Why Marriage is Declining

This teenage airhead in adult form wants to talk about her stepson’s generation’s devaluation of marriage with the earnestness of I’ve-just-got-to-say-something. Is there any consideration that perhaps she, a divorcee remarried to another divorcee, might not be the ideal candidate to hold court on such matters? Of course not. Remember, this is Regina George grown up. Did she at least have any theories, theories that surely cast herself as the bearer of wisdom the younger generation should hungrily consume? Actually, no. I spent the first six minutes of the conversation absorbing her punchline-free prattling, responding with, “Yea, but why don’t they value marriage?” and getting, “They just don’t” in return.

Growing tired of the dance and confident (always) that I could make this conversation more enjoyable for both parties, I began postulating answers to my question. Theses like the decline of religion and the rise of women were similarly met with shrugs. Opportunity cost, however, was received with the excitement of a child realizing his father’s guiding hand was no longer on the back of the bike. It was then I realized that her confusion about her stepson’s generation was not faux at all: she really didn’t know why they were the way they were, she really did want to know, and my premise that marriage has never been more costly allowed her a breakthrough that for so long had been out of her grasp.

It’s 1937. You grow up in a small Nebraskan town. You will die in a small Nebraskan town. The choices you’ll make in the intervening years will be necessarily limited by lack of options, irrespective of prosperity. You can be alone and bored as a bachelor or get married and be less alone and less bored. Even if you weren’t toiling on Maslov’s lower rungs (as our fictional Nebraskan is), you live in a society with fewer ways to express freedom – weekend jaunts to visit friends on the East Coast aren’t on the table because (a) you don’t have friends on the East Coast, and (b) there isn’t an airport infrastructure to accommodate this type of travel. Obviously, you get married.

Fast-forward 80 years and it’s not so obvious. Even if you remained on those lower rungs, society’s progress has opened up a cornucopia of options. Info, entertainment, communication, and travel are all comically cheap. Like, an annual pass to Six Flags is $49.95! Combine that reality with a social liberalization that’s expanded acceptable forms of living and the BATNA to marriage is unusually strong.

But is it actually your BATNA? In a world overflowing with pressures to look certain ways and do certain things, it’s essential to understand if the opportunity costs are true for you, as opposed to true for the imagined self you wish you were. Yes, it’s a real thing that “settling down” in the modern world may limit your optionality in unprecedented ways – closing off, say, 30 paths versus the Nebraskan closing off three paths – but are you the type of person who would honestly take those paths? Oh sure, you love to talk of freedom at parties, but do you regularly exercise it? Look back at the previous unencumbered six months: what things did you do that you wouldn’t be able to do in marriage? Which, yes, fundamental changes are a real thing, growing and evolving and whatnot, and it makes some sense to anticipate regret based jointly on who you are and who you might be. Still, adults rarely morph from You know, same ole’, same ole’ to Let me tell you about the insane things I just did in the last six months! You are who you are, and most people, despite living in a world with endless outlets for freedom, find the comfort of sameness most appealing.

You two are not most. You two are more like the airhead’s stepson who is maximizing opportunities and thus facing cold, hard tradeoffs. People talk about living abroad – you two did. People fantasize about a rustic life – you two live the fantasy. Get a motorcycle, work with one’s hands, jump careers, start businesses, throw parties, house friends, teach yoga, be closer to family. On and on the list goes of the ways you two differentiate life.

So while high opportunity costs may be illusory for those with low self-awareness (but still significant since they are very real to the person), they are truly high for people in this cadre of “life seizers” (LS). Well, “truly high” with most potential partners, since most are not LSS. The Nebraskan could take just about anyone and believe his life would improve. LS in 2022 cannot. God, it’s so hard to find someone. All men suck! I think there will be an entire generation of unmarried women because there are no suitable mates.[1] Understandable from the perspective of LS.

If, however, LS match, there is the chance that their energies combine to propel one another to new heights. Any single choice closes certain paths … but it can also birth new ones: 30 paths drop to 22 before rocketing to 41.

It is my sincere hope that just such a thing has happened in your case. Happy one-year anniversary. Thanks for including me in the wedding.

[1] This is basically verbatim from an actual conversation a few weeks ago.