What Are We So Afraid Of?

In my last post I brought up helicopter parenting and small families, and I postulated that there was a connection between the two phenomenon, and that  fear prevented people from wanting large families, and further tended to make these same parents afraid to let their children be children.

Subsequently my wife sent me this article in Time Magazine, and I can’t help but think that fear is behind this cultural shift as well. As my wife said this is meant to be a cute and cheeky look at modern dating and marriage, but like her I just found it incredibly sad. Here’s a bit:

You could say I beta-tested my relationship.

It began with a platform migration ​(a cross-country move) and a bandwidth challenge (cohabitation in a 450-sq.-ft. apartment). There was a false start (botched marriage proposal). Then, an emergency deglitching (couples therapy). We tried to take the product public before we were ready (I wrote about our relationship in Newsweek). And then, finally, we abandoned launch. There were simply too many bugs.

It’s a joke, kind of — except that when it comes to millennials and marriage, the beta test may be par for the course. And really, why wouldn’t it be? For a generation reared on technology, overwhelmed by choice, feedback and constantFOMO, isn’t testing a marriage, like we test a username, simply … well, logical?

You can see where this is going.

The author, Jessica Bennett, discusses survey data revealing millennial attitudes towards marriage, and it’s not good.

They also uncovered a surprising gem. Buried in the data was the revelation that almost half of millennials (43%, and higher among the youngest subset) said they would support a marriage model that involved a two-year trial — at which point the union could be either formalized or dissolved, no divorce or paperwork required. Thirty-three percent said they’d be open to trying what researchers dubbed the “real estate” approach — marriage licenses granted on a five-, seven-, 10- or 30-year ARM, after which the terms must be renegotiated. And 21% said they’d give the “presidential” method a try, whereby marriage vows last for four years but after eight you can elect to choose a new partner.

In total, nearly half of all of those surveyed, ages 18 to 49 — and 53% of millennials — thought marriage vows should be renewed, and nearly 40% said they believed the “till death do us part” vow should be abolished. In other words: Beta marriages!

What’s amazing is that Bennett encourages the idea even as she provides evidence that contradicts the idea that this is such a good idea.

And, why wouldn’t they? The U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the Western world. The data show clearly that the longer we wait to get married the more successful our marriages will be. And it’s not like we can’t move in together in the meantime: the rate of unmarried cohabitation has risen 1,000% over the past four decades. 

So we’re cohabitating more and getting divorced more, yet the solution is more cohabitation? Does that make sense to anyone?

Bennett and the people she highlights in the article attempt to rationalize their attitudes.

“Millennials aren’t scared of commitment — we’re just trying to do commitment more wisely,” says Cristen Conger, a 29-year-old unmarried but cohabitating podcast host in Atlanta. “We rigorously craft our social media and online dating profiles to maximize our chances of getting a first date, and ‘beta testing’ is just an extension of us trying to strategize for future romantic success.”

“Strategize for future romantic success.” And you thought the author of Song of Songs had a poetic vision of marriage.

Bennett continues:

 Scholars have observed for some time that attitudes toward divorce have become more favorable over the past decade. Millennials in particular are more likely to view divorce as a good solution to matrimonial strife, according to the sociologist Philip Cohen — and more likely to believe it should be easier to obtain.

Again, this contradicts the premise of the article. If divorce is okay, why go through this charade of beta-testing in an effort to minimize divorce?

Finally, Bennett gets to the heart of the matter:

And, of course, it’s easy to understand why. We’re cynical. We are a generation raised on a wedding industry that could fund a small nation, but marriages that end before the ink has dried. (As one 29-year-old survey respondent put it: “We don’t trust that institution.”) We are also less religious than any other generation, meaning we don’t enter (or stay) committed simply for God. We feel less bound to tradition as a whole (no bouquet tosses here).

And while we have among the highest standards when it comes to a partner — we want somebody who can be a best friend, a business partner, a soul mate — we are a generation that is overwhelmed by options, in everything from college and first jobs to who we should choose for a partner. “This is a generation who has not had to make as many long-term commitments as previous generations, so the idea of not having an out feels a little stringent,” says Lavigne-Delville. “Divorce has happened for a long time. Maybe we should rethink the rules.”

Indeed, at the end of the day, whatever you want to say about the hookup generation, or millennials’ inability to commit, the vast majority (69%, according to Pew) of millennials still wantto get married. We simply need a little extra time to work out the kinks.

“Getting married is so much more weighted today, I get the impulse to want to test it,” says Hannah Seligson, the 31-year-old married author of A Little Bit Married, about 20-somethings and long-term unmarried relationships. At the same time, she adds, “I wonder if this is a false control study in a way. Yes, marriage terrifying, it’s probably the biggest leap of faith you’ll ever make. But you’ll never be able to peer into a crystal ball — or map it out on a spreadsheet.”

There is a lot to unpack here.

First of all, I hope I am not the only one bothered by the language. Human relationships have been reduced to a technological commodity. These individuals are choosing partners based on a pre-established idea of the perfect mate, as though they were choosing the best laptop. Sorry, human beings aren’t laptops. Now I know that Bennett is in effect admitting that we’re accommodating others, so I suppose we can give these folks points for honesty. Yet the absolute coldness of limiting human relationships to a series of cost-benefit analyses is absolutely pitiful.

Second, and related to the discussion from the other day, is the fear that is behind this attitude. These individuals are absolutely paralyzed by fear. More specifically, they are paralyzed by a fear of failure. Just like the helicopter parents fear that their child might engage in behavior that could derail their future efforts to get into Harvard, these millennials are afraid to enter into a commitment that might leave them less than completely satisfied and content 100% of the time. Just like the helicopter parents faint at the sight of a muddy child, these millennials faint at the prospect that there just might be some find of fault with their partner.

