Does anyone remember the tradition of the “hope chest?” It was a box, given to young women, in which they would store things like clothing and dishes and so forth to use when they got married one day. Even in modern America a young woman might squirrel away some items in the attic in the hopes of one day getting married.
But in recent years, the idea of placing “hope” in such a fragile thing as marriage seems outdated—maybe even harmful. Freedom, experience—these have formed the new “hopes” for many young adults. Consider the following:
- In the 1940’s, the average age of marriage was roughly 22—though a larger gap existed between men and women. It actually remained fairly steady until the 1960’s—even dropping to around 21 for a brief period in the 1950’s.
- In 2008 the average age was 26.5.
- By 2010, the average age was 27 for women and 29 for men.
Reasons vary widely. Some might suggest that millennial generations are fearful of rising divorce rates, and not wanting to repeat the same mistakes of their parents. Others, however, cite the fact that rising marital ages allow for young adults to “settle down” before making this kind of commitment. For instance, college-educated women find greater economic and relational security when they marry later—though we should be cautious not to assume that they have this stability because they marry later.
Christianity would say there’s nothing wrong with delaying marriage—though the prolonged years of singleness present an unusually long window of sexual temptation. And before we make assumptions that this delay in marriage is due to financial considerations, let’s remember that the average age for evangelicals seems to be a good bit lower—possibly around the young age of 22. So we might suggest that at least some of the delay in marriage reflects a lack of value of marriage.
THE iWORLD AND “WEDLEASES”
Marriage therapist Susan Pease Gadoua has an unusual idea: that couples enter into a probationary contract called a “wedlease” before taking the ultimate step of marriage. The British newspaper The Daily Mail reports:
“…instead of promising ’til death do us part’, couples in a Starter Marriage agree to be together for ‘two, three, four or more years – whatever works for you and your partner’. At the end of the stated contract period, the couple decide whether they want to go their separate ways, or continue with the marriage, at which point they should draw up a revised contract.”
Gadoua compares this to other short-term contracts, saying:
“We have learner’s permits for driving, we have internships before starting careers and we have probationary or modifiable contracts in many other business negotiations, yet the greatest and most in-depth legal contract that most of us will ever enter requires that you commit to one person forever with precious little information about what it will entail.”
The fear is palpable here—the fear that this ultimate decision could be wrong, or—perhaps worse—that the marriage might outlast our love for one another. After all, who wants to be shackled to a spouse who ceases to make us happy? Writing for The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh writes:
“In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.”
But are such fears valid? According to research from Stephen Nock of the University of Virginia, married men report having greater social stability and overall health and happiness than their non-married counterparts. One of Nock’s fellow researchers also reports that women have greater stability in marriage. So the idea that marriage has to dissolve after a period of years is simply not the case. Sure, we can all bring to mind marriages that resulted in bitter struggles and divorce, but we needn’t throw out the entire brand for the sake of a few lemons.
MARRIAGE FOR COMMITMENT, NOT HAPPINESS
But perhaps there’s something still deeper at work. Maybe our happiness can’t be so closely tied to that one person. Often when I perform a wedding, I borrow a quote from Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas—a quote I borrow from Tim Keller’s book on marriage. Hauerwas says that “we always marry the wrong person….Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change….The primary problem is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”
Hauerwas isn’t being cynical. He’s not saying that you can’t be happy with your husband or wife. He’s saying that the person who stands across from you on your wedding day isn’t the person you’ll wake up to 10, 20, or—Lord willing—50 years from now. People change. Their interests shift; their patterns of communication evolve (or devolve).
If marriage is primarily about my happiness, this is devastating news. Enter the world of the “no-fault divorce,” enter the world of couples lamenting that “my needs aren’t being met” or “I’m just not finding fulfillment in my relationship.”
But if marriage is primarily about mirroring the love of Christ and the Church, then that changes everything. We can find joy in learning to—in Hauerwas’ words—“love the stranger” in our homes. We can learn to extend grace when grace is needed, to make love when love appears absent. No one said this was easy—and I suppose it’s easy for me to say as a single guy. But the picture offered in Scripture is of Christ loving a bride that doesn’t always respond to his leadership with love, and in homes we find husbands who don’t always reflect the sacrificial love of the Savior.
This, I think, is why Solomon’s words are so helpful. “Rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). Somehow I doubt that Solomon meant that husbands should only find happiness in young women (though Solomon had a few trophies, himself). Instead, perhaps we should see this as a way of nurturing the love from our wedding days, and applying it to the men and women we turn into with time. Because it seems to me, from my own observation, that men and women struggle with different expectations in the context of marriage. Men might look wistfully at their honeymoon pictures, mourning the fact that their wife’s bikini body now has a scar from a caesarean section (you know, from the small task of birthing your child). Meanwhile the wife is looking at her husband, surrounded by empty bags of potato chips while playing X-Box on the couch and wondering: “When is he ever going to grow up?” If men are frustrated when their wives change, women are frustrated when their husbands don’t. What better opportunity for love and grace?
No human relationship can ever fully satisfy our deepest longings. If you recall, we even pointed out how Yale professor Simon May cautioned that our world could not replace its faith in God with a faith in human love—not without profound personal and social consequences. Look to human love to bring you happiness, and you aim only at disappointment. Model your marriage on God’s love, on Christ and the church, and you aim at lasting joy.
 Mike Bell, “Increasing Marriage Age and its Implications,” posted online at The Internet Monk, January 9, 2008. http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/increasing-marriage-age-and-its-implications
 “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married: A Record Low,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2011, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/14/barely-half-of-u-s-adults-are-married-a-record-low/
 Eleanor Barkhorn, “Getting Married Later is Great for College-Educated Women,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/getting-married-later-is-great-for-college-educated-women/274040/
 See Mark Regenerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Regenerus advocates that men and women pursue younger marriages to curb the cost of sexual temptation.
 Emily Hales, “The national marriage age is increasing—but not for this group of people,” Desert News National, July 13, 2014. http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1893/the-national-marriage-age-is-increasing-but-not-for-this-group-of-people.html Regenerus’ work (see above) calls this assumption into question a bit, but regardless of the exact average it can’t be ignored that evangelicals emphasize marriage over such practices as cohabitation.
 Sophie Freeman, “Would YOU sign a short-term marriage contract? Renewable ‘wedleases’ would work better for couples that a traditional setup, claims relationship counselor,” The Daily Mail, April 20, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3046917/Would-sign-short-term-marriage-contract-Renewable-wedleases-work-better-couples-traditional-set-claims-relationship-counsellor.html
 Sandra Tsing Loh, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” The Atlantic, July/August, 2009. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/lets-call-the-whole-thing-off/307488/
 Stephen Nock, Marriage in Men’s Lives.
 Eleanor Barkhorn, “Getting Married Later is Great for College-Educated Women…”
 Stanley Hauerwas, “Sex and Politics: Betrand Russell and ‘Human Sexuality,’ Christian Century, April 19, 1978, quoted in Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, p. 38.