In interviews we conducted with working-class young adults, my wife and I were surprised by the strength of their desires to have a long-lasting marriage and stable family life. But many of them were far from realizing those aspirations. Why?  The wide-ranging challenges that frustrate their aspirations, which we must understand in order to find effective solutions, fall into four rough categories: family-of-origin, philosophical, psychological, and financial.  

Family-of-origin challenges

Family turmoil. Almost 60 percent of the 75 working-class young adults we interviewed experienced the fragmentation of their family before the age of 18. Many of them said the event caused some lasting difficulty in their lives. But it wasn’t just children from divorced or single-parent families that suffered. Children from intact families in which the parents seriously fought, or one parent cheated, also experienced suffering. For instance, Kayla describes the time her father told her that he was cheating on her mother and that he planned to divorce her. He changed his mind and stayed in the marriage, but for her, that’s when life took a turn for the rough. She describes how it was after that experience that she just “rebelled harder.” “I mean, I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing,” she says. “I was drinking, doing drugs, and I got tattoos illegally.”

Crisis of trust. For many, an enduring legacy of a fragmented or unstable family is a crisis of trust. For example, Christopher told us that because he didn’t experience love in his own family of origin, he didn’t trust that his wife would always love him.

“I didn’t believe in love,” he said. “I can remember possibly even having conversations with [my wife] like that, like what is love? You love me today, but you’re not gonna love me tomorrow, you know. You love me now, but when you get mad and, you know, in a hour, are you gonna love me still?”

“I’ll always love you,” his wife would tell him. But he struggled to believe it, and he struggled to let his wife love him. “There was love there,” he now realizes. “I just always denied it, because of fear.” He describes “not knowing how to love and not even knowing if I really wanted to, because I was afraid when I loved something it would hurt me.”

For many, an enduring legacy of a fragmented or unstable family is a crisis of trust.

The fear of loving and then losing, of trusting and then being betrayed—this is perhaps the most tragic legacy of family fragmentation, as Judith Wallerstein pointed out in her longitudinal study of children of divorce.

Conflicted about marriage. This crisis of trust, in turn, informs young adults’ conflicted thinking about marriage. As Amber and I described in a previous post, their experiences of family fragmentation sharpen their desire to get and stay married, on the one hand, but on the other hand it also shakes their confidence in the durability of marriage. As a result, many young adults find themselves in tenuous cohabiting relationships, wanting to say “I do” eventually but too uncertain to do so now.

Philosophical challenges

The libertarian sexual ethic. Opinion leaders talk a lot about the pernicious social consequences of the project, starting around 1980, to deregulate the economy. Regardless of what you think about that analysis, it’s striking that our cultural elders had already been furiously deregulating sexual norms, leaving us today with a libertarian sexual ethic. The libertarian sexual ethic is supposed to mean greater sexual freedom, meaning you can do what you want with your sex life. But just as some analysts blame deregulation for creating Wall Street banks “too big to fail,” so the deregulated sexual economy has made many young people feel as if sex is “too powerful to restrain.”

Sexual restraint is seen as almost impossible. When we asked one young man when it’s appropriate to begin having sex in a relationship, he replied that “appropriate would be waiting until you’re ready to both rip each other’s clothes off and can’t resist it—that’s appropriate.”

But this philosophy of sex leaves little room for discernment about character—about what makes for a good man or woman to build a family with. Since sex happens very early on in a relationship, or before a relationship even starts, young adults frequently find themselves, as family researcher Scott Stanley describes, sliding “through important transitions in relationships”—such as having sex and starting to live together—“rather than deciding what they are doing and what it means.” That’s exactly what happened to one couple we met, who hooked up at a party, hung out with each other for a few weeks, and then found out they were having a child. They reasoned that if they were to have a child together, they should make their relationship work. But instead of making that decision based upon their personal readiness and mutual compatibility, their immediate sexual activity forced a decision.

The fixed love mindset. As Amber discussed here, the philosophy of love that young adults inherit from cultural scripts, like Hollywood chick flicks, works against their own aspirations for committed, permanent love. Instead of a “growth mindset” about love that focuses on working through possible differences, these stories about love transmit a “fixed mindset” that focuses on immediate and perpetual compatibility—the absence of which probably indicates that a couple is no longer meant for each other. Young adults with a fixed mindset about love tend to say things like “love is effortless,” or, as one separated spouse put it, “I love him, but I’m not in love with him. I love him as a friend, as the father, but I don’t feel that connection as I used to.”

‘Not too many people care about other people’s lives.’

Extreme individualism. Despite the common challenges that confront working-class young adults, the idea that “my relationship is no one else’s business” prevents them from thinking about marriage and family life as a public issue that demands our common efforts.

For instance, Anthony knows first-hand the painful effects of divorce—his parents divorced when he was ten—and he speaks eloquently about how divorce imposed burdens on him and his other friends from divorced families. So what does he believe we can do about the rising number of children raised in fragmented families?

“I don’t think there’s a thing we can do about it,” Anthony told us. “And that’s kind of the American way—this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.” The result of that attitude, however, is loneliness and helplessness in the face of an urgent social problem.

I’ll say more in my next post about how psychological and financial challenges undermine working-class young adults’ aspirations for lifelong marriage.

This essay is adapted from a talk that David Lapp gave at the World Youth Alliance.