I heard a good rebuttal to this attitude from, of all places the Opie and Jim Norton Show on Sirius XM*. Comedian Jim Florentine noted that if you ditch your partner based on a series of flaws that they have, you will simply find new flaws in the next person you date and/or marry.

* It was, until a couple of weeks ago, the Opie and Anthony Show, but co-host Anthony Cumia was fired. I won’t go into the details of his firing, but it does hit upon another sore spot for me regarding the absurdity of firing people for things said on twitter, particularly when people are PAID to be controversial on air.

Florentine’s observation is spot on. No matter what, your wife/husband is going to do or say something disagreeable at some point in your relationship. It might be relatively minor, or it could be a severe personality flaw. We’re simply flawed human beings, and we’re always going to find something to grumble about. The idea that you can shop around for a lifelong partner based on the idea that you can find the perfect match is ludicrous, and it is preventing large swaths of human beings from just simply growing up.

It is a cliche to say that you should not let the enemy be the perfect of the good, but it’s a cliche that happens to be based on a great understanding of human nature. Unfortunately too many have let their quest for the perfect skew their attitudes on marriage and parenting to the point where they are putting off marriage later and later, and having fewer and fewer kids, until they finally settle down when they reach middle-age and have their one designer baby. And then they get divorced anyway. Somehow this is not working out for the betterment of human society.

Monseigneur Pope has written a post that does an even better job of capturing what I’m trying to say. It’s not exactly on the same subject, but I think it certainly relates to this topic. Yes, fear does control us, and it is a deadly sin.

Satan, too, uses fear to control us—especially the fear of rejection. Most of us have a natural desire to get along with others and to avoid unnecessary conflict. But given our fallen nature, we have this desire to a great fault. The desperate desire to fit in and be approved is one of the deepest wounds in the human heart. So pervasive is this sinful drive of fear that I have often wondered why it isn’t the “Eighth Deadly Sin.” As a sinful drive, this fear leads us to countless other sins.

So much do we fear rejection and not being popular that we will sin in very serious ways in order to gain the approval of others and the world. Young girls will give away their bodies to mere boyfriends in order to be approved. Young men will join gangs and get in all sorts of trouble to be approved and accepted. People will spend enormous amounts of money buying things they cannot really afford just to impress people they do not even really know or like. People will walk up to a group engaged in very ugly gossip or unchaste conversation and join right in just to gain entrance to the group. People will dress and act immodestly, even if it’s uncomfortable, just because “everyone else is doing it” and they feel they must also in order to be accepted and approved.

The list could go on but you get the point. What we fear controls us.

Fear of rejection is indeed another paralyzing agent that inhibits us in other important tasks that there’s not enough time to get into at the moment (coughevagelizationcoughpreachingtheGospelinanunabashedmannercough). But the general point – that we let fear control us – is an apt description of what plagues modern humanity, and especially the family.

More to explorer


  1. that feeling of unease, that feeling of fear is because people know something is wrong but they don’t know what.
    This is what it is. They don’t understand the power of sex. And the whole society is burned. The general milieu of sex outside marriage, hook-ups etc makes us sick. Really.
    We don’t tie the effects to the cause, but you just can’t have intimacy with a person without bonding. Then, trying to keep up with the Joneses, being free and cool and all; move on and try to establish that same natural bond that happened to you and your mate, with someone else. Pretty soon people get dysfunctional. And the whole society gets sick and fearful
    Not understanding, they are leary of marriage and commitment. When actually marriage and the reality of that bond, becoming one, is the real help for us. Marriage is not to be afraid of, it is the help if we could do it.

  2. Yeah. About that Bennett quoting Cohen quote, the one about how Millennials believe in easy divorce. Millennials also believe in gay marriage. Both of which tell me Millennials don’t really believe in marriage.

  3. When civil unions (PACS) were introduced in France in 1999, there were about 350,000 marriages a year. In 2010, there were 250,000 marriages and 200,000 PACSs. In other words, there seems to have been a decline in the popularity both of marriage and of unregulated cohabitation. Is there a similar pattern in the US?

    A rather cynical Frenchman of my acquaintance (is there any other kind?) remarked that, eventually, the only people getting married would be the rich, Musselmans and gays.

  4. “They don’t understand the power of sex. And the whole society is burned. The general milieu of sex outside marriage, hook-ups etc makes us sick. Really.”
    “We don’t tie the effects to the cause, but you just can’t have intimacy with a person without bonding. Then, trying to keep up with the Joneses, being free and cool and all; move on and try to establish that same natural bond that happened to you and your mate, with someone else. Pretty soon people get dysfunctional. And the whole society gets sick and fearful”

    The whole of modern society doesn’t understand the power of sex. Not just the millenials

  5. “They [Millennials] don’t understand the power of sex. The whole of modern society doesn’t understand the power of sex.”

    Rather the opposite, I’m inclined to believe. What they don’t understand, what modern society has forgotten is the power of chastity, fidelity and continence. Add to that the willfullly foolish post-modern notion that sex is social construct we call gender, and you get the misunderstanding of the power of sex (sexuality?) we see in both the hook-up culture and the normalizing of sex outside of marriage.
    Use it or lose it is what they understand. What they don’t understand is how that dissipates power.

  6. I agree – there is power in virtue. It doesn’t have the immediate gratification of sin, but in the long run, virtue will win. Sin is destructive and has no future.

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