes said.
How to handle your apprehensions if you do decide you want to get married
In spite of all these hangups ― and witnessing other couples fall prey to any number of the marital issues above ― even the most marriage-averse can have a change of heart with the right person.
How do you quiet your fears about marriage in those cases? Once you’re sure your partner is the one and that the timing is right, it helps to ask yourself how much of your apprehension is tied to the models of marriage you might have seen growing up: Did your parents divorce? Did they stay married but fight like cats and dogs throughout your childhood? That’s a major reason many singles say they’re apprehensive about marriage, all our therapists said.
It’s a valid concern, but remind yourself that your parents’ imprint doesn’t have to stick. Your relationship with your partner can be entirely different.
If you don’t like the marriage template your parents passed down, change it.
Discuss these concerns with your partner, then put some thought into what kind of marriage the two of you want to have, Howes said. Premarital (or even pre-engagement) counseling is helpful in this regard, but conversations between just you and your partner are worth having, too.
“Just talking about those topics in an honest and frank manner will help couples see what they expect individually and why,” he said. “This puts you far beyond many couples entering marriage.”
It also helps to recognize that a relationship is fluid and ever-changing, not a snapshot that freezes you in time, Pomeranz said. Recognizing that will help you safeguard your bond.
“You’ll both continue to individually grow and change after you get married and therefore need to be curious, open, and honest as you work to cultivate common interests and help each other to feel safe and valued,” she said.
The payout for that kind of diligence is huge.
“Relationships are hard work and require constant maintenance,” Pomeranz said. “But if you put in the work, you reap the benefit of having a partnership that is deeper and more fulfilling than any other connection in your life.”