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Starter Marriages: Gen X Giving Up Too Early?

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“Just Married, Just Split Up,” and “Young, Hot and Divorced” headlined two recent articles in different popular magazines. In September 2000, Entertainment Weekly included “divorcing in your 20s” on its list of “in” things to do, according to ABCNEWS.com.

Generation X is working hard to escape the stigma of divorce, and the new phrase “starter marriages” may lend it the leverage it needs.

Pamela Paul, an editor of American Demographics magazine and author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, defined starter marriages as “first-time marriages that last five years or less and do not yield children.”

Paul asserted that this type of marriage is a growing trend among Gen Xers, citing U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing that in 1998 there were more than 3 million divorced 18- to 29-year-olds. In 1962, there were 253,000 divorced 25- to 29-year-olds.

According to ABCNEWS.com, Paul said most young couples who divorce early rushed into marriage for one of two reasons: “either they have finished school and are living with their parents and want someone else to cling to, or they are very successful power couples who feel that they need a great marriage to complement their fabulous career and looks.”

The problem is that no matter the reasoning, divorce is always painful, Chris Canipe, premarital counselor and director of divorce recovery at First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., told EthicsDaily.com.

Canipe, who is also a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, said starter marriages are “attempts to resolve perceived individual shortcomings.”

In his premarital counseling sessions, Canipe said he asks the hard questions.

“When I perceive that the couple may be heading for the ‘starter marriage’ I put as much heat on them as possible so they will be forced to face difficult issues in a safe setting with a supportive referee, me,” he said. “I count as successes those individuals who decide not to get married based on premarital counseling.”

Paul wrote in her book that many happy young couples “are focused on the wedding day, and they don’t give much thought to what is going to happen in the next 50 years.”

This hyper-focus on the present, or the wedding day, becomes a problem after the ceremony.

“Marriage is the ultimate relational commitment, and engaged couples would do well to spend more time with their premarital counselor than with their florist,” Mary Stairs Vaughn, assistant professor of communication studies at Belmont University, told EthicsDaily.com.

“Exploring and sharing relational needs and expectations should happen well before the exchange of rings.”

Vaughn said she feared that reframing early divorce as a “starter marriage” may lead to socially sanctioning it.

“I wonder if the concept of ‘starter marriages’ feeds our cultural desensitization to the seriousness of breaking that contract and vow,” she said. “Divorce is deeply painful, and I would hate to see it become a ‘status symbol’ for young twenty-somethings.”

Many starter marriages involve the first children of the divorced generation, Paul said in the ABCNEWS.com article. Although their parents divorced, this group believes they will not. But they realize that divorce is a viable option.

Accepting divorce as an option may be the first step on the road to an unhappy marriage and an early divorce, Maggie Gallagher, affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values and the co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, told EthicsDaily.com.

“The more people see marriage as temporary or impermanent, the less happy they will be in their own marriages,” Gallagher said.

Merely adopting more liberal ideas about divorce might make some people more susceptible to it, she said. When divorce is perceived as a viable option, the marriage becomes more like a co-habitation.

“Parents focus heavily on their children becoming good students and various things when they are young. What parents need to focus on from an early age is reinforcing the importance of getting married, staying married and producing a healthy family,” Gallagher said.

Another way young people can get off on the right foot is through mentoring programs with older, more seasoned couples.

“Churches need to take seriously the job of preparing young people for marriage and intervening when marriages become troubled,” Gallagher said. “This ‘marriage mentoring’ is useful in building marriages, churches and communities.”

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

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