Since its conception, marriage has carried complex connotations. It can represent a rite of passage to adulthood, a legal procedure, a financial merger, an act of commitment between two people in love or a combination of some or all of the above.
As the concept of marriage continues to be redefined, people are changing their practices and it shows in the nation’s statistics. According to a Pew study released last month, there was a record share of Americans aged 25 years and older who have never been married — 20 percent. Only 13 percent of that group, however, claim they do not want to get married, which gives us a mere 2.6 percent of the population who reject marriage completely. It appears that most people are willing to flirt with the idea of marriage, but are not willing to commit to it as soon.
Though the statistics might come as a bit of a shock, this cautious attitude towards romantic relationships has been steadily pervading the dating world, and is crippling our ability to take leaps of faith. Trying to master the vocabulary of the college dating scene, which is rigged with implicit rules, is enough to daunt anyone. The nuances between the labels “just hooking up,” “seeing someone,” “being exclusive” and “dating,” are just the beginning of an extensive handbook to modern dating that we must individually scramble to piece together over the years, with the simple hope that ours is the same edition everyone else is using. On college campuses, being called “thirsty” or “desperate” is a high-stakes gamble one takes in just approaching a cute guy or girl in line at Starbucks.
What used to be a black-and-white situation has now transformed into a vast field of ambiguous stages between being platonic and officially dating. These stages are almost like a check-in point for the two people involved. Do you like me exactly as much as I like you? Yes. Good, I’m glad we’re on the same playing field. This subtextual exchange is a way of establishing and reaffirming the mutual responsibilities in a murkily defined relationship. Even dating apps like Tinder are based on this ideology of confirming someone is attracted to you before even talking to them. This insecurity about having unknown factors in a relationship is immediately opposed to commitment, which is essentially an investment of faith in an unpredictable future.
In a society where circumstances change in the blink of an eye and people are constantly rethinking themselves, it’s getting harder and harder to take a risk and jump into the unknown — especially if it potentially involves decades of commitment. We can divide everything that comes before marriage into several stages, during which it would be more or less permissible to back out at any stage; but the age-old concept of marriage would be violated if it were something that could easily be temporary.
One could argue that divorces already challenge the concept of marriage as a permanent status. According to the American Psychology Association, the divorce rate in the United States is around 40 to 50 percent; yet one would think that very few couples go into marriage intending to eventually divorce. It is what a person believes he or she is signing up for that is crucial to how that person will approach it. Because the social concept of marriage is established as a lifelong commitment, there is no room for double-checking. Naturally, in today’s society, this causes a degree of anxiety and many people simply put off this responsibility-heavy task for later.
Essentially, the declining marriage rates present a lose-lose situation for both men and women. It is not the social institution or connotations of marriage that must be upheld, but rather the concept of an enduring and reciprocal commitment between two individuals. It’s important for our generation to recognize the fine line between wisely choosing the people we commit to, and learning to take the occasional gamble and letting the unpredictable take its course.