A few weeks ago, I got annoyed when my regular highway on-ramp was under repair and access had been closed down for a few hours. So, I had to drive two miles north to get to the next on-ramp. Once I had stewed about that five-minute delay and was cruising at highway speed to my destination, I calmed down and got to thinking: “Well, I suppose it’s better to do regular maintenance work than to let the on-ramp fall into complete disrepair and be closed for months.”

Because I was headed to an event at which I would be highlighting educational resources to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger marriages, I suppose the analogy of my on-ramp inconvenience to contemporary marital formation woes was inevitable.

The “forming” part of marriage is in disrepair these days. Amid the news headlines last week of tragic wars abroad and political wars at home, you likely missed the brief report from the Institute for Family Studies on (the lack of) marital formation. The report detailed research that projected the U.S. never-married rate into the near future. The researcher, Lyman Stone, estimated that by 2050, an eye-popping one-third of U.S. adults (born in 2005) will have never married by age 45.

I quickly contacted Stone to see if he could give me those same statistical projections for Utah, which has one of the highest marriage rates in the country. Will we fare any better? Stone responded promptly with a graph showing that for Utahns born in 2005, he estimates that 25% of men and 30% of women in Utah will never have married by age 45. So, we are under the projected national average – thankfully – but those figures are still dramatically higher than our current 10% rate for women and men. Maybe Utah’s marital on-ramps have fewer problems than most states, but the potholes and roadway cracks may be getting bigger.

I don’t want to dwell on the likely problems associated with declining ever-married rates, but it’s not hard to imagine. Two recent books by Melissa Kearney (a left-leaning economist) and Brad Wilcox (a right-leaning sociologist) document the strong evidence for the value of healthy marriages to adult, child and community well-being. Thus, if Stone’s never-married projections are accurate, the next generation of Utah adults will end up being poorer, more unhappy and depressed, and have fewer children than today’s adults. (Fertility rates have already hit historic lows in Utah, like almost everywhere else.)

Instead, I want to focus here on what we can do to repair the marital on-ramps. I don’t think aspirations for marriage is the big barrier, nor is the long trend of delaying marriage a few years to blame. The desire to marry remains strong in Utah and in the United States, and the vast majority who will ever marry do so by age 45. The primary cause today of never marrying, in my view, is the dating system itself. It has broken down in ways that leave young adults confused.

Simply put, many people lack knowledge and skills of how to date in this frustrating, modern marriage market. The result is a mismatch between young adult aspirations for a healthy, lifelong union and a dating system that can reliably get them to the altar. Those already on the marriage highway are mostly doing well and receiving its benefits, but broken-down marital on-ramps mean fewer and fewer young adults will ever get access to those benefits.

Stone’s pessimistic projections, however, are just sophisticated guesses. They don’t take into account potential improvements we could make together, such as working in Utah to repair the marital on-ramps and avoid that projected statistical endpoint. Here are some of the things we are doing in Utah to help young adults learn the ins and outs and the do’s and don’ts of successful dating.

For instance, almost all Utah colleges have excellent courses helping young adults understand how to form healthy romantic relationships and sustain good marriages. The courses are popular; classroom seats are full. I’m familiar with many of these courses and know several of the course instructors, who do a great job. And there are good elective courses in Utah high schools for our youth to learn basic relationship (and financial) literacy skills.

For those who don’t have access to intensive, semester-long courses, the Utah Marriage Commission is currently developing an online contemporary healthy dating e-course, authored by one of the country’s leading scholars on dating and marital formation. Among other things, the research-based e-course will include needed wisdom about how to navigate the online dating scene.

Utah also has a significant number of young adults who have seen their first marriages end within five years. Most of them still have hopes for a strong marriage but are understandably reticent about diving back into the dating pool. So, the Utah Marriage Commission is also building a “dating after divorce” online e-course for this important segment of the dating population (like the other course, this is scheduled to be available for free later this year on the commission’s website).

