Stacey, 31, grew up in what she describes as a “perfect, upper-middle-class family” and had a “perfect life: did ice skating, went to Catholic schools, everything perfect.” Her father had a college degree and “worked real hard and took care of us,” and at the time of our interview, he had been married to Stacey’s mom, a former nurse, for 35 years.
Then, at 14, Stacey was hanging out at her friend’s house, helping his family put decorations on the Christmas tree. Her friend had warned her that his family was open about smoking marijuana, but she wasn’t prepared for what happened next: “They just roll up a whole bunch of joints and just pass it to each other constantly while they trim the tree, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ I could not imagine my mom and my dad, my brothers and my sisters, everybody just smoking pot together. That just tripped me out.” But, she says, “that’s the town we lived in—my friends, anyways: we were all allowed to drink beers, we were allowed to smoke pot.” When asked why she thinks she started using drugs, Stacey said, “Probably just because the friends that I started hanging out with.”
It wasn’t long before she went from pot to tripping on acid. When her parents found out, they struggled to respond. As her punishment, they said that she could only take a hit of acid inside the house, not out in the woods with her friends, as she had planned. It didn’t work, because she took a hit of acid every weekend for the next several years. And when, on the school bus, Stacey popped a non-prescribed Vicodin, she told her parents about it, because her face had broken out, and she was itchy and miserable. Her parents were just relieved that the pill hadn’t been dipped in acid, and that it was “just a Vicodin.” “So that made me think,” Stacey said, “them pills are okay. So then, you know, all that starts.”
It was at her pot-smoking friend’s house that she met a boy and fell in love. A few years later, during her senior year of high school, she got pregnant by him. She wasn’t using contraception, she said, because “I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.” She gave birth to a daughter, and after graduation, planned to move in with the father of her child, by then her fiancé.
But on graduation night, she and her friends hit the clubs—and for the next several years, if she wasn’t at a club, the party was at her house. She met her next boyfriend at a club, did drugs with him, had her second child by him, and even planned to marry him—a couple times, in fact, before each time cancelling the wedding. She realized her life had gone horribly wrong when her toddler son walked in on her and her fiancé shooting up heroin. Her son saw the needle in her foot, and wanted to know what she was doing. When she explained that the doctor had told her to put medicine in her foot, he retorted that there’s no medicine that goes in a person’s foot—that he had been to the doctor, and the doctor had never given him medicine to put in his feet.
“And that’s when I was just like, ‘I need rehab,’” Stacey said.
In my last post, I wrote about Christopher, who endured a number of traumatic stressors in his childhood—his parents’ substance abuse, abuse, his parents’ divorce—and who struggled to shake off that childhood trauma in adulthood. About 70 percent of the working-class young adults we interviewed had mentioned that they had experienced at least one traumatic stressor growing up, like (to name a few) their parents’ separation or divorce, their parents’ substance use, a household member struggling with a mental health issue.
Stacey doesn’t fit that profile: she came from a loving and stable family, and gave no indication of any traumatic stressors in childhood (though it’s always possible that she experienced one that she omitted to mention). But by her early thirties, she was a recovering drug addict and a single mom of two children living in federally subsidized housing. What happened?
To better understand the life experiences of young adults like Stacey, I looked at the young adults in our interview sample (which included 75 white, working-class young adults) who grew up with continuously married parents, and who gave no indication that they had experienced other major stressors at home. Many of these interviewees, who made up about one quarter of our sample, specifically remarked that their parents had a happy marriage. What are their stories? Were they thriving in their relationships and in the families they were forming?
It’s a mixed bag. About half of them were happily married, or if single, in a stable situation, when we interviewed them. The rest had experienced a rockier road: they had an unwed pregnancy, got divorced or separated, or were in long-term cohabiting relationships and concerned about getting married.
Braden, 29, had been in a cohabiting relationship for more than five years with a woman he hoped to marry someday. Yet he described a gnawing concern that if they got married, it would devastate their good relationship. At that time, the economy was humming, and he was making good money, he said, but he and his girlfriend had the “thought in the back of our head [that] if we rushed to get married, maybe we [would] feel too much pressure on one another, and maybe split up.” He said they had seen other couples get married and a few years later divorce, and it made them cautious. That relationship ended when Braden found good evidence that his girlfriend was cheating on him.
Laura, 26, had been married for about five years before cheating on her husband, and eventually divorcing him. There was no abuse or drugs or domestic violence in their marriage; but they both became unhappy, and in her eyes, that was cause enough for a divorce. She said, “It doesn’t have to be some big reason to not want to be with somebody anymore. Sometimes you just don’t. You’re just not connected to that person anymore.” (I wrote about her story here.)
Our sample size is obviously too small to draw definitive conclusions, but there are a few indications that emerge from their stories.
First, culture matters. Even when a person is economically stable, and is not carrying the weight of childhood trauma, unwed pregnancies and divorces still occur (as was true for Stacey and Laura). When Stacey reflected that, at 14, she was having sex and tripping on acid, she was horrified. In retrospect, she wished that her parents had set firmer boundaries for her during adolescence. She describes a laissez-faire attitude, among her parents and in the wider community, about drug use and sexual activity that enabled her live-for-the moment, “partying” lifestyle. As she said, “I always thought, ‘I want to go ahead and have all the fun that I can now and just have sex and do all that kind of stuff because once I’m married I don’t ever want to wonder.’… I wanted to get everything out of my system so that when I was married, it was just that person, that’s who I’m focused on.” However, after about a decade of “getting everything out of my system,” she found herself traumatized by the men who had been in her life: as she said, “I don’t trust a lot of people.”
Second, the economy matters. Even when people come from a stable family and express reverence for marriage, their fragile financial state may still make them reticent about getting married. One young man who came from an intact family and was in a cohabiting relationship told us that “the money thing” was the biggest factor keeping him and his girlfriend from getting married. A study published in 2005 found that 23 percent of cohabitors interviewed cited only economic barriers to getting married, and that an additional 50 percent cited both relationship and economic barriers.
Finally, regardless of what one thinks about the original causes of the family revolution, it appears to have produced social effects beyond those directly affected by it. Even young adults like Braden who grew up in a stable, happy family sometimes express anxiety about getting married because of the prevalence (or at least perceived prevalence) of divorce. These are the people whom M. Christian Green calls “indirect bystanders” to family fragmentation. They do not personally experience divorce in their own families, but they witness it through other people they know and the culture at large. As Green asks, for these people, “Has the divorce culture produced a kind of cultural trauma?”
In other words, and to reiterate a point made in my last post, we can see that when we talk about strengthening marriage, we have to think ecologically: not only about culture, or only the economy, or only mental health, but about all of these things and more.