In 2020, getting married became an act of rebellion and imprudence. Scores of weddings were either postponed or profoundly circumscribed. But it didn’t take a virus to damage the marital impulse. Matrimony has been slowly developing herd immunity in the West for forty years now. According to the Census Bureau, only 35 percent of twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-old American men were married in 2018, a steep slide from 50 percent in 2005.
Given the longstanding privilege accorded to marriage within Christianity, I wondered whether the faithful would long resist the turn away from marriage. After a team of researchers and I interviewed nearly 200 young adult Christians in seven nations, the takeaway was clear. Marriage is slowing among Christians, too, from Mexico City to Moscow, Beirut to Lagos. In an era of new options, more choices, greater temptations, high expectations, consistent anxiety, and endemic uncertainty, nothing about the process of marrying can be taken for granted—even among those belonging to a faith that has long encouraged it. In an era of independence, intentionally becoming interdependent seems increasingly risky.
Fear of Marriage
One might think that Ander, a twenty-five-year-old Spanish physician-in-training preparing to marry another doctor after years of dating, would exhibit more confidence. Nope. I asked Ander what he’s afraid of. “Not to be free,” he said. “Tied to someone. Compromised. Things you don’t know that you don’t know. Maybe we’re okay now, but not later.” When I asked him what exactly he feared might happen, Ander observed, “Differences arise in a couple. The other person is different than you thought they were.” I pointed out that they had dated for six years and wondered aloud, “Isn’t that long enough?” He replied, “I feel like I don’t know her that well after six years.”
These aren’t just standard premarital jitters. Even Ander recognizes that his misgivings have taken on a life of their own. “This fear is now pathological and is stopping us in some way from doing a good thing,” he said, “and impeding us from facing up to it, or causing us to delay it.” Unfortunately, Ander felt he had only modest Christian resources to help him deal with his concerns, even though his faith is strong.
In theory, marrying should diminish uncertainty. In reality, delay is a far more common response. When expectations about marriage soar while relationship options expand, uncertainty thrives. This is particularly true of an online era. Marriage had better be really good, so the thinking goes, or it won’t be worth it. Since many young Christians aren’t sure, they wait and see.
Some cohabit, thinking moving in will boost their confidence, even if it erodes their faith. Jenna, a twenty-four-year-old globetrotter, moved to Austin to be with her boyfriend Stephen, who has made her rethink her one-time ambivalence about marriage. But they’re still in no hurry: “Minimum, we both want to be thirty.” After experiencing the uncertainties inherent in sex devoid of any commitment, Jenna much prefers her current arrangement. An increasing minority of Christians are beginning to agree; support for cohabitation has grown even among evangelicals in the United States—surging from 16 percent in 2014 to 27 percent by late 2018. But living together hasn’t quieted Jenna’s fears: “I get very, very nervous and anxious, and doubtful sometimes about whether or not Stephen and I can make it work.”
It’s Not Just about Money
Sociologists still blame low wages and employment instability for lagging marriage rates. If men’s and women’s wages were higher and more secure, the thinking goes, couples would pursue marriage—simply because they always have. But even if marriageability was only about money, it would be about a good deal more money than it once was: a 2019 study of American marriage markets estimated that unmarried men’s income would need to rise by 55 percent, and their employment level by 26 percent, in order to be marriageable in the era of equality.
More importantly, why should we even presume there is still a strong, widespread, and primeval impulse to marry in the era of equality? Globally, that assumption makes little sense today. There’s a new order, one in which algorithms deliver relationships, but everything is disposable. “It’s so fast to find someone,” remarked one interviewee.
Making it last is a different story. Estella, a twenty-eight-year-old from Guadalajara, is waiting on her boyfriend, who’s stalling until he’s more confident about the stability of his family’s business. He respects her values, including her sexual conservatism, and attends Mass weekly, though “it’s not that important to him,” she admits. Economic instability need not undermine marriage per se, since marriage is actually built to weather it. But that’s little comfort to Estella, who confesses, “I feel like we are losing the path. We’re thinking it’s more important to have than to be.” Estella thinks she’ll be engaged within a year, and then married a year after that. By then, she’ll be nearing thirty-one. She had hoped it would be sooner.
