The period of time referred to as “emerging adulthood” has been redefined, allowing young adults to alter their goals and lifestyles. Marriage is no longer viewed as an essential step to adulthood, nor is it greatly valued. With these changes in today’s culture, young adults have been allowed to give in to their fears of rejection, responsibility, and mistakes—leaving a generation failing to commit.
A Generation Failing to Commit
The ages between18 and 25 have become “a distinct and separate life stage, a strange, transitional never-never land between adolescence and adulthood in which people stall for a few extra years, [postponing] … adult responsibility” (Grossman, 2005, para. 4). This new stage of life has been defined in research as “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 2004). Researchers have found great differences when comparing previous and current generations’ definitions of, and transitions into, adulthood. For example, in the past, marriage was a rite of passage for emerging adults. It was expected that children would leave and set up their own households (Whitehead & Popenoe, 2002). However, today these pressures have essentially disappeared. Research done on emerging adulthood by Jason Carroll (2009) shows that the process of becoming an adult is often seen as a transition from being cared for by others, such as parents, to being able to care for one’s self. In contrast, marital readiness is seen as a transition from being responsible for one’s self to being able to care for others, such as a spouse or children. Thus, marriage is now viewed as only an eventual goal in adulthood rather than the initial developmental step.
Additionally, the culture surrounding the institution of marriage has drastically shifted. Marriage is no longer viewed as the highest priority or as a lasting union. Only 32% of high school senior girls agree that “most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone” (National, 2007). This is not surprising considering in the past 40 years the number of marriages has decreased by almost half, and in the last 30 years the number of cohabiting couples has quadrupled (National, 2007). This shift away from marriage has made it so that commitment in relationships is not a priority for most young people today.
As part of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, which monitors and measures trends in dating and marriage, Barbara Whitehead and David Popenoe (2002) presented research on men’s commitment level in dating. Most of the reasons they found for why men would not commit were related either to fears or to changes in society. Specific reasons for men’s lack of commitment included wanting to avoid divorce and financial risks, wanting to wait until they were older or until they had a house, and fearing that marriage would require too much change and compromise. These are legitimate concerns, but they should not be deterrents for marriage. Although fears of rejection, responsibility, and mistakes have always influenced dating decisions, with the changed expectations of today’s dating culture, they have led to a generation failing to commit.
The “Hanging Out” Culture
Changes in commitment have brought with them changes in dating. Across college campuses, traditional dating is becoming a thing of the past. Defining a date was not hard long ago: “Men and women went out together on a planned activity, in which most often the man initiated the date, picked the woman up, and paid for any expenses” (Glenn, 2001, p. 24). It was a culture of courting—dating to find a partner and then marrying him or her. However, according to a recent national college survey of 1,000 female students done by Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt (2001), only half of the subjects reported having been on six or more dates during their entire college career, and one-third of the women had been on two or fewer dates during college. In an essay for the New York Times, Joel Walkowski (2008) said, “I’m not sure I know anyone who has ever had a real date” (para. 2).
Instead of dating, college students have turned to “hanging out,” which is when mixed groups spend time together in a variety of settings. A study done by Bruce A. Chadwick and several colleagues (2007) at Brigham Young University (BYU) found that 97% of BYU students hang out at least once a week, and 28% of BYU men hang out six or more times a week. Speaking to BYU students, Dallin H. Oaks (2005) described this new trend: “Dating involves commitments, if only for a few hours. Hanging out requires no commitments” (para. 5). Today’s dating culture is characterized by a lack of commitment.
An extension of the hang-out culture is reflected in the shift from marriage to cohabitation. Cohabitation has become a popular means to avoid making a mistake by having a “trial marriage”—yet another expression connoting that commitment should be avoided. In a survey done by the National Marriage Project (2002), more than 44% of single men, aged 20 to 29 years old, agreed with the statement that they would only marry someone if she agreed to live with him first. Further, 62% of young adults agree that living together is a good way to avoid eventual divorce and some even believe it should be a law to live together for a trial period prior to marriage (National, 2002). This trend towards cohabitation epitomizes today’s lack of commitment. In many ways it allows individuals to protect assets and independence while having someone else easily available to help with the bills, the house, and sexual appetites. As such, it is not defined by the commitment and trust necessary in marriage. Yet commitment and trust are essential to a happy long-term relationship.
