Emily Jensen, 28, and her husband, Dustin, 35, didn’t choose marriage because it was a social expectation, the way many in their parents’ generation did.
Before the St. Paul couple tied the knot last year, they’d already auditioned plenty of other prospective partners. “Both of us had been on lots of dates before we met each other, so we knew what we were looking for,” Emily said.
They also came to marriage with high expectations for the various roles they would play in each other’s lives. Not only would they be romantic partners, but also financial partners, travel partners and, eventually, co-parents.
The Jensens are also both pursuing careers while eschewing gender roles regarding familial responsibilities, which requires intensive communication. “When you take on a more egalitarian partnership model, everything’s up for negotiation,” Emily said.
Millennial marriages look quite different from those of their parents, the boomers. And, new research shows, they’re more likely to last.
Young people’s low divorce rates have caused the country’s overall rate to decline about 8 percent in the past decade, according to a recent University of Maryland study. That’s positive news, and the main reason behind it is a demographic shift: Millennials who get married are waiting until they’re older and have earned college degrees, increasing their financial stability.
Millennials’ selectivity about marriage partners and their willingness to communicate are also helping strengthen their nuptial bonds, but they can’t take all the credit. They’ve come into adulthood in an era where gender roles have broken down and marriage’s role in society has changed dramatically.
Another factor that’s driving millennials’ low divorce rates is that younger couples most at risk of splitting up — those with less education, which typically means less financial security — aren’t getting married in the first place. They’re cohabitating instead.
Struggling to pay the bills can put substantial stress on relationships, said Tai Mendenhall, an associate professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “One of the No. 1 predictors of marital stability is money,” he said.
Until the past few decades, marriage was a classless institution. Today, among women in their early 40s, three-fourths of those with bachelor’s degrees are married, compared with just over half of those with only a high school education. Marriage has become more exclusive, chosen increasingly by only the couples more likely to stay together.
At the same time, marriage’s cultural significance has shifted. In past generations, marriage was viewed as a pathway to adulthood, a journey to take together. Today it’s perceived as the capstone.
“Now marriage is the carrot at the end of the finish line,” Mendenhall said. “ ‘After I’ve finished school, after I have a career, after I’ve secured my future, then we can get married.’ ”
As women have gained more autonomy through access to education and increased earning power, they’ve become more likely to pair up because they want to — not because they feel like they had to.
Millennials are waiting to get married (women, on average, at 27, and men, on average, 29 — up seven years since 1950) until they feel that they’ve established their individual identities, can contribute economically to a partnership and have cultivated their emotional intelligence.
“The human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25, so they have more relationship skills,” said Prof. Bill Doherty, a colleague of Mendenhall’s in the U’s Department of Family Social Science.
Better prepared for marriage
There’s been more study of millennials’ approach to work than their attitudes toward marriage, but values surrounding career can translate to relationships, said Austyn Rusk, director of content and research at Bridgeworks, a Wayzata-based consultancy focused on bridging generational differences in the workplace.
Rusk said millennials’ rejection of hierarchies in the workplace, along with their desire for frequent and open communication (a significant change for men, especially, compared with older generations), dovetails with their rejection of traditional gender roles in relationships and collaborative approach toward maintaining a household.
Millennials are more positive and idealistic than other generations, too, said Rusk.
“If they tell themselves, ‘We’re going to make this marriage work, we can do it, our dream is to have a beautiful, healthy marriage and family’ maybe they might be more optimistic in approaching their issues,” she said.
Modern dating practices are also helping millennials make strong matches, Mendenhall said.
“Opposites might attract, but they don’t usually work out over the long run, so the more similar you are to somebody, the better chance you have of having a relationship that works,” he said.
Online dating has helped millennials make mate-sorting more efficient and encourages them to keep looking for the best possible match.
“They’re a lot less likely to attach to the first warm body that is interested in them,” Mendenhall said.
Additionally, millennials’ tendency to get together in large groups, instead of pairing off for dates, allows for more input from friends, which can be very useful in vetting potential mates. “We know that your friends are invariably a better judge of who you should be with than you are,” Mendenhall added.
Doherty also offers another potential reason why married millennials may be forming stronger connections with their partners: They have many more friends of the opposite sex than previous generations.
This, he suggests, may give them a better ability to relate to their romantic partners also as companions.
“When I was growing up, if you had a friend of the opposite sex it was a ‘platonic relationship’ — it was so weird that you had to have a name for it,” he said.
Once millennials do commit, they’re talking more openly early in their relationships, about expectations around finances, kids and in-laws to start working through potential issues before they escalate into fights.
Past generations, Mendenhall said, “kind of built the ship as they sailed it.” Millennials, by contrast, “chart the course before they leave the harbor.”
Jennifer Behnke, a therapist in Juno Beach, Fla., focuses on millennial clients and writes about their relationship patterns in her blog, Not Your Mother’s Marriage. She says millennials tend to be more in tune with what they expect from their relationship and are more likely to communicate those desires.
“There’s a sense that it’s more of a lease than a purchase — that the partners need to continue courting and prioritizing each other in the relationship because there are plenty of people out there willing to step into the place of a less fulfilling partner.”
As society becomes more open about mental health, she said, millennials are more likely to recognize unhealthy patterns and seek professional guidance.
“They’re more willing to say, ‘Hey, we need help,’ and are more willing to engage once they get in the door,” she said.
Modern risk factors
Some of the same cultural forces that have helped strengthen these marriages also put them at risk, particularly when it comes to technology.
Millennials’ ability to form infinite connections online can make it hard to commit to one person.
“There’s this nagging sense in the back of the mind that there might be somebody out there who’s even better,” Mendenhall said. Committing is “harder for millennials because it’s so easy to keep looking.”
And even when they’re physically together, some couples are mentally worlds apart when distracted by texting and social media.
“A lot of people sit in bed and they’re on their phones,” Behnke said. “You’re right there next to your partner and you’re connecting with everybody but each other.”
She also cites easy access to online porn as creating a sense of insecurity in relationships.
“Porn changes the perception of normalcy in terms of sex,” she said. “The more diversity you see in those situations, the more bland that normal sexual encounters become.”
Additionally, social media and cellphones can enable cheating by providing easy, discreet methods of communication. “An innocent query to an ex can turn into an affair much easier,” Behnke said.
But as millennials have grown up enmeshed in technology, they’ve developed awareness of its pitfalls. And knowing about potential issues is the first step to avoiding them.
“It’s easier to prepare than repair,” Mendenhall said.