Millennials are getting married later and later.
As of last year, the median age for getting married was about 28 for women and 30 for men. Back in 1980, men got married around age 25 and women around 22. Some people levy this delayed marital age as a criticism of the generation, evidence that they care less about marriage and are deprioritizing it in favor of career aspirations and other personal goals.
But in an interview with the New York Times this week, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher asserts that millennials’ “slow love” might actually be a sign that this generation actually values marriage morethan people have in prior decades.
How our brains are wired for “slow love.”
It’s actually a term Fisher has been using for years. Back in 2015, she explained to Nautilus how “fast sex, slow love” might be leading to happier marriages because of the way the elongated period of getting to know each other aligns with how our brain circuitry processes love. When she and a team of researchers observed lovers’ brains while looking at pictures of each other, she found people who’d fallen in love in the last eight months showed more neural activity in the regions associated with energy, focus, motivation, and craving. Those who’d been in love between eight to 17 months? Their brains lit up in regions associated with “feelings of attachment.” In other words, actual long-term bonds are neurologically distinct from just being in love.
“Because feelings of attachment emerge with time, slow love is natural,” she wrote. “In fact, rapidly committing to a new partner before the liquor of attachment has emerged may be more risky to long-term happiness than first getting to know a partner via casual sex, friends with benefits, and living together. Sexual liberalism has aligned our courtship tactics with our primordial brain circuits for slow love.”
Back in the day, we used to chastise young people for creating the dreaded “hookup culture,” which we viewed as a direct threat to the institution of marriage and real love. Sex is too easy to get nowadays, so why get married? (Seriously—it feels like an ancient mode of thinking now that we’ve moved on to freaking out about the so-called sex recession, but just two years ago, people were still making bizarre arguments about how all the casual sex was turning society upside down.)
But Fisher says young people aren’t less interested in commitment; they’re just more in tune with what it takes to forge a commitment that will actually last. Last year a survey of 5,000 people conducted by the dating app Match, for which Fisher is a scientific adviser, found 70% of singles want a serious relationship.
Why dating longer leads to stronger marriages.
Many people in their 20s and 30s grew up surrounded by divorce, seeing their parents break up and being warned over and over again about how half of all marriages don’t work out in the end. These experiences could be why this generation has taken a vastly different approach to romance, choosing to withhold exclusivity until they’re really sure about someone and then to really take their time strengthening those relationships before diving into a marital commitment that they know has historically proved to be very fragile.
As the Times reports, past research has shown people who date for at least three years before getting married are 39% less likely to get divorced than those who “rush into marriage.” And millennial couples actually spend six and a half years together on average before getting married.
“This is a real extended period of the pre-commitment stage,” Fisher told the Times. “With slow love, maybe by the time people walk down the aisle, they know who they’ve got, and they think they can keep who they’ve got.”
And early research on millennial marriages suggests their strategy is working: The divorce rate has fallen about 24% since its peak in 1981, Cosmopolitan reports, and experts say the well-known “half of all marriages end in divorce” saying is no longer true today. The National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University found just 16 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2017.
So maybe millennials are onto something? We still have a few more decades to go before we can really look back on this generation’s marriages and see just how successful they are (or weren’t), but from what the current research is telling us, “slow love” might just be the key to lasting love.
- Kelly Gonsalves
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