Our Current Youth Culture and its Upcoming Impact on Successful Marriages

There is no doubt that readers of Homiletic and Pastoral Review will believe strongly in the sanctity of marriage and a have profound respect for the importance of the family in our contemporary world. Those familiar with the work of John Paul II will recall his powerful statement that, “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family.”1 Anyone paying attention to our world and contemporary American culture will likely share a deep anxiety about the current state of marriage and family as we do well know that our Church and society are built on this essential foundation.

In his recent book, historian and U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) has offered a very challenging critique of our current young adults that begs attention. Rather than addressing the current problems with a “Get off my lawn” mentality Dr. Sasse summarizes the problem as a “collective coming of age crisis without parallel in our history.”2 His desire is not to blame the youth of today like the person yelling to get off the lawn, but points out that “We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one.” He concludes that “It’s our fault more than theirs.”3

If Sasse is correct that there can be a positive way forward that does not just blame our youth for the mess they are in, and that indeed there is a crisis of perpetual adolescence, then this current generation will face very significant issues, not only moving into the tasks associated with being an adult; the impact on the future of marriages and family structure will be catastrophic. Sasse explains that the idea for his book came about with an experience with young adults who demonstrated a complete inability to carry out simple tasks, take ownership see “tasks through to completion” and “to attempt and to finish hard things, even when they did not want to.”4 We know from statistics about divorce that marriage is not a simple task in our world today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, under its section entitled “Marriage under the regime of sin” makes is clear that the effects of sin have a profound impact on married life. Rather than living in the “order of creation” and living marriage as a “gift” we see the painful effects of sin and we require God’s grace to overcome “the evil around him and within him.”5

Church teaching on marriage is very clear and does not need to be repeated here. However, it will serve important to offer a few observations from the Church’s body of teachings. For Canon Law and the Catechism, marriage is ordered by God, establishes a life-long covenant between a man and woman and is “ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”6  Likewise, Gaudium et spes continues that marriage is given to us as a gift from God who is the “author of marriage” and creates a bond initiating marriage as an “intimate community of life and love,”7  Additionally, the Church teaches that marriage is ordered to three traditional goods, namely permanence, fidelity, and openness to fertility.8  

How well are today’s youth developing the skills to live out the divine call to a lifelong intimate partnership of covenant love, commitment until death, fidelity, and openness to life? The indications from Sasse and others answer no to this question. Rather than decry the current generation, we will work to point our three particular menacing current cultural issues in order to reevaluate our current child raising practices and raise questions in terms of how to address these problems in our families, parishes and perhaps as a nation in order to give our youth the proper tools for living out marriages faithfully.

The first cultural issue at the heart of our problem is the widespread epidemic of pornography. 9 The use of porn, which the Catechism describes as a “great offense” and an act that “perverts the conjugal act” doing “grave injury to the dignity of its participants”10 has become more widespread and easier to access than many realize. Citing research from the University of Alberta Sasse comments that over 90% of boys and 70% of teenage girls report using it while “more than one third of boys report watching pornographic videos ‘more times than they could count.’”11  As mentioned in the Catechism, this is destructive of human dignity and an offense against the dignity of marriage and sexuality. Additionally, Johnson offers a stark analysis of its impact on marriage when she explains, “In the end, Internet porn devastates our capacity for close relationships and good sex. It promotes loneliness and isolation and infuses a person with shame and despair. Porn devotees are left with a broken and fragmented sexuality, in which emotion and the erotic are separate and never integrated.”12  Growing up with pornography being the norm leaves our youth with perverted and unrealistic notions of human sexuality that leave an imprint on our brains, souls, and culture; training our youth to use, discard, and never gain an understanding of the beauty, purpose, and nature of our sexuality. Those using pornography are literally training themselves to be unhappy and ill prepared for marriage.

The second devastating cultural issue deals with the dating patterns of today’s youth. Cohabitation before marriage is not a new issue, but the assumption that it is the best or correct way to prepare for marriage, coupled with the phenomenon that is described as the “hookup culture,” are terrible training grounds for marriage. The Catechism, along with recent papal teachings confirm the prohibition against living together before marriage, but recent sociological research explains that roughly 70% of high school teens and young adults agree with the statement that “It’s usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along”13 which leads Johnson to conclude that “Most Americans believe that cohabitation is a natural step in the progression toward a healthy and happy marriage.”14  Sadly, not only does the Church speak openly about the danger of cohabitation, but research clearly establishes the strong link between cohabitation and divorce and marital dissatisfaction. Rather than help people prepare for a successful marriage, it does the exact opposite. Johnson explains, “In fact, the negative impact of premarital cohabitation is so well known among relationship scientists that we simply call it the ‘cohabitation effect.’”15  In addition to being a strong predictor of divorce, recent research has demonstrated that cohabitation leads to worse marriages. Johnson, brings together a wide variety of research to conclude that it leads to, “lower marital satisfaction, worse communication skills, increased likelihood of aggression, lower commitment, and greater neuroticism.”16

Besides the increase in, and acceptance of cohabitation, an additional social change has been the shift from traditional dating patterns to what is known as the hookup culture. For those not aware of the meaning of the term hookup culture it relates to a shift from what many consider traditional dating (asking someone out, getting to know them over a long period of time in a mutually supportive and monogamous relationship that develops physically in relation to the emotional bond present) to a radically different pattern. Johnson explains that many “college relationships begin with sexual behavior prior to getting to know the other person… The sexual experiences may or may not be followed up with conversation and getting to know one another”17 with about 72% of college seniors (men and women) reporting at least one hookup.18 Studies have shown that the shift is connected to the notion that college students are spurning relationships for hookups because they don’t have time or desire to invest in an actual relationship.

