Marriage Doesn’t Just Happen

It’s been more than ten years since I first noticed something odd about the generally pleasant—and generally Catholic—students at the college where I teach.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands.

Let that serve as shorthand for the absence of all those rites of attraction and conversation, flirting and courting, that used to be passed along from one youthful generation to the next, just as childhood games were once passed along, but are so no longer.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands.

I am aware of the many attempts by responsible Catholic priests and laymen to win the souls of young people, to keep them in the Church, and indeed to make some of them into attractive ambassadors for the Church.  I approve of them heartily.  Yes, we need those frank discussions about contraception.  We need theological lectures to counter the regnant nihilism of the schools and the mass media.  But we need something else too, something more human and more fundamental.  We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex.  Just as boys after fifteen years of being hustled from institutional pillar to institutional post no longer know how to make up their own games outdoors, just as girls after fifteen years of the same no longer know how to organize a dance or a social, so now our young people not only refrain from dating and courting—they do not know how to do it.  It isn’t happening.  Look at the hands.

In our swamp of miserable statistics, let me introduce another that is often overlooked.  In 1960—back when Wally Cleaver was wearing a jacket and tie to join other boys and girls at a party, for playing records and eating ice cream and dancing—in that already souring time, almost three out of four Americans aged 24 were married (72%).  Now that number is less than one in ten (9%)!  That is not a good thing.  First, it is evidence of deep and widespread loneliness.  We are not talking about people who are dating during all those years; they aren’t.  Some of them are bed-hopping; some are shacking up; some are simply alone.  That pretty much accounts for them all.  Three options, all bad.

Second, it delays, perhaps derails for good, the time when young people will set down roots and integrate themselves into the great passage of the generations.  In a culture where marriage is really treasured, that time is the supreme aim of most people’s lives.  It is when the couple will plant orchards whose fruit they themselves will not enjoy—while tasting the fruit that has been made available to them by their parents and grandparents.  The married couple, open to bearing and raising children, assume wholly new relations to the world around them.  They need not rely upon the ministrations of a secular and soul-withering state.  They themselves make a society within the larger society.

Third, it implies a divorce of love from the crazy vigor and cheerfulness of youth.  And this is what I specifically want to stress.  Young people should be oriented toward love; that is natural.  Grace perfects nature; but that means there has to be a nature to perfect.  But where, now, is the natural expression of this search for love?  There aren’t any boys climbing the mountains to pick edelweiss for their sweethearts.  There aren’t any sweethearts.  There aren’t any boys singing “Annie Laurie,” nor any Annies for them to sing to.  A whole mode of being has been lost, a mode of being that in every culture but our own produces a wealth of beauty, and sweeps young people along with its strong tide, into marriage and a world of families.

What do we do about it?  Well, what would we do if we found a land of pallid, feeble, depressed children, kept withindoors all their lives, and so burdened with drudgery and the inanity of electronic gadgetry that they couldn’t climb a tree or fish in a pond or climb a mountain?  We wouldn’t give them lectures on the wonder of the simple joys.  We wouldn’t have them read articles proving the superiority of a way of life they cannot imagine.  We wouldn’t focus on the intellect at all!  For the problem is bigger than that, or more fundamental.  We would get them outdoors, right away.  It isn’t enough that no one prevent them from going outdoors, just as it isn’t enough right now that no one prevents our young people from holding hands, delighting in the company of the opposite sex, courting, and marrying.  They’re lost.  They hardly know where to begin.

And, let’s be honest, among all sane people, one generation assumes some responsibility to ready the next generation for marriage.  They sponsor dances.  Where are the dances, the concerts, in our parishes?  Dancing, I know, is another one of those games that used to be passed along by the young to the young, but that’s long ceased to be the case. Now all we’re left with are the epileptic jerks of disconnected “partners” on a strobe-lit stage, all conversation made impossible by noise from hell, or the embarrassing slow-dancing, which you can hardly engage in with somebody you are only beginning to get to know.

Where are all the Catholic Youth Organizations?  They used to sponsor basketball games, for both the players and the people who’d be in the stands cheering them.  Where are the socials?  Where are the bowling nights, the picnics?  Where can our young people go to have innocent fun, not just alongside the other sex, but specifically for mingling with them, meeting them, flirting with them, searching for one of them to love?  Where are we nudging them gently along toward marriage and the sweetness of that life?

These are not extras.  They are of the essence.  I’m deeply interested in theology, but most people aren’t.  The “theology” they drink in comes from Mass, from prayer, and from—note this well!—the natural life of people in the Church.  It comes from learning to love someone forever, under the canopy of the Church; it comes from the vow at the altar, and the child in the cradle, and the daily charities and forbearance of married life, life in a real and precious society.

It is irresponsible in us, then, to let our youth muddle and meander; to suppose that marriage will eventually “happen.”  For my whole life, the ecclesially minded have asked, “What can we do to keep our youth in the Church?”  And their attempts haven’t worked, because they have viewed young people as consumers of a churchly product, rather than as boys and girls, young men and young women, with obvious natures and needs.

So then—I call upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things.  Not everybody can speak learnedly about church architecture.  Not everybody wants to hear about that.  Not everybody can speak learnedly about grace and free will.  Not everybody wants to hear about that.  But everybody can learn to sing, everybody can learn to dance, everybody can watch a good movie, everybody likes a picnic, or a hike, or a trip to the beach, or a goofy time at the bowling alley, or a softball game, or an ice cream social, or coffee and tea and doughnuts.  It is not good for the man to be alone—or the woman!