A culture in which a failure to commit is so pervasive not only affects dating, but marriage and family as well. This is of concern because marriage has many positive outcomes for men, women and children. Marriages are related to better financial outcomes, physical health and psychological well-being for couples and children (Institute, 2005). If dating habits continue to change to avoid commitment, marriage and divorce rates will be significantly affected. Thus, it is critical to consider what is deterring young adults from making commitments.
Fear of Rejection
The fear of rejection is one reason today’s generation avoids commitment. Arnie Kahn, a psychology professor at James Madison University, stated that “the potential for a broken heart is one of the biggest drawbacks to traditional dating” (McCarthy, 2010, para. 8). Because young adults want positive dating experiences while also avoiding rejection, they turn to hanging out. However, the transition from hanging out to dating and eventually to marriage is an uncharted and often untraveled one.
The fear of rejection is a reasonable fear that has characterized dating for generations. Psychologist Stephen W. Simpson (2009) epitomized this fear with a humorous statement:
Something scares you. It’s not terrorism, economic recession, global warming, or gasoline prices that could hit 10 bucks per gallon by the time you’re done reading this. These things might worry you, but something else makes your palms sweat and your pulse hit triple digits: asking someone out on a date. (para. 1)
The stereotypical young man of our parents’ generation worked to gather the courage to call a girl and ask her on a date. When he was finally confident enough to ask her out, he would dial her number and hang up several times before finally talking to the young lady. In today’s generation, it is no longer expected that a man must ask a woman out formally. Cell phones and other technology have allowed societal norms to change. Unlike traditional dates, there are rarely formal invitations when college students hang out. This helps to eliminate the possibility of being rejected.
Confusing transitions and miscommunication can lead to mismatched levels of dedication and commitment in a relationship and can ultimately lead to rejection. The precedent for transitioning from hanging out to dating has not been set by previous generations. As a result, the change is often difficult and confusing, and often occurs through nonverbal communication. Chadwick et al. (2007) found that the most common way a couple transitions to dating is through increasing the time they spend together. Other ways of transitioning include talking about dating, increased physical intimacy, and letting it “just happen.” However, dating relationships that are formed through nonverbal communication often lead to misaligned interpretations and expectations. Each person is required to judge the seriousness of the current relationship, given only their past experiences and nonverbal cues as guides. Consequently, the very relationship styles used in an attempt to avoid rejection often are at the root of the failed relationship.
Young adults fear breaking up and heartbreak just as much, if not more, than they fear initial rejection. Rejection of this type is common across BYU and other college campuses. Chadwick et al. (2007) found that about 40% of BYU students were in a relationship that they felt was progressing towards marriage. Within one semester, half of the students interviewed reported having broken up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Most of these relationships initially held promise, but ended due to conflict, distance, maturity, cheating, or other reasons. Fearing the end of such relationships, college students may choose to avoid the commitment required in dating and instead focus on hanging out.
Rejection in dating is a common and statistically justifiable fear for young adults. However, this fear, in the context of changing dating expectations, has created a culture of hanging out instead of dating. Fear of rejection has contributed to the current generation’s failure to commit.
Fear of Responsibility
Along with fears of rejection, fears of responsibility have contributed to the current generation’s failure to commit. In a study by Chadwick et al. (2007) on BYU campus, one-third of men and women reported fear of responsibility as a factor influencing them to delay marriage. Almost that many expressed a fear of parenthood as a reason. The desire to establish a career was given by 22% of women and 29% of men as an influence in delaying marriage. Almost 50% of the women listed a desire to finish school as a factor in marriage delay while 26% of the men gave this reason. To assuage these fears of responsibility, marriage is delayed to allow time to become financially established and better prepared.
