Growing up I hardly knew anyone affected by divorce. It probably had a lot to do with where I went to school, but for whatever reason, I was sheltered.
No longer. Recently, I’ve witnessed the breakup of several marriages, including those of my best childhood friend, my best adulthood friend and even that of a close relative. Last week, another friend mentioned that half the women in her Bible study small group are either recently divorced or in the process of splitting up.
It’s epidemic. Or so it can seem.
Stories like these are often retold by parents, pastors, professors and mentors who counsel singles considering marriage. They know the pain of divorce — the ripping into two something that once was one. They watched the divorce explosion of the 1970s and 1980s and many of them felt it personally. And so they recommend caution. Extreme caution. And care. That, they advise, is the antidote to divorce and unhappy marriages.
In the same way that we’re surrounded by safety standards, bicycle helmets, car seats, airbags and more — things our parents were less likely to encounter — we see similar warnings posted all along the path to the altar.
They’re in the e-mail that comes to Boundless and the Get Married Web site. I noticed it especially the last time Steve and I spoke to students at the Focus Leadership Institute. Single men and women repeat easily the lines they’ve heard their whole lives:
“Don’t rush into it.” “Make absolutely sure it’s God’s will.” “Don’t let what happened to me happen to you.”
Some have even heard specific ages to wait for before marrying. They’re told rather emphatically, “Don’t marry before 20, 25 or even 30.” “The last time I was home,” wrote one 24-year-old Boundless reader, “my mom told me she would be happy if I didn’t get married until I’m 35.”
In many ways, caution on the way to marriage is good. There’s a reason the traditional wedding vows talk about entering into marriage “soberly and advisedly.” No other commitment requires so much — sacrifice in all circumstances: richer, poorer, sickness, health — for so long — the rest of your life. But caution, by itself, is not a virtue.
Just being cautious, waiting, and seeking out God’s perfect will is insufficient. By themselves, they’ll do more to keep you single. And while staying single is the most foolproof way to avoid divorce, it also means avoiding all the potential benefits and rewards of marriage. “There is no safe investment,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. He goes on:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one … lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket … it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
In order to be of any value in the process of marrying well, caution and care have to be held in tension with faith, hope and stewardship of the opportunities that come your way.
Parents and others urging caution are usually motivated by good intentions. Unfortunately, they don’t always realize how projecting anxieties from their own mistakes can undermine their kids’ ability to choose well.
“I know they think that they were ‘too young’ when they got married,” wrote the woman whose mom said 35 is an ideal age to marry. “They probably would have done things differently if they’d have had the chance. I think that they are scared that I’m going to follow the same path that they did. Though they are happy in their marriage now, and have been married for almost 26 years, they don’t seem to want to see me do the same thing they did.”
Such sentiments are common. In their concern for their children, parents don’t often realize how they can worry too much. “Their children are deemed incapable of bearing the weight of marriage,” writes Joan Frawley Desmond in “Unmarried, Still Children,” in Touchstone magazine. And so, she says, parents believe “everything must be in place before [their children] can contemplate such a momentous — potentially ‘destabilizing’ — step.”
What parents, mentors, professors and pastors most often overlook is that while there’s a place for caution, entering into marriage also requires courage.
A measure of caution is understandable, even healthy, for people over 40. It reflects the wisdom of accumulated life experience and a growing restraint against risk-taking as they have increasingly more to lose. But their caution must be balanced with your courage and valor — the stuff of youth. After you’ve done all you can to make the best possible choice given the information you have, caution still won’t necessarily help you commit, especially given that you can’t know exactly how things will turn out. Without courage, you’ll never take the bold leap necessary to launch a marriage.
Desmond continues, “Though most young people enter marriage without fully understanding what is ahead, the vows guide them in developing necessary virtues: perseverance, temperance, courage, justice, and humility. The challenges keep coming — sickness, financial difficulties, family crises — and the vows help to lift the spouses over each hurdle.”
It was a courageous, do or die, commitment to the wedding vows (aided by community support and a pro-marriage legal system) that used to go a long way to keeping couples married. Most couples actually managed to stay married till death. Anymore, it seems our overly cautious approach not only keeps singles alone longer, it makes them more skeptical and wary; hardly good practice for staying married to another imperfect person.
Seeking to cautiously hold off until some target age set by your parents might make them happy, but it may leave you lonely. Take the girl whose mom doesn’t want her to marry until after 35. The suitors she’ll have at 35 and beyond are very likely to be fewer in number and of lesser quality than any she’ll have to turn down along the way to her mom’s magical age.
Not only that, but inflated expectations, along with financial and relationship baggage accumulated during the years of waiting, have been identified as possible reasons marriages formed after the age of 27 are less satisfying. And if that weren’t reason enough to take a courageous leap in your 20s, women who hope to bear children have their fertility to consider. The unfortunate — and often underreported — reality about fertility is that it declines every year after 28, with a dramatic drop that begins at 35 and increases up to menopause.
Sadly, the accumulation of birthdays doesn’t do anything to improve someone’s shot at marrying well. (Statistically, it decreases their shot at getting married at all.) What matters is how singles spend their time leading up to getting married.
Delay without intentionality and preparation invites vulnerability to sexual temptation, hyper-independence and unrealistic expectations, all of which make satisfaction within marriage harder to achieve.
In another day, it wasn’t caution that parents pushed, but realism. Desmond writes:
A century ago, parents and the larger culture enforced a very different approach to marriage and courtship, one that arose from a profound Christian realism: the understanding that the human propensity to sin easily undermined good intentions and wrought its destructive power in the lives of innocents and evildoers alike.
Going into marriage fully expecting that you, a sinner, were marrying another sinner went a long way toward keeping you both in reality about the hardships you would face. In contrast, we seem today to have adopted the belief that if we just work hard enough on the front end finding that “perfect one, a soulmate” — aided by caution, delay and numerous personality tests and compatibility profiles — then life after the wedding will be relatively easy.
But we know that’s not likely, or even possible. Paul warned us in 1 Corinthians 7:28 that, “those who marry will face many troubles in this life.” Far better to make the best choice you can on the front end, knowing fully well that life after saying I do will post challenges no matter what. That’s why the vows aren’t just for the good stuff (richer, healthier, etc.).
The antidote to divorce is not mere caution, it’s the courageous commitment to marry well and the willingness, once married, to do the work to stay that way.
Copyright 2008 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.