The Future of Christian Marriage
Since a relationship is now at one’s fingertips, who is more willing to pay for the package deal that includes total commitment, monogamy, expectations of permanence, and the anticipation of a family? Christians. Not exclusively, of course, and not as readily as in the past. But by the numbers, the world’s irreligious are now notably less likely to marry than committed monotheists—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—who take their religion seriously. In data from the World Values Survey, Christians who attend church regularly have a better shot at being married in all but two of the countries we interviewed in. But the odds varied among them. In the United States, 68 percent of American women who attend church weekly could expect to be married by age thirty, well above the 45 percent among women who are less religious. A similar pattern appears in Spain, Lebanon, Poland, and Mexico. It’s not simply a matter of delay, either; the irreligious do not catch up by age forty.
Christians have good theological reasons to protest the new trend toward independence and careerism. Love, after all, is willing the good of the other. Sacrifice—a central biblical theme and imperative—becomes commonplace in marriage rather than exceptional. The gift of what I have for what she needs, and vice versa, becomes everyday life. For many Christians, this still appeals. Paweł, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in Krakow, bucked the new norm by marrying Marta, who’s twenty-nine and now a full-time mother. How did he thwart the conventional wisdom? Faith and maturity. “I knew I wanted to do something serious,” Paweł leveled. “I was fed up with quick relationships.” They paid a price, though. To save money, they had to limit costs, meaning fewer invitees to the wedding in Marta’s hometown. “It was a bit of a scandal,” they agreed. But the two are confident enough to handle it, and children have a way of erasing such memories. Paweł and Marta are rare marriage “naturalists” in a world in which most have become what sociologists call marriage “planners.”
For others, it takes a conversion to make marriage and interdependence attractive. Katerina, a 28-year-old unmarried and unattached schoolteacher in Moscow, once dove into relationships, only to find them a source of anxiety and unanswerable material questions: “Where are we going to live? How are we going to make a living? We don’t have our own home. We don’t have enough money to give birth to a child.” Today, Katarina is willing to abandon herself to the providence of God, come what may. She found in Orthodoxy a contentment that had long eluded her. Marriage, however, eludes her still.
For the past two millennia, Christianity has regarded marriage as divinely established and taught its significance as an article of faith. I have no doubt that marriage among Christians will continue to recede, in step with wider relationship norms and creeping secularization. Yet numerous Christians will thwart these trends and wed. Like Paweł and Marta, these resisters are almost always deeply embedded in Christian social networks. I’m not talking about big parishes or popular megachurches. Rather, small groups, tight-knit congregations, and religious communities are the sources of vibrant marital subcultures, to say nothing of a supply of potential husbands and wives.
That doesn’t mean that marriage should have a “most favored” status within congregations. Rather, it means that good things happen when we replace simplistic cursing of the darkness with lighting our own candles. In his book Culture Making, evangelical author Andy Crouch elaborates: “If we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal.” That something, Crouch asserts, invariably starts small: “Christian culture grows through networks, but it is not a matter of networking. It is a matter of community—a relatively small group of people whose common life is ordered by love.”
Crouch’s words remind me of the network of young adults that formed around, and was fostered and nurtured by, Karol Wojtyła when he was a parish priest in Krakow—long before he became archbishop of that city and later Pope John Paul II. He called it Środowisko, which translates into “environment,” though he preferred something more akin to “milieu.” It was about fostering a social environment in which Christian formation could thrive amid state and informal opposition. Particular groups would form around common conversations and interests to which Wojtyła then offered philosophical engagement and pastoral support. The groups took recreational excursions together, often to the mountains near where Paweł and Marta got married. The friendliness and openness of Środowisko stood in contrast to the hollow nature and false freedom of communist society in post-War Poland. This was a pocket of joyful resistance, an escape from the toxic atmosphere of the universities, where fear of informants was a constant anxiety. Given the toxicity and popularity of today’s cancel culture, this idea sounds doubly inviting. Fostering marriages wasn’t the point of Środowisko, but for many of its young adults, it was a welcome byproduct.
When Christians formally or informally create their own public culture, not only does Christian faith typically deepen, but people meet, friendships form, conflicts arise and are dealt with, children learn, and couples fall in love. While the Church no doubt expands through evangelism and can lean on new media to reach further, a healthy future for Christianity is unavoidably local, unmediated, and will still hinge on those who declare, “I do.”
This essay is adapted from Regnerus’s new book The Future of Christian Marriage (Oxford University Press).