These fears of responsibility are not unfounded. Marriage requires individuals to change and compromise. The freedom to make financial decisions such as changing jobs, buying a house, and using a budget is limited. Anxieties about being financially prepared for marriage are not new. Traditionally, men were required to prove their ability to make a living and provide for a family by at least working on education and training for a stable career before they would take on the responsibilities of a family (National, 2000). Today, this view has become exaggerated. Whitehead and Popenoe’s (2002) research on why men will not commit to marriage found that men want to be financially “set” before they marry. For many this is measured by owning a house. Men also reported that they did not feel ready for the financial obligations, pressures, and changes that children would bring to their relationships. In the past, men assumed responsibility for providing, but marriage ensured that this would be accomplished with and for a wife and family.
Financial independence prior to marriage has become a goal for women as well. A report by the National Marriage Project (2000) found that women were just as committed as men to making it on their own and getting a place of their own before marriage. In some ways they were even more determined to be able to take care of themselves. One young woman explained that in ten years she would like to be self-sufficient so she does not have to rely on anyone. Another explained that it was important for a woman to work so that she knows, “I can leave, I don’t have to put up with nonsense” (Glenn, 2001, p. 56). Many women see the need to be financially prepared as an important part of their future, but they refuse to leave it up to men to provide for them. Commitment to a relationship is secondary to financial independence.
Those who desire to delay marriage to allow time for completing an education, gaining financial stability, or achieving self-maturation often turn away from traditional dating. When asked what the worst thing was about dating at BYU, one student said, “Probably getting into a situation where [I] might have to make a commitment. ‘Cause [sic] right now, I’m not ready to get married. That’s for sure” (McLaughlin, 2007, p. 80). To avoid commitment, these young adults focus on low obligation relationships such as those found in hanging out settings.
Fear of Mistakes
Another fear that suggests a shift away from marriage and that plagues today’s young adults is the fear of mistakes. These fears center around finding and choosing the right person to marry and then maintaining a relationship with that person through marriage. While both of these are important considerations for lasting marriages, the fear of making mistakes has led to the current generation failing to commit to a relationship at all.
To ensure a happy marriage, many young adults desire to date and marry the perfect person. This is described as the Cinderella and glass slipper syndrome, which has caused havoc in the dating arena (Chadwick, 2002). Instead of traditional dating and committed relationships, many wait around for Prince Charming or break up after having a problem without working through it. Bruce Chadwick (2002) gave advice to BYU students that applies to all young adults:
In rejecting the Cinderella complex, I am not suggesting that you marry just anyone. But I am suggesting that some of us may have raised the bar a little too high. There are very few perfect people in the world, and if you do get lucky and find one, he or she probably won’t want to marry you anyway. But don’t despair. The traits and characteristics we are looking for in a spouse will emerge out of the years of experience together. My advice is to look for the potential in a spouse and then help each other achieve your desires. In other words, good marriages are earned by experience, not found with glass slippers. (para. 13)
Young adults need to stop looking at the faults of others and stop fearing to commit because of those perceived inadequacies. Because of the common tendency to have a list of “musts” for the ideal partner, men and women put off dating until that list is met. Intended to be a list to avoid future mistakes and divorce, it instead becomes a list that diminishes the importance of trust and commitment.
One of the greatest mistakes today’s generation wants to avoid is divorce. Today’s generation has grown up in the divorce revolution that started in the 1970s and 1980s (National, 2002). Young adults look to their parents as examples of relationships. However, instead of success they see failure and ways out of commitment. Divorce has increased rapidly; almost half of current marriages end in divorce (National, 2007). Not only does divorce split partners, it has other consequences, including negatively affecting children and causing financial disputes. The fear of making a mistake has affected the dating culture of today, characterized by a greater lack of commitment, because young adults fear divorce and its effects..