Aided by many online dating services and apps that allow people to search a large pool of potential partners, a final problem emerges in current dating patterns. Although many people find partners online and there are many faith-filled online dating services, the use of these can end up causing two significant problems compounding the hookup and cohabitation cultures. These services are related to what is called “choice overload” that can lead to lower rates of satisfaction with a partner and lower instances of commitment because of the high “costs” associated with fidelity and permanence. Johnson explains, “Making a commitment to someone means sacrificing the opportunity to seek other potentially better partners among the thousands who have posted their profiles.”19 What is happening in the case of both cohabitation and the hookup culture is that young adults never actually learn how to enter into a self-sacrificing, committed, giving relationship and are being trained to look for easy, self-serving “relationships” that neither prepare them for the intimate partnership of life and love that we in the Church call marriage nor help them to learn healthy patterns that allow relationships to flourish. In essence, our young adults are missing out on the lessons and training needed to be a loving spouse.

The third and final issue is the impact of divorce on children and the lasting impact it carries into their own adult relationships. John Paull II frequently spoke of the family as a school of love and virtue in his Familaris consortio. Of course single and divorced parents can model virtue and love in their homes, but it can be difficult for children of divorce to see healthy patterns of communication, love, and sacrifice daily without two loving parents in the home. Children of divorce may grow up in homes where a single parent embodies heroic love and sacrifice for the children (most that I know do this), but the proper training and modeling of how to live lifelong covenant marriage is not there. Sadly, research demonstrates the legacy for adult children of divorce. Fitzgibbons, in his April, 2017 article in HPR aptly spells out many of the pitfalls facing children of divorce.20 Pascale and Primavera summarize the research when they explain that those who grow up in families with strong marriages “regard marriage favorably and won’t consider divorce as their first option.” Those, however who don’t will demonstrate the following characteristics, “less committed… more likely to run into relationship problems and end up divorced themselves… divorce is always something they will consider” Additionally they explain that children of divorce show other patterns that make healthy relationships difficult, such as jealously, insecurity, negative emotional patterns, infidelity, and lack of trust.21 In addition to this negative legacy, research has also found that adult children of divorce experience “more mental illness, lower marital quality, higher rates of divorce, lower educational attainment, lower income, and worse physical health.”22  Simply put, in bad marriages and in the case of divorce, we put our children at great risk in respect to their own successful marriages, physical, and emotional health. Absent is the daily experience of learning and being trained to enter into a permanent, fruitful, and faithful commitment of the whole of life.

After reviewing briefly the impact of pornography, current dating patterns, and the lasting impact of divorce on adults, we can look back to the words of Dr. Sasse in regards to the youth of today. “We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one.” He concludes that “It’s our fault more than theirs.”23 It is hard to downplay the potential negative impact of these cultural phenomena on the youth of today and our own responsibility in providing the proper training for this vocation. The family as the traditional training ground for successful adult relationships is in serious need of change. Unless families reevaluate their role in the future of the Church, American culture, and world, a looming crisis awaits. Of course, like many social problems there are no easy bumper sticker solutions. However, our Church speaks boldly about the dignity and sanctity of marriage, the role of the Christian family in the modern world, the efficacious nature of the sacraments, and the profound importance of family prayer. Rather than concluding with easy solutions, I hope to offer a challenge to all of us regardless of our state in life- that we constantly promote the dignity of marriage, we realize the profound and lasting impact of our personal example and witness on younger generations, that we double down on our efforts to properly train this generation to love, sacrifice, and understand what it takes to live out a successful married life to the service of God, one another, our children, and the future of our Church, nation, and world.

  1. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio. (Boston: St. Paul Books, 1981). 75.
  2. Sasse, Ben, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis- and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
  3. Ibid, 2.
  4.  Ibid, 3.
  5.  Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997). 1606-1608.
  6.  Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1601.
  7.  Gaudium et spes. 48.
  8. See Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1643-1654.
  9.  For a powerful resource and a wealth of information, visit fightthenewdrug.org.
  10. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2354.
  11. Sasse, 40.
  12. Johnson, Sue. The Love Secret: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. (London: Piatkus, 2014). 145.
  13. Johnson, Bachman, & O’Malley, Monitoring the future: Questionnaire responses from the nation’s high school seniors (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2013.
  14.  Johnson, Matthew, Great myths of intimate relationships. Dating, sex, and marriage (Malden, MA: Wiley, 2016). 95.
  15. Ibid, 96.
  16.  Ibid, 96.
  17. Ibid, 13.
  18.  Ibid, 15.
  19.  Ibid, 58.
  20.  Fitzgibbons, Richard, Children of divorce: Conflicts and healing. Homiletic and Pastoral Review (March, 2017).
  21.  Pascale and Primavera, Making marriage work. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 117.
  22. Johnson, 170.
  23.  Sasse, 2.
Randall Woodard About Randall Woodard

Randall Woodard is director of the graduate program in theology and associate professor of theology at Saint Leo University (FL). His doctorate is in systematic theology from Duquesne University and he specializes in sacramental theology and Catholic education.

Comments

  1. Ted Heywood says:

    Excellent commentary on the whole experience and value of shared marital life filled with mutual respect and love. Pope SJPII recognized this and the effect its lack will have on family life and on society as a whole. His solution was to establish and drive educational and support vehicles for the Marriage and the Family and he devoted a substantial part of his pontificate to making them happen.
    Unfortunately Pope Frances recognizes the importance of the family but seems bent on focusing not on education and improvement of life leading up to marriage and family but rather on dismantling the efforts and institutions put in place by SJPII and focusing instead on the Social Justice Warrior approach of ‘Mercy’ to those that have been destroyed. ….and defacing the Sacraments, if necessary, to accomplish it. No wonder he was effectively exiled in Argentina by the Jesuits (of all people).

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