Editor's note: This is the first of three articles and accompanying videos in our Love & Marriage series. This series explores what makes marriages work, and shows single people how to navigate dating, happiness and chastity. The second and third articles will run Friday, Dec. 25.
SALT LAKE CITY — Hand-holding and engagement rings abound on BYU's campus, but back home in Bluffdale, sophomore Joanna Lambreschtesen is surrounded by a different side of love.
"Divorce is something that is all around me."
Lambreschtesen's parents and two siblings are divorced. "I feel like I hear all the time in church (that) marriage is so important, so important. You've got to find the right person and get married, but I've always felt this gap of how do I tell who the right person is?"
Desmond Brown's parents are married, but most of the people in his Denver, Colorado neighborhood are not. "Since I come from a poor neighborhood, a lot of fathers don't really stick around to be with their children," the 15-year-old said.
Millennials appear to have reason to be skeptical of marriage. According to a report by Demographic Intelligence, one in three millennials come from divorced families.
But Brown and Lambreschtesen share something in common that has helped change their views about marriage — a better understanding of what just may be the key to marriage: commitment.
"You ask millennials about marriage, and they are afraid," Joneen Mackenzie said, sitting in her office at the Center For Relationship Education in Denver. "They want to set themselves up for success, but they don't know how. So that is where we come in," Mackenzie said.
Understanding commitment — too much too soon, or too little too late — was explored in marriage preparation classes for both Lambreschtesen at BYU, and Brown from the Center for Relationship Education.
"Let us look at the data. Let us prepare you for this next stage while you are very motivated to learn how to do love and live well," Mackenzie said.
The curriculum is based on the research of professors Scott Stanley and Howard Markman at the University of Denver. They helped develop a scientifically based and empirically tested method of teaching relationship eduction called PREP, based on 30 years of research. The main tenets focus on commitment and the importance of making deliberate decisions about a relationship.
Chemistry doesn't make for a great, long-term, thriving relationship; "strong decisions and behaviors related to commitment do," Stanley said during his presentation. "One of the giant changes in the past 40 years is romantic relationships are fundamentally and massively defined around the concept of ambiguity."
And according to Stanley, that is creating a large number of people who have built-in insecurities about attachment.
Is this a date?
Ambiguity makes sense early in relationships but "becomes riskier over time and makes it harder to detect asymmetrical commitment," Stanley said.
"Ambiguity has grown because it is perceived to be safer than clarity in a world where lasting love is considered risky, unlikely, and unobtainable," Stanley said.
The increased ambiguity that surrounds today's dating culture makes asking for that first date even harder.
"I feel as if we are kind of getting to the point where people maybe read too much into one date or even two dates," college senior Nathan Leonhardt said while sitting outside a preparation for marriage class at BYU.
"I've been on many first dates, but even getting to a second date can be a complicated thing because people instantly start worrying about it becoming too serious or something like that."
Lambreschtesen chimed in: "I'm definitely guilty of that. I'm one of those people who over-analyzes every single date that I've ever been on because I'm not sure if the guy is moving faster than I am."
BYU professor Jason Carroll said that way of thinking is a byproduct of the erosion of the traditional courtship model.
"We get this sense that we should know really quickly," he told the Deseret News. "You literally have people now sitting on first and second dates trying to decide if someone is marriage material, making decisions with something that they couldn't possibly have enough information to do that."
Carroll and other marriage and relationship experts believe society needs to bring back the frequent dates that "just allowed people to get together in a bit of a one to one basis, different from the hanging out, different from the groups and just get to know each other."
Carroll co-authored the "Knot Yet Report: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America for the National Marriage Project. It states that "today's relationship culture offers virtually no signposts for young adults seeking to navigate romance, sex and relationships in ways that will be fruitful for their current lives and their future families."
Twenty-somethings shouldn't rush into romance but social scientists believe a lot more need to take their relationships more seriously.
"One of the main ideas out there is when I find a really great relationship, then I am going to commit to it," Carroll said. "The problem is that from everything we know about successful relationships, that is a bit backward because commitment and investing in a relationship help to create and make a great relationship."
Sam Sturgeon researches marriage trends. In his studies, the Demographic Intelligence president found millennials think "marriage is something that happens to them when the right person walks into their life and the right situation arises."
"I would like to see a shift where more positive steps are taken to prepare people for marriage, that here are the intentional steps that I am taking to have a lasting successful marriage," Sturgeon said, "but by and large they don't necessarily know how to do that and they don't necessarily trust the example their parents provide."
Carroll says when his students develop relationship skills and a better understanding of how commitment works, their fears and anxieties about marriage give way to confidence.
"The nice thing is that makes it feel more in our control than if you just believe it is what we find."
Lambreschtsen said that is why she signed up for the class, to learn those skills. And the insight was understanding the idea "that you don't find 'the one,' you become 'the one,' and you search for someone willing to put forth the effort to become 'the one' for you."
Committed love and sex
Relationship classes are typically targeted toward young adults or couples, but Mackenzie believes people need to start learning the skills at a much younger age. The Center for Relationship Education offers curriculum that meets grade-school standards in most states and replaces traditional sex education curriculum.
"My intention was always to fill that gap between body parts and contraception and to talk about relationships and committed love," she said.
Mackenzie hates the word "abstinence," even though that is what she teaches. "You've got to give kids something to work towards instead of just telling them what they can't do," she explained.
Mackenzie often begins her presentations telling students she is going to tell them how to have the "best sex," and it all revolves around commitment in marriage.
"If you couple sex with committed love, diseases are going to go down, teen pregnancies are going to go down, hearts are going to be full, marriages are going to take place" she said.
Mackenzie has worked with the CDC on developing the components of a sexual risk avoidance program.
"We never talk about things that are not based in science and research," said Mackenzie. "We always challenge the kids to Google everything we say so that they become the learners and continue to seek the research about what makes relationships work."
Taking the class inspired Brown, who now views marriage and commitment as "awesome."
"I think a lot of people my age think marriage is just about sex, and it is a lot more than that," he said. "It's about a relationship you have with that person and how beautiful it can be."
Carroll and Mackenzie both said that when young adults see positive examples or a road map for commitment, they are naturally drawn to it.
"It isn't exclusive to a single faith group or even religious individuals. That longing for bonding, the permanence, the connection resonates with most if not all young people," said Carroll "So the whole dating, couple formation, marriage is central."
Candice Madsen is a senior producer of Special Projects for KSL TV. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org