Perspective: A valentine dispatch from America’s most stone-cold sober campus
Courtship culture comes with many unmet expectations, but more stable marriages are better than the more atomizing alternatives
It is Valentine’s Day here on the campus of Brigham Young University where I work. Utah has experienced some unseasonably warm weather for mid-February and love has very much been in the air. After basketball games, or at on-campus concerts and plays, you can see lots of smiles and doe-eyed looks of mutual affection.
With nearly 35,000 (mostly undergraduate) students, BYU is the largest religiously affiliated university in the country. With an honor code firmly rooted in the teachings of our sponsoring church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU is objectively the most stone-cold sober campus in the country. And every student has committed to refrain from sexual relations outside of a traditional marriage.
So what does this caldron of young adult yearning for love matched with institutional constraints on sex look like on the ground?
Occasionally, it’s a little like a romantic comedy produced under the Hays Motion Picture Production Code, those self-imposed industry guidelines for movies released before 1968 that restricted not just obscenity and vulgarity, but even the length and intensity of a kiss. As was true in the films of that time, there is no lack of interest in romantic coupling, but the guardrails themselves have a way of, paradoxically, heightening the interest.
In a recent conversation with BYU professor Brian Willoughby, a resident expert on how young adults form long-term relationships, I learned that “hanging out” now vies with the more formal paired dating that was the norm when I was an undergraduate. I also learned that online dating platforms are increasingly how the dance begins (in my day the dance began, well, at an actual dance).
Despite these trends, Willoughby affirms that there is a vibrant dating and courtship culture in Provo, Utah. This syncs with my efforts to categorize the scores of couples ahead of me in line at any of our local casual dining restaurants on a Friday night: Am I observing an awkward first date, an incandescent second date, a maturing courtship or embracing newlyweds?
And in this culture of courtship, there are a lot of newlyweds.
One out of every four students on the BYU campus is married. This contrasts with national trends over the past half-century where the median age of first marriage has climbed from the early 20s to nearly 30. Indeed, Utah has the lowest median age of first marriage in the nation (24.8 for women and 26.1 for men). To our friends in D.C. and New York — which boast the highest median age of marriage for women (at 30.4) and men (at 31.4), respectively — Utah’s early marriages might seem quaint if not downright regressive.
After all, aren’t marriages more resilient if would-be spouses first pass key milestones in education and career prior to the nuptials?
Researchers at BYU’s School of Family Life, at the Wheatley Institution (which I direct) and at the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, took a close empirical look at differences between these early “cornerstone” marriages (begun between ages 20-24) that are more prevalent in the Mountain West and the later “capstone” marriages that are the norm in the Northeast.
In the report, “Capstones vs. Cornerstones: Is Marrying Later Always Better?”, the researchers find that cornerstone marriages are just as stable as capstone marriages, and that cornerstone marriages may actually be more satisfying, especially with regard to sexual satisfaction.
The authors acknowledge that “there are challenges for both capstone and cornerstone marriages. For later-marrieds, the challenge is attaching a complementary love to a settled personal life, while for early-marrieds, it is weaving a workable life together around a committed love, but unfinished individuation.” They also acknowledge that given the general trend toward later marriage, today’s cornerstone marriages are likely more selective and intentional than in previous generations.
But given the scant differences in outcomes, their report also raises important questions about the difficulty of engineering an ideal capstone marriage. Sequencing education, career, coupling and childbearing is complicated under ideal circumstances. Since few experience the ideal, too many are discovering that marriage delayed can become marriage foregone.
In Diablo Cody’s new Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill” one of the main characters opines that “happy families only exist in orange juice commercials and Utah.” Undoubtedly I’ve overly romanticized what I see around me.
Within a courtship culture there can also be too much manipulation and too many painful unmet expectations. But in a society where so many of our major unaddressed social issues stem from isolation and despair, having clear cultural conduits that flow toward earlier, more frequent, satisfying and stable marriages has got to be better than the atomizing alternatives.
Paul S. Edwards is director of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.