The labor of finding love: Elders should lend a guiding hand

My friend is showing me her new home. She's 31, an accomplished professional, and gorgeous. She's just relocated and, though she lives alone, her company has temporarily given her a sprawling house.

Toward the end of the tour, she gestures toward a large, sunny alcove: "And this is the baby's room." She's joking, but I wince. I know she'd like to be married and have a child.

Cut to a college campus in the Northeast. Women students are talking about marriage. One says, "I don't know if my current relationship would lead to marriage, because I don't know if I'm staying around here. I might be going to law school." Another says, "By the time I'm actually established and making the kind of money I want to be making before I start a family, I'll be in my early 30s. So I'm kind of confused about how marriage is going to fit into all this."

These women were interviewed last year in a nationwide study a colleague and I conducted on college women's attitudes about sex, dating, relationships, and marriage. Their thoughts point to the situation now faced by some of my 30-something single friends.

We found that most of today's college women have high aspirations for marriage. At the same time, they told us, relationships on their campuses have either too little commitment or too much. Couples either "hook up," engaging in sexual encounters with no expectation of a relationship, or they "join at the hip," quickly forming an overly intense bond that too often leads to a painful breakup.

Though most of these women want to marry someday, and many said they'd like to meet their future husband in college, they were confused about how marriage fits in with other life goals.

But the confusion isn't their fault. Instead, it points to a wider social problem - the lack of a culture of "courtship," the social process of mating. When two people meet and fall in love they may feel they're the only two people on the planet, but their decisions - when to commit, when to have sex, whether to marry - are strongly shaped by society's norms. In most societies older adults - parents and others - participate in courtship, shaping the norms that guide the young. Yet, in America today, older adults appear largely to have relinquished that role.

According to the women we interviewed, parents appeared to have little to say to their children about marriage except to encourage them to delay as long as possible. The young are urged to keep their options open and have experiences. This isn't poor advice, but it's only part of the equation. While a teenage marriage is a bad idea, delaying marriage until one's 30s is no magic bullet, either. In fact, women who marry in their mid-20s have a slightly higher rate of marital success than those who marry later.

Many young people are gamely taking their elders' advice. They delay marriage and focus on education, career, global adventures. Then when they have enough accomplishments under their belts and feel ready to think about starting a family, they find it's more difficult to meet people than they thought. Some of their peers have married; others are having casual sexual liaisons with no intent of forming a committed relationship. Many are living together, officially out of the dating scene, but not fully committed, either.

Young adults today seem to have unlimited freedom. Freedom is undeniably important, but an enormous amount of it with little guidance can create anxiety. Older adults seem to think they should let the young find their own way, but when young people get hurt by the current confusion they tend to blame themselves.

College counseling offices report romantic troubles are a primary reason students show up at their offices. A social problem - the lack of a culture of courtship - is seen as individual pathology, an inability to find a mate, and therapists' appointment books are kept full.

Older adults need to reengage with the young on dating, relationships, and marriage. They must learn more about the ways young adults meet and mate today. They should remind the young that healthy commitment and marriage, far from limiting choices, can provide joy and security to pursue other dreams.

Elders cannot impose rules on people over 18, but they must engage in constructive discussions to help the young think through their professional and personal desires. Only then, will young people be reassured that, when it comes to some of the most important decisions of their lives, they aren't being left alone.

• Elizabeth Marquardt is co-author, with Norval Glenn, of 'Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today' (Institute for American Values).

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