Sometimes our duties are difficult or dangerous.  Not this time!  So then, what is our excuse?

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Anthony Esolen


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

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  • motherof10

    Bravo, Dr. Esolen! We as the people of God need to do more than restrict our children to Religious Ed classes; the only dances at my parish are “sock hops” and others geared for the older generation. We should try to give our children more of a healthy outlet to foster good friends (of both sexes) than just handing them texts.

  • Jennifer Hartline

    I just can’t cheer enough for this brilliant and timely article. Thank you for saying something that so desperately needed to be said, even if most of us didn’t realize it. You have articulated it so beautifully. I will keep this one, and reread it as my girls grow up. You are so right. Marriage doesn’t just happen, especially a good marriage. Thank you for this.

  • mary

    “Where are the dances, the concerts, in our parishes? Dancing, I know,
    is another one of those games that used to be passed along by the young
    to the young, but that’s long ceased to be the case”
    When I went west for a bit in my youth, I was struck by how the Texan boys were not afraid to ask you to two-step for a bit, then turn, and ask your friend for a whirl and on and on…The two step was perfect: easy to learn, a partner dance, and lacking too much bodily contact….They seemed to much better adjusted then the Massachusetts boys I grew up with. Boys out east hated dances because they had to sulk on the sidelines or ask a girl to slow dance, which meant basically rubbing up against her whole torso.

  • mary

    “Where are all the Catholic Youth Organizations? They used to sponsor
    basketball games, for both the players and the people who’d be in the
    stands cheering them. Where are the socials? Where are the bowling
    nights, the picnics?”
    To be honest, i think much of that function has been taken over by the public school and sports. Most kids in my towns spend all of their time in sports activities. In some ways, I think schools and organized sports have become the new religion.

  • Carlos A

    Hi Anthony. Nice article. Thank you. Just wanted to ask what you meant by the following sentence(s) and how they are connected. Thank you. “I’m deeply interested in theology, but most people aren’t. The “theology” they drink in comes from Mass, from prayer, and from—note this well!—the natural life of people in the Church.”

  • Susan Walker

    Fabulous commentary on what is happening in our culture. From my perspective, the problem runs deeper than with just our young people. As divorce/ annulment are so much more commonplace today, there is a distinct lack of social functions and opportunities for adults (40+) to meet and mingle as well. This is leaving a lot of adults who have a vocation to marriage lonely and often forced to parent without a partner.

  • robert ambrose

    my wife and i still hold hands , we are in our 70s. also every now and again we embrace in a passionate way

  • Caitlin Marchand

    Maybe it’s a little off topic, but I attended a great Catholic college but the one place I disagreed with them was in their PDA policy. All Public Displays of Affection were banned as something inherently private. But isn’t courtship something that ought to be public? Shouldn’t we encourage our young people to learn how to express affection in chaste ways that are appropriate to do in the company of others rather than suggesting that they go off and be by themselves to express any physical affection? Holding hands in public or giving a quick hug or kiss in parting seems to me a healthy thing, while being expected to slink off in secret implies that all such things are inherently dirty and puts young people in a near occasion of sin. We need to teach our young people how to court, as part of the broader community in social activities etc.

  • Jessica Nelson

    As someone who recently got engaged in her late 20s, I’m not sure how I feel about this article…the nostalgic looking back at the 50s and 60s doesn’t do the 50s/60s OR today justice, in my opinion. First of all, if you’re looking back to history, why choose those decades when marrying in the early 20s was the norm? Why not idealize Laura Ingalls Wilder’s marriage at 16? Or Roman marriages at 13? Our definitions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood has been changing, and it’s perfectly reasonable to think that today’s 22-year-old might not have entered as fully into adulthood as a 22-year-old five decades ago. The skyrocketing cost of college, for example, means that most college students can’t live without their parents’ financial support.
    Secondly, St. Paul and I highly object to your description of what unmarried 24-year-olds are doing. You said their choices are “bed-hopping… shacking up..or simply [being] alone. Three options, all bad.” St. Paul says that it is good and virtuous to remain single (see 1 Cor 7:7-8). I know single people in their 20s who have dedicated immense time and effort to doing God’s work in the word, in ways that they could not have done if they had made permanent vows to a spouse or religious order — things like teaching in inner city schools, revitalizing orphanages (, becoming missionaries overseas, traveling the US and evangelizing on the streets ( etc. All of these were accomplished by the “crazy vigor and cheerfulness of youth” who didn’t marry young.

    I do agree that parishes and pastors could do a better job of facilitating relationships and community, via social events, group service projects, etc. But I don’t think these activities need to be “gently nudging people towards marriage.” Instead we should encourage young people to be open to God’s will and specific plan for their lives, whether that means meeting a spouse at 19, 29, or 59.

  • Daniela

    I absolutely agree with this. There is more to life than dating to get married, like discerning if marriage is even for you at all, or like building strong and long-lasting friendships that don’t need to lead to marriage.

    Socials and community events for the young is certainly important. But coming from a great student-oriented parish, I would also add that married couples don’t need to take on the full responsibility of organizing these events for the young and single. There is the option of letting the young people themselves be a bigger part of the community and relationship building processes by letting them take the lead and organize events and activities themselves. From my experience, it can result in more effective and organic community growth.