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2010-07-01 issue:

Love, sex and marriage

A conversation with 20-somethings

by Sandra Fribley

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I am a 57-year-old woman in a comfortable 26-year marriage, and I think a lot about sex. The reason? I have a 21-year-old son, who is in college.

My concerns have been heightened not only by conversations with my son but also by a seminar I attended last summer at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., entitled "Unmarried Couples Living Together." More than 70 pastors and church leaders showed up for this day-long event, nearly twice as many as usually attend these regularly scheduled workshops.

Between the statistics offered by our speaker, Irma Fast Dueck of Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the questions and comments of the participants, I realized that this matter of changing sexual attitudes is the elephant in the room that everyone—and no one—wants to discuss.

I learned that the notion of celibacy before marriage has largely been abandoned, even by church-going young adults. More than half of couples marrying for the first time have first lived together, we were told, and nearly 75 percent of single people have been sexually active by age 20.

The speaker encouraged us to think about current brain research and hormones. The part of the brain responsible for rational decision-making isn't fully developed until age 25, but the average age for the onset of puberty is 11 for girls and 13 for boys. Now consider that the average age for first-time marriage is 27 for men and 25 for women.

How surprising is it that young adults are not waiting until marriage to have sex? How do parents and church leaders (some of whom, if they're honest, also didn't wait until marriage to have sex) respond to these changing sexual attitudes in the church?

Clearly we need to foster boundary-conscious, respectful dialogue with teenagers and 20-somethings both inside and outside our churches. If we want adult-to-adult relationships with the emerging adults of our churches and homes, we need to create safe places both to listen and to be heard.

The questions that follow are ones I have found helpful in conversations with my son and other young adults and have emerged out of my own study of current research on changing sexual attitudes and social trends.

Do you see yourself happily married someday?
In his 2007 essay "The Future of Marriage in America," sociologist David Popenoe, summarizing the results of a survey of 6,000 high school seniors, wrote, "The great majority of American high school seniors still want to get married, with 82 percent of girls and 70 percent of boys saying that 'having a good marriage and family life' is ‘extremely important’ to them."

Assuming this desire for a good marriage is true for most young adults, the question becomes one of how they best realize that desire. Contradictory attitudes seem to reveal that while young people want to be happily married someday, they don't have a great deal of hope that their dreams can come true.

Only 39 percent of high school girls and 32 percent of boys in this survey believed that marriage will lead to more happiness in life than remaining single or cohabiting. Seen as an affirmation of singleness, these statistics reflect a good trend. Marriage, after all, is not a requirement for a fulfilled life. But taken with the high percentage of 18-year-olds who said a good marriage and family life is extremely important to them, these statistics belie an underlying fatalism that is hard to ignore.

It is in this apparent gap between what young people say they want and their lack of hope in being able to have what they want that marriage advocates can stand. We need to be able to adequately articulate just why marriage is still a meaningful arrangement.

We also need to be able to offer some hope that long-term marriages are still possible, in spite of that recurring statistic that says half of all marriages end in divorce.

What do you think makes for a good marriage?
In her book Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions, psychiatrist Roberta M. Gilbert describes an "extraordinary" relationship as one that is "separate, equal and open," which is, in essence, her definition of what love looks like in any satisfying relationship. She highlights the importance of both friendship ("upon which all solid relationships must be based") and personal autonomy (the ability "to think independently in the presence of the other").

A thoughtful reading of Gilbert's analysis of family systems theory leads to the understanding that only adults who take responsibility for their own emotional maturity can value the needs and life goals of others in the same way they value their own. The ability to follow this version of the Golden Rule within a marriage has become more important for marital success in our day than a commitment to stay married no matter what.

Our sons and daughters, many of whom now separate sexual relations from long-term commitment, seem to compartmentalize their sex drive from their longings for deep friendship and emotional intimacy. In one way, they seem to recognize their own need to mature emotionally so that they can be ready for the kind of relationship Gilbert describes. In the meantime, though, they want to enjoy their sexuality without assuming the responsibilities and expectations of marriage. Many express a desire to achieve career goals and income requirements and satisfy their wanderlust before settling down.

How have we as parents and in the church encouraged our children in this way of thinking, without considering the reality of the human sex drive? Beyond promoting abstinence before marriage, early marriage or "safe sex," what practical, reality-based counsel can the church offer single adults when even the topic of self-pleasure is still taboo in many Christian circles? I confess my own discomfort—and the sudden realization of just which side of the generation gap I'm on—upon reading an article in one student-produced magazine about a new kind of in-home sales party popular among college-age women. Mary Kay? A new line of jewelry? No—sex toys, complete with demonstrations on how to use them.

Perhaps in our desire to provide well for our children and in our attempts to build their self-esteem by applauding their achievements, we have unwittingly sent the message that being comfortable, successful and self-satisfied are the ultimate life goals and that the struggle, pain, failure and self-denial that come with love and friendship have no value.

