Bianca Tropeano has seen different sides of marriage, from healthy relationships to her parents’ divorce 12 years ago. It hasn’t made her shy away from marriage like some young adults, but the 28-year-old says she is cautious — and trusting God as she reflects on what makes a good marriage.
“I know there’s a potential for it to be extremely harmful — physically, financially; not just to a couple but to a whole family,” said Tropeano, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
Fear of divorce and commitment, and societal acceptance of cohabitation, along with a lack of understanding of the sacrament, are among the reasons young adults are delaying or avoiding marriage altogether.
But as many young adults hesitate about marriage, some of their peers, including Tropeano, are finding hope in their Catholic faith for the Sacrament of Matrimony. They’re living that faith intentionally as singles while preparing for whatever vocation to which God may call them.
Catholic psychologist Peter Damgaard-Hansen, who lives in Denmark but has practiced in the United States, looks at the cultural trends about marriage and offers advice for young adults contemplating the sacrament.
Damgaard-Hansen said fear of marriage ending in divorce affects young adults, especially those who have experienced the divorce of parents or others. “We have to admit we do bring some programming with us from the way we grew up in divorced families that can jeopardize our own relationships.”
Kelly McDermott, 26, of Minneapolis, said if she is called to marriage, she has no qualms about it because she has known strong couples. “I know that if I’m called to actively seek someone and pray for that person, that they would be willing to enter into that sacrament with that same desire: to want to enter into the struggles, to not just have the idealized notion of love.”
McDermott noted that part of the problem is that marriage as a sacrament and union with God has been lost in our society. “I think that some people don’t necessarily identify or see the point of it; and for others, maybe it is a commitment thing,” she said.
The potential for a spouse or child needing long-term care adds to the risk factor, said Lowell Dolney, 29, of Kansas City, Kansas, who said he has discerned a call to marriage. “I think I’m more afraid of spending the rest of my life single than [I am] taking a chance with somebody and going through life with a soul mate,” he said.
Work on self
According to Damgaard-Hansen, through therapy, dysfunctional patterns and behaviors that have carried over from childhood and adolescence can be reprogrammed toward God’s original plan for fulfilling and loving marriages.
It’s a good idea to try to work through problems such as guilty feelings or low self-esteem and practice those traits on other relationships as a single person, Damgaard-Hansen said.
When dating, young adults should find the right time to make themselves vulnerable, he said. A potential mate should be open about their vulnerable side, understand that conflict is 50-50, and be willing to share responsibility, Damgaard-Hansen said.
Miguel Natural, 18, of Hoboken, New Jersey, admits he isn’t ready for marriage, but he is preparing for it by working on bad habits and relationship skills. He recognizes the need to be financially and mentally prepared and to have a relationship with the Lord. “As a single, you get the opportunity to work on them,” he said. “I think if I’m called to marriage and I follow the Lord in pursuing that call, he’s going to provide, and it’s not going to end in a divorce or in an unhappy relationship.”
Damgaard-Hansen emphasized the benefits of sharing many experiences with a potential spouse in order to get to know them. “Take at least one or two trips around the sun together before the final commitment, then you have tried out various scenarios.”
But that doesn’t mean living together before marriage. Cohabitation doesn’t work very well, Damgaard-Hansen said, in part because couples don’t give themselves to each other completely.
“If you’re trying out a relationship, you will never get a clear idea what the relationship can be like because you are not totally in it, and the other person is not totally in it, either,” he said.
Living together before marriage shows a lack of trust in God, Natural said. “In the end, the Lord’s going to provide, and if you’re called to marriage, you’ve been praying and feel called to marry this person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. I don’t think living together is going to change anything.”
Young adults don’t have to make commitments as they navigate superficial friendships through social media, and this carries into relationships, which they also don’t enter into fully, Tropeano said.
Their reluctance to commit, Damgaard-Hansen said, can stem from thinking there is one right person for them and that they risk marrying the wrong one. They may also see marriage as the end of their fun.
But some young adults don’t realize marriage will change their lives, Dolney said. “They think they have to live with someone to make sure that person is not going to get in the way of how they live their life now; that’s what’s going to happen with marriage — this person is going to change your life.”
Trust in God
Finding faith-related fellowship as singles has helped these young adults develop relationship skills. Tropeano and Dolney are part of Kansas City Young Adults, a ministry of St. Paul’s Outreach. Based in West St. Paul, Minnesota, St. Paul’s Outreach is a Catholic campus ministry program that focuses on strengthening the faith of young adults during a time statistics show many are leaving the Church. Natural lives in a St. Paul’s Outreach home near his campus at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. McDermott is involved with Frassati Society of Minnesota, whose members try to model their lives after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925).
Faith should be a key part of marriage preparation, Damgaard-Hansen said. “Seen from a human perspective, you’re really jumping off the cliff when you marry someone. Just a little rational thinking will appeal to you that you have no idea what this person is going to be like in two months, or what you’re going to be, and how you will fit together next year, because we are growing and evolving all the time. There has to be faith in a higher power involved here so this can work out.”
The vocation of marriage is meant to lead by way of the cross, and if spouses have that view, they know how to love each other, Tropeano said.
“There’s a great fear of suffering for the sake of another person, of suffering through a difficulty, and a fear of there not being joy in the midst of that,” she said.
“God works in those and helps us through them. Sometimes we can run from them because we’re afraid, but there are opportunities to truly love another person, and when we run, we miss those opportunities.”
Relying on God, singles can prepare for marriage by giving of themselves now, because before marriage, it’s about finding the right spouse, but after, it’s about becoming the right spouse, Damgaard-Hansen said. “Marriage is not the place where we find all the love we dream of and have it served for free,” he said. “Marriage is where we learn to love, forgive and be patient with the other and one’s self.”
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.