It’s no secret that my generation is extremely delayed in the marriage department. The average age of marriage is now 27 for women and almost 30 for men. Only about a quarter of Millennials are currently married, which, for all the wrong reasons, is a truly astounding statistic.
People tend to look at these numbers and conclude that my generation just isn’t interested in marriage. That is certainly true for many of us, but not all. Some Millennials would like to be married but they just have no idea how to get from Point A to Point B. And you can hardly blame them for the confusion because the dating scene is rife with people who appear to want a romantic relationship but have no interest in commitment or love or sacrifice, or any of the things that ought to define such relationships. Sometimes it's hard to identify these types until you've already wasted several months dating them.
I call it a dating scene but there really is no dating scene anymore. Most people don’t know what a date is, and aren’t sure if they’re on one when they’re on one. They just kind of drift from one coupling to the next. They don’t have boyfriends or girlfriends, they just have partners they vaguely “hang out” with. And probably have sex with. And maybe even live with. But these relationships — if you can call them relationships — don’t have any clear purpose and they aren’t headed to any particular destination. Direction is the one great thing missing from modern love (and modern life, generally).
People these days are allergic to “roles” and “definitions.” A man in his twenties doesn’t want to be considered someone’s boyfriend because he’s afraid to enter into something that comes with its own set of rules and responsibilities. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s a part of something that he cannot define and that may impose certain standards on him. He would rather just be Some Guy who happens to be hanging out with Some Girl. He feels freer that way. There is less expected of him.
Of course, the role and definition that he most fears is marriage. He puts the thought of marriage way off to the side and imagines that it will happen some day, somehow, but not now. Marriage, he thinks, will be the culmination of his young adulthood. The grand finale. He doesn't realize that pretty much the entirety of human civilization, up until 12 second ago, looked at it the other way round: marriage was the foundation, the starting point, of adult life. The cornerstone, not the capstone.
I've often heard it said that this philosophy of casual dating is "less stressful" and "more fun." I don't see any evidence of this. It seems to me that we Millennials are incredibly stressed out and incredibly obsessed with our own stress. I think I know why: anxiety comes from the unknown, the ambiguous, and modern life — especially modern dating — is all about ambiguity. It's defined by its lack of definition. Nobody knows where they’re going, what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it. And it turns out that there's a serious psychological price to pay when you run through a series of temporary flings and meaningless hook ups, investing yourself and your heart into relationships that are not designed to go anywhere or result in anything. You end up feeling cynical, suspicious, untrusting, confused, and, most of all, lonely.
Maybe it’s time to bring back courtship.
Courtship is like dating, except it has a purpose. You’re “hanging out” with someone, but there’s a reason for it. A point. And the point is to determine if your partner will make a good spouse. Courtship is like a job interview, and the interview process need not last very long. If it becomes clear that you could never marry this person for whatever reason, you end it there and move on with your life. If no such glaring defect presents itself, and you find that you are a good match, and that you have similar value systems, and that you trust and respect this person, then you have achieved the goal of dating, you have solved the puzzle, you have made it to the destination, you have won. Congratulations. Now get married.
That’s about as “stress-free” as it gets.
I should mention that I was once a part of this foggy, undefined dating-but-not-dating scene. I experienced, more than once, the sort of dating relationship that existed for its own sake. We did not necessarily intend to go anywhere with it, or do anything with it, or let it grow into anything. It just was what it was. We were in it because we were in it. But always with the unspoken and unanswerable question lingering over us: “What are we doing here exactly, and why?”
Then I met the woman who would become my wife. What made this relationship different is that we did something radical from the very start:
We defined our terms.
We made our goals clear.
We were open with each other.
We spoke about the future.
We used the word "marriage."
It was courtship, though I’m not sure we ever specifically called it that. A few months into it, I proposed. We were married about a year after first meeting each other, which is only “fast” by today's standards. It could have been faster. I knew within two weeks that I would marry her. The truth of a relationship — its future or lack thereof — becomes very clear very quickly, if you're paying attention.
Of course, many people say they want to date; they just aren’t ready for something as “serious” as actual courtship. But romantic relationships are always serious business, whether we choose to treat them that way or not. There's another human being involved, after all. If a man isn't willing to take his relationship with a woman seriously, he should end it immediately and retreat from the dating scene entirely. An unserious person can only bring hassle and heartache into his relationships. For his own sake, and the sake of anyone he may inflict himself upon, he should keep to himself until he's ready to be serious.
I wish I had followed this advice myself.