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Why Happily Ever After is Being Postponed These Days

Our culture socializes us to believe that we should get married, have children, and then live happily ever after. We are constantly bombarded by messages of Prince Charming and the white horse, and so at some level, most of us are consciously – or subconsciously – searching for the perfect person to marry.

I teach gender communication, so I talk about these issues a lot in my class. One of the stories that I tell is how even I am a product of this socialization process. And it’s actually kind of strange because I got some different messages at home. I have two older sisters, and my parents told all of us to go to college and have a rewarding career so you we could support ourselves. That’s it. That’s about where the expectations ended. We almost never got the message of “find a man, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after.”

Not that they said we shouldn’t do that, but I seriously think they couldn’t have cared less if none of us ever got married or had kids.

But at the age of 26, I found myself single again after being in a 4-year relationship with a man I thought I was going to marry. And that’s not how I envisioned my life. I always thought I’d be engaged and married by my late 20s, and then have kids in my early 30s. But being single in my late 20s freaked me out. And it shocked me that I felt that way, because it made me realize so much that I was a product of the social programming to get married and live happily ever after.

And apparently, most people buy into this too because the number of people who do get married in their lifetime is greater than those who do not.

The average age of first marriage has changed quite a bit in the last several decades as well. In 1950, the average age when getting married for the first time was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women. But in 2013, the average was 29 for men, and 27 for women.

Clearly, people are delaying marriage until later in life more so than they did in the past. In fact, some say that 25% of the Millennial generation won’t ever get married in their lifetime.

But why is that? Is it because women are now more financially independent than they were in the 1950s? Or perhaps people these days simply can’t afford a wedding, a house, and marriage? There are many reasons no doubt.

An interesting trend that has accompanied the rise of the age of first marriage is the promise ring. We all know what an engagement ring is, but most of us probably think a promise ring is a cute little thing that high school sweethearts give when they go off to college. We think it’s a symbol that says, “I really love you and want to stay together forever, but we aren’t going to do it any time soon because we’re too young.”

But it’s not just 17 and 18 year olds giving promise rings these days. In fact, I think it’s really interesting to think about why more and more people are forgoing the engagement ring in favor of a promise ring. There could be many reasons. For example, I know firsthand that new college graduates are usually in a lot of debt. Depending on how many student loans they had to take out, their debt can be anywhere between $40,000-100,000. That’s almost the price of a house!

So instead of getting engaged and buying their own home in their 20s, people tend to be moving back in with their parents. They probably don’t want to do this, but their student loans are literally preventing them from getting married and starting a family.

Here’s an interesting quote: “Yes, the winner there is promise rings. In fact, promise ring-related mobile searches grew by 77% from 2014 to 2015.9 … interest in these rings on mobile has been showing a steep increase over the past several years in general, with searches tending to spike around the holidays (most likely I-need-a-Christmas-gift research moments) and then Valentine’s Day. The mobile-centricity may be in part a function of the younger, mobile-first demographic tending to wear these rings.”

College is getting more expensive, jobs are paying less for new graduates, and this leaves Millennials in a dire predicament. They can’t afford to, but they want to make a commitment – so they are turning to promise rings.

So what does this say about our society?

Even though times have changed, and the average age of marriage keeps going up, this young generation is still socialized to want marriage and a family. But it’s sad that they can’t really afford to do it like the previous generations could. Where have we gone wrong? Why is it that young people are facing more and more debt than any other generation before them? Again, there are too many reasons to really discuss in one article. But we should at least think about it.

As a mother of teenage boys, I am trying to figure out how we can get them through graduate school with little to no debt so they don’t have to be caught in these statistics. It would break my heart if they had to postpone marrying the love of their life and instead had to continue living with me in their 20s – just because they had too much debt to pay back.

No one person can solve this problem, but I think it’s important to start a conversation about it. Because if we don’t try to figure out how to fix it, the problem may just keep getting worse.

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