It’s going to happen any day now…there will be unmistakable signs of spring on campus. The snow will melt, the trees will green up, students will take their studying outdoors, and the campus ROCK will feature two names in a heart to announce another new engagement. I’m not getting any younger but it sure seems like students look younger every year. Are they ready to make a decision to marry? Are they equipped to build a marriage that will last? Do we still have influence in this most important decision?
As parents who support a private, Christian college experience, it’s likely that one of the reasons you affirmed your student’s choice to attend University of Northwestern was the assurance that this campus is rich in faculty, staff, and potential friends for your student who share their biblical world view. You may have enjoyed the kind of college experience yourself where you made lifelong friends, found a place in ministry, or even met your partner for life. Knowing that this community is full of like-minded believers, you might have even prayed that your son or daughter would meet their spouse at Northwestern. On the other hand, knowing how hard it is to build a healthy marriage, you may be praying for your student to escape the pressure on college campuses to turn their "me" into "we." Either way, your influence is present in your student’s receptivity to finding a partner for life and in their readiness to build enduring relationships.
It is true that we often do what we see. It is quite typical to follow the pattern of successful parents. If you have enjoyed a deeply committed marriage or you and your spouse have demonstrated strong partnership through life’s trials, your children are more likely to look forward to marriage, even at a young age. Furthermore, if we’ve successfully taught our sons and daughters the biblical standard that sex waits for marriage, and they find themselves deeply in love, they are more likely to shun cohabitation but be eager to tie the knot. It’s hard to argue against choices that demonstrate a commitment to purity.
It is also hard to argue against a tested relationship. If our kids have experienced divorce at home or seen it in their extended family, they may be more tentative about making a commitment, especially an early one, even to a person of great character. If they have seen the deep wounds that come from betrayal or directly experienced physical or emotional abuse, they may require a longer (or later) courtship. In order to build trust, they may need a partner who already demonstrates mature relational skills. They may even need to weather conflict successfully in order to see evidence that their most important relationship can withstand pressure.
My concern for my children is much less focused on the age at which they choose a partner and more focused on whether they are building a relationship that will stand the test of time. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the odds in America of a couple reaching the 20-year mark in their marriage is only about 50%. But according to Harvard-trained social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn, the data for families who take their faith seriously reveals an entirely different story. In her book, The Good News About Marriage, Feldhahn states that the divorce rate for Christians is actually closer to 30%. Better yet, for those who keep God at the center of their marriages, she says the rates are closer to 15-20%.
While a Christ-centered relationship cannot insulate us from those things that stress a marriage, when our students learn to live authentically as believers, they are building a foundation that helps divorce-proof their marriages. Glenn Stanton, writing for Focus on the Family states, "Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes – attend church nearly every week, read their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples – enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public and unbelievers." Feldhahn explains that those whose first commitment is to Jesus put fewer unrealistic expectations on their spouses to meet the emotional needs that can only be fully met in relationship with Christ. They have more realistic expectations and more resiliency when the tough times come. Like the house built on the rock (Matthew 7:24-25), they have what it takes to weather storms.
Social science research has also identified signs that indicate a marriage will stand the test. In Time Magazine’s "The Science of Marriage," the qualities that improve the odds of lasting love included:
- Responding positively to your partner’s bid for connection (regularly demonstrating that you are listening with “turn towards” behavior, like setting down the phone to make eye contact)
- Amplifying your partner’s positive statements (showing enthusiasm and joy in your spouse’s happy moments makes them even happier)
- Building a habit of regular, deep conversation (carving out time for conversations that mirror your early relationship: asking questions, sharing aspirations, and not talking logistics)
- Making room for each other to have personal time (developing friends and hobbies beyond their relationship)
- Learning how to fight fair (an absence of defensiveness, contempt, criticism, and stonewalling)
- Sharing frequent, mutual appreciation (practicing gratitude, recognition, and affirmation)
Not surprisingly, these examples are consistent with biblical standards of love, honor, and encouragement. They are also likely to be the very qualities we want in our own most-important relationships! Whether the relationships our children witnessed in the past influenced them to embrace marriage or test relationships thoroughly, what are they witness to now? After all, if our children choose to marry, the critical factors in their long-term happiness are things we can speak into – or demonstrate – in the meantime. Ultimately, our young adults will make their own choices about when and if to marry, but our influence on their preparation is ongoing. Most importantly, whether your student chooses a solo "me" or joins a "we," learning how to keep Christ at the center builds the skills and resiliency needed for relationships that endure.