Children of failed marriages or non-marriages are now among the many young adults who fear marriage and the subsequent risk of divorce. According to Leon R. Kass (2005), these children are not only frightened of marriage, but they do not believe in its longevity. The study explains that, due to their experiences of growing up with problems between their parents or with divorce, they have no model for successful relationships and have a minimized capacity to trust and love. One young adult said he could sufficiently describe a bad marriage, but could only describe a good marriage as “the opposite of my parents” (Chadwick, 2007, p. 87). They therefore, “enter into relationships guardedly and tentatively; [and] for good reason, they believe that they must always be looking out for number one” (Kass, 2005, p. 48). Chadwick et al. (2007) found that 60% of BYU students listed the fear of making a mistake as the number one reason for delay in marriage. “Looking out for number one” correctly describes the current mindset of many college students. As a result, many young adults do not engage in starting serious relationships because committing to another means becoming vulnerable to that person. They are concerned for themselves and want to be protected from making any mistakes that could lead to unwanted consequences.
The financial consequences resulting from divorce are a principal reason young adults avoid marriage. The National Marriage Project (2000) found that today’s young generation sees marriage as an economic risk and fear it might take away the individual independence they worked so hard to gain during their single years. Financially, divorce can end badly when there are great hassles with property settlements and fights over money. Some men believe a woman might just divorce them for their money. Because of this fear, men prefer women who are more financially independent and prefer cohabitation before marriage. However, in choosing cohabitation these couples are depriving themselves of the commitment they need as a foundation to succeed long term.
Overall, the fear of mistakes has greatly affected the dating culture. Before, young men and women were expected to marry despite fears. Marriage was an important rite of passage to adulthood and responsibilities. Today there is little pressure for marriage. Young adults are not only pessimistic of long-lasting marriages because of divorce rates among their parents, but they have also begun to see the first wave of divorces among their friends (National, 2002). Chadwick (2002) explained that cohabiting couples lack the faith to commit from the beginning of their relationship, and therefore commitment levels remain low after marriage. This leads to a higher rate of divorce. Because of the new trend toward less-committed dating styles, non-marital cohabitation is increasing, the age at which one is married is increasing, and marriages are not as long lasting (Amato, 2003). Recent changes in the dating culture, because of new expectations and fear of divorce, have led to less commitment.
Today’s generation has become a bunch of “twenty something Peter Pans” (Grossman, 2005, para. 2). Young adults today do not aspire to become fully grown-up with the responsibilities associated with marriage, and the culture does not demand it of them (Kass, 2005). A period of single life is not only permissible for young people today but is increasingly viewed as necessary before taking on the adult roles related to marriage and family life (Carroll, 2009). In this period of emerging adulthood, both men and women turn away from traditional dating with its implication of basic commitment and future of marriage, and instead choose to participate in hanging out. Fears of rejection, responsibility, and making mistakes, in the context of changed expectations for young adults, have caused the current generation to avoid commitment.
Changes need to be made to help today’s uncommitted young adults. At the completion of their study, Glenn and Marquardt (2001) gave several recommendations: (1) adults should have important roles in guiding courting and mating practices of the young; (2) men and women should understand that college women typically desire long-term commitment; (3) men need to take a greater initiative in dating relationships; and (4) socially prescribed rules and norms relevant to, and appropriate for, this generation need to be created. Such changes would alter the expectations of society and provide a solid framework for young adults. The current generation would then be able to recognize and overcome the fears that have made them fail to commit.
If such changes are not implemented, today’s young generation will continue to avoid commitment. As discussed, part of this problem is because of changing expectations in dating. Emerging adulthood has redefined the goals and lifestyles of young adults. Marriage is no longer an essential step to adulthood, nor is it a priority or goal. With these changes, young adults have been allowed to give in to their fears of rejection, responsibility, and mistakes—leaving a generation failing to commit.
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Special Thanks to Rachel A., Alysia Ducuara, and Kelsey Larsen. They submitted this paper on behalf of the Call for Papers hosted by the Symposium on the Family in October 2011. They have generously allowed us to publish it here. Enjoy.