Also, I applaud Utah’s formal efforts to teach the “success sequence” to youth. All the healthy dating education in the world won’t work if young people aren’t following the optimal sequence that maximizes the chances of family success. While we are building educational resources to help repair the dating on-ramps, let’s not ignore one of the fundamentals of young adult success: When young people get an education, work full time and then get married, they and any children they have are nearly guaranteed to escape poverty.

For some, pushing the timing for marriage down the road in life results in never marrying at all; the dating pool gets too shallow or giving up adult independence becomes too costly. This explains some of the decline in ever-married adults. Let’s not dismiss the dreams of couples in their early- and mid-20s who fall in love and decide to marry now rather than later. For several decades, cultural messages have been warning young adults that an early marriage is a divorce disaster waiting to happen.

Those warnings are based on research that is decades old now. In fact, recent research finds that age at first marriage is no longer the potent predictor of marital quality and stability that it was a generation or two ago. Those who marry in the early- to mid-20s now appear to enjoy marital quality of the same or higher level than those who marry later on, and they have very similar rates of marital instability.

Even so, I think those who marry earlier now swim against the cultural tide; they marry because they want to, not because they have to. They want to make marriage a cornerstone of their adult lives rather than a capstone that marks a set of early career, financial and personal successes. So, let’s cheer and support these earlier-marrying couples. And let’s also encourage them to strengthen the foundation of their relationship by investing in high-quality premarital education. (The Utah Marriage Commission has free, research-based resources to help with this and we are creating more. Those Utah couples who invest in premarital education can also get a discount on their marriage license.)

Last month in the Deseret News, I put in a plug for marriage mentoring. I urged those cute old married couples out there to let their marital lights shine for all to see. I want to reiterate that invitation to not-so-old married couples to make the personal more public, to talk to young people about the goodness and meaning that flows from their all-in commitment to each other. Young people will be drawn more to marriage as they see its benefits illustrated in real-life couples they trust, especially younger couples who experienced the potholes of modern dating and still found their way through. This may be especially important for young people who have grown up in homes without a stable, healthy marriage — and in neighborhoods where marriage was nowhere to be found — as they get a chance to hear the success stories of young married couples.

Of course, it’s not all about more relationship knowledge, skills and mentoring. I know there are real barricades blocking the marital on-ramps. Perhaps the most significant one is the shrinking marriage pool for women, as Brookings scholar Richard Reeves documents so well in his book, “Of Boys and Men.” We need to redouble our efforts to help young men get the education and work experience they need to be attractive life partners, not to mention assisting them to avoid the traps of gaming, pornography, and other activities that diminish their “marriageability.” (I wish there was a complementary Bolder Way Forward initiative that focused on helping disadvantaged boys as well as girls in Utah to thrive.)

Also relevant here are efforts in Utah to increase the amount of affordable housing where a six-figure income is needed to make monthly payments. I followed closely bills this past legislative session trying to do just that. Many young people these days worry that marriage is way over their temporal horizons because they sense that owning their own home is a distant dream, something only for middle-age strivers rather than a staple for starting a family. So, thanks to Utah lawmakers for trying to make young adult home ownership more of an achievable goal for aspiring couples. Please keep up these good efforts.

I think the most pragmatic thing we can do to strengthen the institution of marriage today is to repair marital on-ramps. We need to fix a dysfunctional dating system. Utah is working on this challenge, but we can do more. For instance, just last week I heard from a colleague who is experimenting with a clever, structured speed-dating intervention to help young adults get past the inertia of first-date failures. Participants leave the speed-dating event with a scheduled date (assisted by trained “matchmaking” facilitators who have observed the speed-dating couples’ conversations). These couples commit to several dates over the next two weeks with some structured “getting-to-know-you” activities. After further pilot testing, my colleague hopes to scale up this promising intervention for the masses of young people out there whose dating skills are underdeveloped and who are mired in a dilapidated dating system.

Let’s get creative, Utah! A dating system in disrepair is a dystopian world in which nearly a third of adults will never marry, with all the challenges that presents to adults, children, communities and governments.