Why College Men Aren’t Ready to Marry

Why the delay? Even Christian guys give lots of reasons — like what one calls "waiting for Pamela Anderson to become a Christian."

It still happens, but not like it used to. There was a time when weddings followed quickly on the heels of graduation. In fact a generation ago, couples could almost send out dual graduation/wedding announcements to save postage. That was when the average groom was 22 and the average bride, 20. Today, couples wait a good five years longer.

The reasons for this delay are all over the board, ranging from the demands of additional graduate programs to the state of the economy. According to some marriage experts, however, it’s an issue of guys simply not being mature enough.

In 2002, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead released a study focusing on a group of men aged 25 to 33. Although every man in the study said he hoped to get married some day, all were single and few seemed to be in a hurry to get married anytime soon. “They enjoy their single life and they experience few of the traditional pressures from church, employers or the society that once encouraged men to marry,” say Popenoe and Whitehead. As a result, “boys can remain boys indefinitely.”

Besides a lack of positive pressure from culture, Popenoe and Whitehead’s study reveals four other traits that keep men from being ready for marriage.

1) Head-in-the-clouds expectations. Today’s single guys don’t seem to have too low a view of marriage — instead their view may be too high. Expectations for a marriage partner are now through the roof. Popping up consistently in various surveys of singles is the concept of a “soul mate.” In a survey by the National Marriage Project, 88 percent of never-married singles agreed, “there is a special person, a soul mate, waiting for you somewhere out there.” Most also assumed they would find that special someone by the time they were ready to get married.

For many Christian singles, this concept is rooted in a belief that God appoints our steps and has a partner in mind for us who will align with those steps. But it seems our concept of a God-ordained mate has changed over the years. “A lot of guys are optimistically waiting for Pamela Anderson to become a Christian,” says John McKeever, a 39-year-old who has led singles groups for over a decade.

Our view of a soul mate has been diluted by self-centered cultural expectations. For one thing, our culture leads us to fixate on external images and to expect a mate with no flaws. But it also has encouraged us to seek out a mate with no expectations for us to change. Popenoe and Whitehead observed this trend in their study: men defined a soul mate as a woman with whom “you are compatible right now” and who is willing to “take you as you are and not try to change you.” Interestingly, many of the guys in the survey were in relationships with girls they tolerated as second-best partners until their soul mates came along.

A guy who is always looking out of the corner of his eye for the perfect mate will be disappointed. Anyone who has read the first chapter of Genesis knows that Eve (pre-fruit snack) was the last perfect mate. Every woman since Eve comes with a personal set of flaws courtesy of original sin. For that matter, so do guys. McKeever is amazed by how often single guys he’s met can raise an impossible bar for a potential mate but still expect that mate to accept them just as they are.

A guy who wants to marry well can improve his chances by striving to personally have the qualities he expects in a mate. The most important qualities a guy can bring into a relationship are grace and unconditional love. Guys who say they want someone to “take them as they are” really mean they want someone who can see them for all their strengths and weaknesses and still love them. Few women will do that, however, unless they feel that kind of grace and love coming right back at them. Further, guys who won’t take off their “fantasyland” glasses may never be able to honestly evaluate the “real” women already in their lives.

2) Financial limbo. Interview WWII veterans and you’ll often hear stories about marriages built on modest incomes, dependent on help from friends and family. Today’s single men, however, dream big about their marriage’s financial foundation. Popenoe and Whitehead found that the most important priority for singles is “getting set” financially — completing their education and getting a career established. Many guys in their survey felt owning a home in a good neighborhood was a prerequisite to marriage and kids.

Despite such lofty goals, today’s single man is more likely to be growing his debt than his net worth. Facing a barrage of credit-card offers during their already expensive college years, it’s no surprise that singles now carry a load of personal debt. According to the student loan service Nellie Mae, today’s college graduate has an average of $20,402 in combined education-loan and credit-card balances.

While it’s an honorable goal to wipe out such debt and buy a nice house before getting married, it’s more practical to just learn how to budget well. Although money is one of the biggest sources of conflict in marriage, the amount of money isn’t always as much an issue as are poor spending habits and the inability to agree on a budget. Despite the temptation to stay in consumption mode, the best thing a guy can do with his money is simply follow the age-old discipline of spending less than he earns and striving to get (and stay) out of debt.

A house is a great investment, but as Popenoe says, “pegging the timing of marriage to mortgage rates may substantially delay marriage.”

3) Recreational sex. Although men are delaying marriage, they are not putting off sex. Just under half of all 19-year-olds were sexually active 20 years ago: today it is nine out of 10,” says George Barna, who adds that less than 20 percent of adults who get married for the first time these days is a virgin.

The disconnect between sex and marriage cannot be overestimated as a reason guys are staying single so long. The old expression “why pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free?” is exactly the dynamic that traps hormone-driven men in singleness. Men begin to experience a strong sex drive following puberty. The traditional route to sexual fulfillment via marriage once served to compel men to temper their desire for freedom and commit to one woman and any children that resulted. Now that sex is often available without expectations of marriage, men have lost a foundational reason to commit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that it’s good for singles to stay unmarried as he is, but it’s better to marry than to burn with passion. He only offers two options — live a celibate life consecrated for God’s service or serve God within a committed married life. There’s not a third option for men who want to burn off some passionate steam while waiting for their soul mate to come along.

In the moment, it may be difficult for a man to realize the things he does to keep from being lonely on the weekend can make it more likely that he will be lonely in the future. The sexual drive is a powerful urge intended to steer men toward, and then cement them in, committed relationships. Unmarried guys shouldn’t be surprised to find sexual passion welling up in them. And those who find creative ways to justify sex before marriage should not be surprised when cosmic decisions about when and who to marry become increasingly cloudy and confusing.

4) No role models. “Young men today live in a peer world,” say Popenoe and Whitehead. They point out that guys not only tend to run with a posse of other single guys, but the likelihood that they’ve grown up in broken homes or as an only child has deprived many of models for healthy marriage.

Still Popenoe believes the most corrosive influences on marriage attitudes today is popular entertainment. Not surprisingly, chart-topping shows like Friends and blockbuster movies celebrating the single years come out of New York and California, states with the highest percentage of never-married singles in the country.

In a PBS special in 2001, Popenoe said, “If you’re to analyze television, music, movies and the rest, this is the most anti-marriage and, I might say, anti-child barrage of information that one could imagine. … It is all focused on freedom and autonomy and spending money and changing products, including personal relationships.”

Surrounded by peers and consuming a steady diet of popular media, a man is rarely going to find either the motivation or the modeling he needs to marry well. He needs input from someone who made it there — someone who found a way to balance his expectations, control his money and channel his sexual energy.

John McKeever encourages the singles he leads to join a church and meet regularly with married men — especially if the single guy is from a broken home and needs better role models. The key is to start balancing out the choir of single messages with voices from the other side.

Most married men will tell you that reaching the altar is more of an art than a science. Truly the issue of marrying the right woman is one of the most mysterious aspects of life. No five-step plan can guarantee success in what often involves supernatural placement and timing; however, the cosmic issue of marrying well need not be further complicated by bad attitudes and habits.

Guys who take practical steps in the areas of marital expectations, budget, sexuality and role models can often find they are ready to get married — not a decade from now when maturity has finally caught up with them — but as soon as the opportunity comes along. Maybe even in time to send out the joint announcements.

Copyright 2002 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Steve Watters

Steve Watters is the vice president of communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is also a student. Steve and his wife, Candice, were the founders of Boundless, and Steve served as the director of young adults at Focus on the Family for several years before leaving for seminary.


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