Building a good marriage is fraught with set-backs, failure and sacrifice, all of which are better weathered in a community of friends who share these struggles and find value in them. Our children have been watching us as we relate in our own marriages. They have noticed what the church says—and does not say—about sex and marriage. Some have experienced the pain of divorce. Many apparently have concluded that marriage is best avoided or put off until they have time to find the "perfect" partner. This, in part, explains why over 50 percent of young adults cohabit before marriage, their attempt to "be sure" before saying, "I do."

How would you describe your current relationships?
Storytelling is a good, usually nonthreatening way to share information. I have listened carefully to my son's descriptions of his relationship experiences and to his own take on the hook-up culture. I have had to learn to tread carefully and not overreact to attitudes and descriptions outside my comfort zone.

I have earned the kind of trust and respect in these conversations that helps him listen to my stories—stories of my early romantic encounters and of my marriage relationship. I have tried to be honest about my regrets and about the ways love within marriage has been both a struggle and a gift. Our dialogue has helped me find and articulate new meaning in the losses and benefits of my own marriage.

What kind of family life do you think is best for children?

Perhaps the attitudes and behaviors most disturbing to me are the ones that deny that sexual intercourse can result in a pregnancy (not to mention sexually transmitted diseases). According to a National Public Radio report on April 20, 2009, over 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and seven out of 10 of those pregnancies occur in women between the ages of 20 and 29. "Magical thinking," even by college-educated young people, was the reason given for this trend.

Out of 6,000 high school seniors surveyed by The National Marriage Project, 56 percent said that "having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle" or "is not affecting anyone else." Anyone who, like me, works in a public school knows the often-sad outcome of that attitude. Children of young single parents are often living in poverty and/or living with grandparents.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of The National Marriage Project, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee, said, "According to some researchers, growing up with both married parents in a low-conflict marriage is so important to child well-being that it is replacing race, class and neighborhood as the greatest source of difference in child outcomes."

In her book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt, a researcher and herself a child of divorced parents, interviewed 71 adults under 30, half of whom were from divorced families. All were college graduates. Her interviews, along with a telephone survey of 1,500 young adults, half of whom were from divorced families, revealed that "even successful young people are profoundly shaped by childhood divorce." In her conclusion, Marquardt writes, "Those of us who are children of divorce are not all falling apart, but neither are we willing to be held up as proof—convenient proof—that kids don't really need both parents."

Issues surrounding birth control, abortion, unplanned pregnancies and divorce continue to raise points of disagreement and division in the church at large. What we can agree on, though, and discuss with the young adults in our homes and churches are the ethical issues surrounding procreation. Emerging adults, particularly those whose own parents have divorced, can identify with the notion that children need parents who want them, who are committed to loving each other and who are prepared to put their children's needs and happiness before their own.

Do you envision yourself a parent someday?
In "Life Without Children: The Social Retreat from Children and How It Is Changing America," Popenoe and Whitehead report, "According to Census Bureau projections, by 2010, households with children will account for little more than one-quarter of all households—the lowest share in the nation’s history."

Clearly, not having children—or waiting to have children until one's 30s or later—is a trend that is gaining momentum. No longer is it a given that most people will become parents sometime in life.

Parents may need to come to terms with the possibility that they will never be grandparents. Young adults who express no desire to have children or who want to remain single need acceptance and understanding. People should not marry or have children just to please their parents.

For our Christian sons and daughters who clearly want marriage and children but who are considering cohabitation before marriage, we can ask, 'When your children someday ask you—and they will—'Did you live with each other before you were married?' how will you feel about telling them the truth?" They may also be interested to learn that the divorce rate for couples who cohabited before marriage is even higher than the national average.

What kind of love are you looking for?
In an attempt to share my own understanding of love and marital commitment with my son, I described in writing how I view the marriage journey as a spiritual pilgrimage. I was a little surprised to find that he agreed with my vision of marriage despite our differing views on current sexual attitudes and practices.

In the church, I wrote, we believe we need God's grace to love another person exclusively for life. This kind of love serves as a mirror in which we see ourselves as we are in relation to the other and then—to use increasingly old-fashioned terms—repent, confess and receive forgiveness so that we can become even better lovers than before. Our character flaws and our personality quirks become known to us in the light of our partner's willingness to stay with us, accept and forgive, and continue loving us even when he or she has been hurt by who we are.

I explained that this is the kind of love the church believes comes from God and to which humans must aspire if they and this planet are to survive. Love is first a choice and then a daily commitment to the beautifully flawed people we live among. This commitment-driven love between sexual partners produces trust, and trust leads to an intimacy that allows us to be ourselves, weaknesses and all, without fear of rejection. In this intentional, loving context, sex truly becomes lovemaking.

More importantly, this covenant relationship we call marriage provides the best environment for raising not only healthy, happy children but also for creating a partnership that can grow, endure and carry lovers together into old age. Love this strong, this lasting, is not casually given or received but is forged by keeping one's promise to love—day by day—for a lifetime.

Is this the vision of marriage and family life the majority of young adults say is extremely important to them? If so, how do we in the church become marriage advocates in a way that captures the hearts and minds of our children?

It is never too late to engage in respectful dialogue, listen, tell our own stories and reframe old realities and face new ones in the light of God's enduring love.

Sandra Fribley is a member of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

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