Do Millennials understand love and marriage better than me?

Ummm, maybe yes, says expert Helen Fisher (in a NYT column from Tara Parker-Pope).  As for me, I got married at the age of 22, three weeks after I graduated from college in 1994.  25 years and four kids later, I’m pretty happy with it.  Even back in 1993 I recall my mom saying I should wait till I was older to get married.  Anyway, here’s the interesting argument that Millennials know better:

Is the secret to lasting love to take it slow? As in really, really slow?

The millennial generation is putting that theory to the test, opting for what the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher calls “slow love.” Studies show that millennials are dating less, having less sex and marrying much later than any generation before them, and a younger generation appears to be following in their footsteps.

These changes have prompted hand-wringing among some experts who speculate that hookup culture, anxiety, screen time, social media and helicopter parents have left us with a generation incapable of intimacy and commitment. (The Atlantic recently declared we are in the midst of a “sex recession.”)

But Dr. Fisher takes a more generous view, and suggests that we could all learn a thing or two from millennials about the benefits of slow love. It’s not that millennials are wrecking marriage, she says. It may be that they value it more.

“It seems everyone is swept up in a very myopic understanding of sex, love and romance,” said Dr. Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “I would like people to understand that while millennials are not marrying yet, and they are not having as much sex as my generation, the reasons for this are good.”…

But what is particularly striking is how quickly the cohort has rewritten the rules for courtship, sex and marriage. In 2018, the median age of first marriage was approaching 30 (29.8 for men and 27.8 for women). That’s more than a five-year delay in marriage compared to 1980, when the median age was 24.7 for men and 22 for women…

Dr. Fisher, author of “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, has devoted her career to studying love and relationships. Most recently she has collected data on more than 30,000 people related to current courtship and marriage trends. Dr. Fisher believes that instead of criticizing and judging millennials, perhaps we should be paying more attention. It’s possible, she said, that today’s singles are carving a more successful path to lasting love than previous generations…

She notes that people who date three years or more before marrying are 39 percent less likely to divorce than people who rush into marriage. “This is a real extended period of the pre-commitment stage,” said Dr. Fisher. “With slow love, maybe by the time people walk down the aisle they know who they’ve got, and they think they can keep who they’ve got.”…

Dr. Fisher says her research suggests today’s singles seek to learn as much as possible about a potential partner before they spend time, energy and money on courtship. As a result, the path to romance has changed significantly. Whereas a “first date” used to represent the getting-to-know-you phase of a courtship, now going on an official date with someone comes later in the relationship.

And for some singles, sex has become the getting-to-know you phase of courtship. In a study conducted for, Dr. Fisher found that among a representative sample, 34 percent of singles had sex with somebody before the first date. She calls it “the sex interview.”

“In my day you went out on a first date with someone you didn’t know very well, and you went to dinner or mini golf,” she said. “The first date has changed — it’s time consuming and expensive. Now they have a sex interview with a person to see if they want to invest in a first date.”

Hmmm.  Okay, I get it, I’m just an old out-of-tough guy, but the “sex interview” before an actual date?!  Also, though the terms are not mentioned in seems to come back to the capstone versus cornerstone view of marriage:

Ms. Alexander, who lives in Princeton and identifies as bisexual, said she and her partner want to finish their education, start their careers and be on solid financial footing before marriage.“To be successful in a marriage you have to be compatible in a lot of different ways,” she says. “Sex is one for those vectors of compatibility where I feel like millennials want to make sure they’re also compatible.”

For millennials, financial issues also loom large in their decisions about relationships. They talk about the burden of student debt, and their desire to find meaningful work in an increasingly impersonal job market. Many say their lives were deeply affected by the 2008 financial crisis as they watched their parents lose businesses, struggle with debt and even go through divorces.

I’m willing to grant that, maybe, Millennials have figured out something here.  Certainly there’s a lot to be said about being slow and thoughtful with a decision to marry, but I don’t think that’s at all the same thing as waiting till you’ve subjectively “made it” as an adult.  There’s a lot to be said for finding a great person and making it as an adult together.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Do Millennials understand love and marriage better than me?

  1. Nicole K. says:

    It’s something that I have made a conscious decision to put off until I am no longer relying on my parents for the majority of my financial support. Once I can actually pay my bills with my money and not theirs, then I will put more effort into finding a partner. But that’s because I am almost 36. Had I not been a zombie for my entire 20s it probably wouldn’t be such a big deal to me.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    I would like to know the average number of “sex interviews” before people undertake a first date. Is the number different between men and women?
    The data would give a better idea of whether marrying late is sensible for longtime married life or just an excuse for sexual intimacy with little commitment and responsibility.

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