Faith, family and the declining number of marriages

For decades, viewers have enjoyed the Japanese reality TV series “Old Enough!” in which preschoolers venture into the streets alone to run errands for their parents.

What if American women asked their friends living in the house to stop playing video games, get off their sofas, and run errands? In the Saturday Night Live skit Old Enough! Longterm Boyfriends!” guest host Selena Gomez asked her helpless boyfriend of three years, played by Mikey Day, to buy her eyeliner and two shallots.

This man-baby ends up in tears with a big bag of onions and “a blush palette for African American women.” Frustrated friend says she might need a glass of wine mid morning.

There was wisdom in this comedy for pastors willing to see it, said sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“There is a whole class of young men who are not thriving personally or professionally. … The systems that help raise attractive, successful men have collapsed. Churches used to be one of those support systems,” he said, available by phone.

“The future of the Church lies in strong marriages and happy families. The churches that find ways to help men and women prepare for marriage and then encourage them to start families are the churches that will have a future.”

The crisis is bigger than lonely, underemployed and internet addicted men. More and more young women are anxious, depressed and even choose to harm themselves and commit suicide.

The coronavirus pandemic was making things worse, but researchers were already seeing dangerous signs, noted San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge in a recent paper from the Institute for Family Studies. She is the author of the book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

“About 10 years ago, something started to go wrong in teenage lives,” she noted. “At first I had no idea why depression was increasing so much in teenagers. … But then I noticed some big trends in teenagers’ social lives: They were spending less time with their friends in person and more time online. That tends not to be a good formula for mental health, especially for girls, and especially when that time online is spent on social media.

Meanwhile, a study by the Pew Research Center found that most single US adults were depressed about dating and relationship-building even before the coronavirus. Last February, 70 percent of respondents said “their dating life isn’t going well.”

The survey summary stated, “A majority of single Americans overall have exited the dating market — 56 percent say they are not currently looking for a relationship or casual dates, up slightly from 50 percent in 2019. Below.” Of the 44 percent who are currently looking, 32 percent say they are only looking for a committed relationship, 16 percent are only looking for casual dates, and about half are open to a relationship or dating.”

It is logical to tie these numbers to US birth rates, which have been falling for more than a decade. During the pandemic, the fertility rate saw its largest one-year drop in 50 years to 1.6 per woman, then recovered slightly to 1.7 in 2021 – well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

These trends should be of particular concern to clergy since, according to Brian Willoughby of the Brigham Young University School of Family Life, religious belief plays a crucial role in deciding who does and does not marry.

When researchers “examine the crude number of marriages in the United States, a clear and unique pattern emerges,” he wrote for the Institute for Family Studies. “Despite steady population growth each year, the number of marriages has declined over the past 20 years.”

What does religious belief have to do with it?

“The latest results confirm what I and others have been finding for several years,” he added. “Marriage is slowly becoming an institution used primarily by the religious, who continue to view marriage as a symbolic representation of a lifetime commitment to one’s partner. While non-religious couples certainly appreciate the bond and marry anyway, more non-religious couples are choosing to live together long-term, while more people in the US and Europe are choosing to remain single.”

Next week: Is there anything faith groups can do to help?

Terry Mattingly runs and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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